Wrong move for the SSA

There is much excitement in the Frederick County Office of Economic Development these days. Late last month, the federal government purchased vacant land in an industrial park in Urbana on which it will relocate and upgrade the Social Security Administration's data center, currently housed in Woodlawn.

The $500 million project is quite a coup for Urbana, a community of fewer than 10,000 people in the midst of rolling farmland off Interstate 270. The relocated data center will not only bring 200 jobs but is expected to generate hundreds more in the private sector.


It's also a lousy development policy and should be an embarrassment to the Obama administration, Gov. Martin O'Malley and the state's delegation to Congress. The decision by the U.S. General Services Administration has essentially snatched jobs from an economically fragile Beltway community to plunk them down along one of the state's most traffic-congested rural corridors.

But never mind that Baltimore County's unemployment rate is significantly higher than Frederick County's rate of 6.5 percent, which is a notch below even Maryland's statewide average of 7.4 percent. What's really troubling is that an equivalent site available across from SSA's headquarters on Security Boulevard in Woodlawn could have served the project even better.


Baltimore County officials had touted the new data center as the county's highest economic development priority and pledged to extend roads and other infrastructure to serve the location in plenty of time for the project's planned 2015 completion date. But that apparently fell on deaf ears at the GSA, which preferred to buy land in the Urbana Corporate Center.

Why is it so advantageous to relocate a data center more than 40 miles away from the offices it would serve? Perhaps the GSA was attracted by the growth of I-270 as a technology corridor, particularly in nearby Montgomery County.

But whatever the motivation, it flies in the face of Maryland's smart growth policies and efforts to direct growth to urban centers and preserve open spaces. Urbana's transit opportunities are decidedly limited. Workers there commute by car, and I-270 traffic has not only grown precipitously in recent years, it is expected to nearly double to 200,000 vehicles per day by 2025, according to the Maryland Department of Transportation.

Meanwhile, Woodlawn will be served by Baltimore's planned Red Line light rail project, a 14.5-mile, east-west line running to Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center on the other side of the city. Construction on the $2.2 billion rail system is expected to begin in two years and will likely require at least $1 billion in federal transit construction dollars.

Directing growth to an automobile-centered area and away from mass transit is not going to alleviate air pollution, reduce greenhouse gas emissions or reduce dependence on foreign petroleum or clean up the Chesapeake Bay, allegedly a priority of President Barack Obama's Environmental Protection Agency. It's one thing when private companies make this mistake, but how can government embrace such a wasteful policy?

It's also a shocking example of how Maryland's Democratic clout in Congress (and support for a Democratic president) seems to do it little good. Perhaps at no point in modern history has the state had congressmen ranked higher in leadership (including House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer), but a half-billion-dollar project, one financed by stimulus funds no less, goes into the district of Republican Rep. Roscoe Bartlett?

Still, the data center should have remained in Woodlawn not because Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin wanted it to remain there but because it would have been the right thing to do. The state can ill afford to see more jobs flee its urban centers. The resulting sprawl is unsustainable. We can't afford to build the roads or to hollow out our cities and towns.

But apparently the well-being of Maryland means little to the GSA, which does not care about the congestion of Maryland's roads, the quality of its environment, or the economic impact on Baltimore County. Now, the precedent is set. If the SSA or neighboring Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services want to renovate or upgrade some other division, will it be relocated to Urbana? To Northern Virginia? To Mumbai?