Part 2: Mark Center expected to create gridlock; Fort Belvoir to grow

The influx of thousands of defense workers to the Mark Center in Alexandria will change traffic patterns along Interstate 395. In southern Fairfax County, more than 20,000 workers will flood Fort Belvoir as part of BRAC.

Hank Silverberg, wtop.com

ALEXANDRIA, Va. – In Alexandria’s West End, it rises above Interstate 395 like a monolith. But when it comes to area roadways, the huge Mark Center could present one of the biggest challenges to the Base Realignment and Closure plans.

Of all the moves under base realignment in the Washington region, this is the one in the area most people question.

The two high-rise buildings and parking garage are close to I-395 and Seminary Road. There is no direct highway access to the 16-acre site or the attached 4,800-space parking garage. While there are bus routes nearby, no Metro stations are within walking distance of the complex.

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The Mark Center’s 6,400 workers, many of whom currently work in Crystal City — where there is access to the subway, will now get on I-95 and I-395 to get to work.

They’ll have to use the Seminary Road on-off ramps from I-395 to get to the facility. Those ramps already get backed up during most rush hours.

Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., who represents the area where the building is located, calls it a nightmare.

“There are 200,000 commuters who pass by this site every morning. My guess is that they will be delayed by as much as an hour, in some cases, as much as two hours because of this move,” he tells WTOP.

The Pentagon has allocated $20 million to widen the Seminary Road on- and off-ramps. The state of Virginia will provide another $80 million for the construction of a new ramp that will go to the High Occupancy Toll (HOT) Lanes that are being converted from the existing High Occupance Vehicle Lanes.

Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican, agrees that not enough money has been allocated for road improvements.

“If we could work out some accommodation that’s in the best interests of DoD [Department of Defense] and Virginia, that would be best,” McDonnell says.

McDonnell has formally asked the Department of Defense for a delay in the move to the Mark Center.

But some of the people who live in Southern Towers, a high-rise on Seminary Road next to the I-395 ramp and across from one of the entrances to the Mark Center, are bracing for gridlock.

“I know people will be using our entrance to the complex to cut through,” says one woman who asked not to be identified.

“I hear on the bus sometimes that people will be moving out, soon.”

Cabbie Daniel Woldemicheal, who expects to get more business, knows what’s coming.

“The business, it is good for us, but for residents it is maybe hell for them,” Woldemicheal says.

It could be 18 months before environmental studies related to the road improvements are completed and another two years before additional improvements are made. The Pentagon’s inspector general found the Defense Department used faulty data when deciding to relocate workers to the Mark Center.

Intersections in Alexandria have been improved near the Hilton Alexandria Mark Center. Seminary Road approaching Beauregard Street in front of Southern Towers has been widened. Three lanes now turn onto Beauregard, heading toward the Mark Center. Some bus lines are being changed. There is discussion of other temporary measures in Alexandria.

New Security Concerns Raised

Traffic is not the only concern at the Mark Center complex.

Ever since the site was chosen some people have raised security concerns because of its proximity to I-395.

“The whole Washington headquarters service is located in one building that 200,000 people are going to drive by,” says Moran.

Moran and others renewed their concerns about security after a report highlighting the security concerns was accidentally placed online by the Army Corps of Engineers. It indicated the building is not as bomb-proof as it could be.

The report, reviewed by the Reuters News Service, says the building could withstand a vehicle detonated outside the buildings’ security perimeter, if the vehicle is carrying the equivalent of 220 pounds of TNT.

Security experts say that is a small bomb — smaller than what was used during the bombings of the Alfred Murrah Federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995 and the World Trade Center in 1993.

Moran says there are a lot of people working on the security concerns.

“It’s not something I want to discuss publicly,” he says.

Neil C. Livingstone, chairman and chief executive officer of local security firm ExecutiveAction, says many Washington-area facilities are vulnerable, but this one has now put thousands of defense workers, who use to be spread out in nondescript offices, all in one place.

“That’s a formula for disaster,” he says, noting that the Army Corps of Engineers report is already on the Internet.

“It would be surprising to me if al-Qaida didn’t already have a copy of this and put this into their list of potential targets in the United States,” Livingstone said.

But there things that can be done to make the building more secure. Livingstone, who just left his security job to run for governor of Montana, says berms could be constructed to separate the building from the highway. He says a blast wall also could help deflect any explosion.


New Face of Fort Belvoir After BRAC

While the Mark Center will see 6,400 new workers, in southern Fairfax County, more than 20,000 workers will soon flood Fort Belvoir, many using the county’s historic Route 1 corridor.

But is the community ready?

Moran and Gerry Connolly, D-Va., are quick to point out the silver lining in the move for the badly needed economics of the Route 1 corridor.

“We have thousands of new jobs coming to this area and its going to spawn tremendous economic growth” says Moran.

A lot of effort has gone into improving the run-down area over the last few years. Improvements have been made along Route 1 in the Alexandria area as part of the Wilson Bridge Project. New businesses, including a small Walmart, have opened.

But roughly 7 miles down Route 1, the relocation of thousands to Fort Belvoir is a mixed bag. The area still has rundown motels, older businesses, mobile home parks and fast food joints, but some new housing is cropping up in both Fairfax and Prince William counties near the base.

At the heart of the relocation to Fort Belvoir is the Dewitt Army Community Hospital, built just inside the fort’s gates, not too far from the intersection with the Fairfax County Parkway.

“It’s going to have 3,000 medical personnel staffing it. Thousands of people coming in and out everyday for treatment,” says Connolly.

Donna Walker, whose husband is retired Army, says she’s looking forward to the better services that come with a community hospital.

Walker, who gets her hair styled at Merni’s Salon across from Fort Belvoir, does say traffic will be hectic.

“If you’re in one area, it’s not too bad, like when you come in where the commissary area is, but over in this area (near the hospital construction), it’s really bad,” says Walker.

Miller, who has owned the salon for 36 years, expects a few new customers, but she’s not sure the extra traffic will balance out the increase.

“The traffic is going to be murder,” she says.

Her trip from home in Fredericksburg now takes about 90 minutes. She expects that to increase to two hours.

And that is the biggest worry.

“We’re going more than double the number of personnel at Fort Belvoir, rivaling now the size of the Pentagon itself,” says Connolly.

Improvement are being made at the Route 1. The Fairfax County Parkway and Route 1 will be widened from Telegraph Road to Old Mount Vernon Road.

Connolly says while the county and state don’t have money to do much more now, they do need to look to the future.

“The Richmond Highway corridor lends itself from here to Woodbridge for light rail,” says Connolly.

“We need to be looking at Metro stations — extending Huntington to Fort Belvoir (and) extending Springfield-Franconia to Woodbridge,” he says.

In the meantime, some local bus routes are being changed to accommodate the influx of workers.

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