National report says Feds should help pay for Bethesda BRAC projects
Montgomery official: It's exactly what we've been saying for years'
The federal government should pay its fair share to address major traffic concerns surrounding the merger of two military hospitals in Bethesda, according to an independent report released last week.
The National Academies' report compares the Department of Defense to a private developer seeking to build in a community and calls on the federal government to help pay for the transportation and infrastructure improvements needed to accommodate the military's expansion, as would a private developer.
The report comes at a critical time for Maryland and Montgomery County lawmakers, as they revive efforts to secure funding for traffic projects surrounding the relocation of Walter Reed Army Medical Center to the National Naval Medical Center in this year's federal budget, under a Congress with noted disdain for earmarks.
All of the traffic projects around the new Walter Reed Military Medical Center, which include four intersection renovations, sidewalk and bike path improvements and a Metro crossing, are estimated to cost $165.4 million. Developers already have about $69.4 million and are seeking $96 million from Congress to complete the work.
"It's exactly what we've been saying for years that this is an unfunded federal mandate," said Phil Alperson, the Base Realignment and Closure coordinator for Montgomery County. "The defense department asked for all these things to be done inside their fence with really not much regard to what happens outside their fence."
Efforts to secure federal funding have fallen short, first because $300 million included in the budget for communities with BRAC-impacted military hospitals was unavailable because of an accounting error and more recently because of anti-earmark sentiment in Congress.
Lawmakers are again seeking the $300 million for the fiscal 2012 budget and said the report could give an extra push.
"Upgrading the roads around growing bases like Bethesda is very important, but finding the funding isn't easy," said Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.). "This report will help, especially in a time of budget cuts. We need all the leverage we can get for the DoD to make a meaningful contribution to transit and road improvements."
The traffic projects planned for Bethesda have been seen by some federal lawmakers as pet projects that will affect only one community, Alperson said. He and others disagree, arguing the traffic improvements are only needed because of a federal construction project.
The county council Tuesday reaffirmed its position that the transportation needs surrounding the Bethesda campus are a regional issue in a letter to the state's congressional delegation that outlines the county's transportation priorities.
The new report also supports that position.
"It's not an earmark in the way I see it. It's not a special pleading of the federal government, it's a result of a federal action that's causing this problem," said Thomas Deen, who was a member of the committee that authored the National Academies' report.
"They have inadvertently, but nonetheless, created an immense burden on the local and state government and the private sector," Deen said.
The National Academies are nonprofit organizations that produce about 300 reports a year, have been advising Congress since Abraham Lincoln was president and are considered a gold standard in research, said spokeswoman Maureen O'Leary.
The report was ordered as an amendment to the fiscal 2010 budget, an effort led by Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), whose state will be affected by BRAC mandates at Fort Belvoir. The Department of Defense was required to pay for the study, about $450,000. The committee used six BRAC sites, including Navy Med and Fort Belvoir, as case studies.
The report calls on the Department of Defense to not only accept more financial responsibility for the traffic problems created by BRAC moves, but to contribute to needed public transit, improve communication with the affected communities and revise the department's only program that can be used to pay for traffic improvements not located on a military campus, the Defense Access Roads fund. To qualify for funding, metro-area projects must prove inaction will result in doubling traffic.
Montgomery County received $20 million through that program to put toward improving access to the Medical Center Metro station, across Rockville Pike from Navy Med, at the National Institutes of Health.
But even with the new report on their side, county lawmakers are not just waiting for Congressional action.
Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett wrote Jan. 28 to the Navy, requesting it pay an additional $8 million to put toward a project to improve pedestrian access to the Medical Center Metro station, across the street at the National Institutes of Health.
"This is a project that must be built," Leggett wrote.
"Walter Reed should be known for the outstanding patient care it provides, not that its patients were denied timely access to care because of gridlock or unsafe access to or from the Metro station," he added.
The money would supplement the $20 million from the federal Defense Access Roads fund and would allow developers to complete half the improvements.
Maryland Department of Transportation has $39 million in state and federal funds, to begin work at the four intersections surrounding the campus, but needs additional money to complete the job.