Although it was known mostly for its cuts, the six-month budget bill Congress passed this month also included hundreds of millions of dollars in new spending intended to alleviate long-predicted traffic problems associated with the relocation of thousands of Defense Department employees in the Washington, D.C. area.
Embedded in the 459-page measure is a paragraph giving $300 million to the Defense Department’s Office of Economic Adjustment for transportation infrastructure improvements. Members of the Maryland and Virginia congressional delegations who pushed the provision through said the money would be spent to deal with current traffic problems around Fort Belvoir in northern Virginia and Bethesda Naval Medical Center in Maryland that will only worsen with the continuing addition of thousands of new workers at those facilities.
The concerns arise from 13,000 new workers at Fort Belvoir and more than 4,000 additional employees, visitors and patients each day at the expanding Bethesda hospital, which, along with a new hospital at Fort Belvoir, is absorbing the functions of the nearby Walter Reed Army Medical Center. The reshuffling is a result of the decisions made by the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) commission in its 2005 round of decisions. Although the legislation mentions neither Fort Belvoir, Bethesda, nor any other military facility by name, members of Congress from both sides of the Potomac said DoD was well aware, through internal discussions, of where Congress wanted the funds to be directed.
“The Pentagon knows very well the intent as to how this money is supposed to be used,” said Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.).
Moran said he and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) had agreed that the $300 million should be split evenly between the two states, specifically for projects around Bethesda and Fort Belvoir.
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) also said that even if the legislative language appropriating the money is vague, the intent is not.
“They know exactly what this money is supposed to be used for, which means we’re going to get the money here,” he said.
However, $300 million is far short of what is likely to be needed to fully offset the traffic impact of the BRAC moves. A DoD-funded report prepared by the National Academies of Science in February found that the unfunded transportation projects needed to mitigate the impacts of the personnel movements to Fort Belvoir alone totaled between $600 million and $2 billion.
Hundreds of millions more would be needed to adequately prepare Bethesda for the influx of personnel, the authors found.
But Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) said any new money is a significant accomplishment given the austere atmosphere that surrounded this year’s budget negotiations.
“During the continuing resolution, which was the fight over whether we were going to have a frugal government or a Spartan government, this victory was an amazing achievement. And we should take a lot of pleasure in it,” she said.
Even with new federal funds now available, Moran said that while the anticipated road construction projects are long overdue, the timing is far from ideal. By the time the funding is awarded for individual projects and construction begins, all the new workers are likely to have already finished moving into new offices which, in his district, are only accessible by car.
By law, this year’s BRAC relocations must be completed by September.
“The construction will exacerbate the problem,” Moran said. “[DoD] should have fixed the traffic problem before they started moving people, but they’re going to move tens of thousands of people before the traffic mitigation is in place. You’re going to have a horrible situation for probably the next two or three years.”
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