Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2007

Traffic worries at forefront of Walter Reed plan

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Faced with the inevitable merger of military hospitals into one medical multiplex in Bethesda, traffic is at the front of some Bethesda residents’ minds.

On Thursday, 18 people told military officials about their concerns with the Walter Reed Army Medical Center move to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda. The forum, held at Bethesda’s Pooks Hill Marriott, was the last of an extended series of sessions aimed at collecting public feedback, as the Base Realignment and Closure planning phase hits its midpoint.

Transportation and traffic hassles topped the list of residents’ concerns, followed by pollution, construction noise and historic preservation.

The Navy’s preliminary tally of about 200 comments showed a parallel: People are most worried about the influx of up to 2,500 new base employees and up to 535,000 more patients and visitors per year.

This summer, a draft Environmental Impact Statement will be released, followed by another 45-day public review. The statement is expected to address public concerns by presenting possible project alternatives like bridges or tunnels over Wisconsin Avenue.

Although BRAC planning is not slated to end until 2008, county planners are already floating ideas for public transit and pedestrian safety.

‘‘One idea that’s been put forward — but there’s no commitment from anyone — is high speed elevators” to Metro stations, said Montgomery County Executive Office BRAC Coordinator Lisa Rother.

Budgeting and traffic raised red flags at the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission?. The 243-acre Bethesda base is already the work site of more than 4,500 civilians and military personnel, combined with more than 525,000 patients and visitors annually.

The Defense Department has now pledged funds for the county to hire its own coordinator for a comprehensive traffic study, Rother said. The coordinator will oversee a task force of military personnel, residents and business representatives, she said.

Funding and transportation will form the bulk of the task force’s work.

‘‘[Maryland Route] 355 is a state highway, so there could potentially be federal funds that come through the state for that work,” Rother said. ‘‘We know whose jurisdiction the roads are under, where the money is coming from, that’s less clear.”

Pedestrian safety and traffic reduction proposals were off the agenda for Thursday’s forum, as confusion arose about the role of Navy BRAC representatives. Their purview extends as far as Environmental Impact Statement preparation, they reminded the audience, and they stressed their limited ability to answer questions about construction plans, increased Metro access or building preservation.

‘‘At this point in time, we’re not in a position to give them definitive answers” about traffic infrastructure changes, National Naval Medical Center spokesperson Brian Badura said later. ‘‘The Navy has a limited scope of authority.”

Most people in the Marriott conference room were associated with the merger — from spokespeople to Navy engineers and environmental consultants — with a smattering of residents.

‘‘There’s so much development going on now,” said Jane Yaffe, a Bethesda resident at the evening forum.

Yaffe, a stay-at-home mom, said the merger’s impact on her neighborhood took priority over even her son’s school open house. Traffic was a top concern for Yaffe, because of possible environmental effects like damage to area greenery.

Including Yaffe, only 53 people showed up for the last two public forums. A team of Maryland politicians, including U.S. Rep. Christopher Van Hollen, Jr. (D-Dist. 8) of Kensington, state Del. William A. Bronrott (D-Dist. 16) of Bethesda and Montgomery County Councilman Roger A. Berliner (D-Dist. 1) of Potomac successfully lobbied BRAC officials to extend the commenting period through January.

‘‘I was so thankful that Chris Van Hollen asked for these extra meetings because the other ones didn’t even register on my radar,” Yaffe said.

Thursday’s crowd didn’t include the Maryland legislators, but Bronrott was at the previous meeting, on Jan. 30. He said his main quibble with the BRAC process was budgeting for new or revamped roads, public transportation and parking.

‘‘One of the bottom line issues is going to be how to make changes to transportation infrastructure,” said Bronrott. ‘‘Who is going to pay for it?”

He said he plans to collaborate with Maryland’s state, county and local delegations ‘‘to make sure we can leverage all we can from the federal government.”