Getting BRAC on the Road
In an effort to streamline and modernize its military bases, the Department of Defense (DoD) has launched a massive reorganization program called the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) program. This massive military shuffle should be complete by September 2011. According to plans only the DoD understands, some bases across the country will be closed, while others will expand. Luckily for Maryland, bases in Bethesda, Fort Meade, and Aberdeen will all be increasing capacity.
So far, the move is on schedule, according to Asuntha Chiang Smith, who heads Lt. Governor Anthony G. Brown's subcabinet on BRAC. The state initially expected about 30 percent of the military staff to relocate, but now says that more than 60 percent will move to the Baltimore area with their military jobs. This means a total of 40,000 jobs could be created in the bases around Baltimore, bringing with them a giant economic boost. Along with the economic growth, though, will come one very important side effect: traffic.
"The largest change so far has been on the roads around the bases," says Otis Rolley III, President and CEO of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance (CMTA), a coalition of businesses and nonprofits dedicated to improving travel efficiency in Central Maryland. "When the move is completed [in 2011] we're looking at some really serious congestion here."
Baltimore's central location means the city is sure to experience increased traffic as well. "There's always a domino effect with traffic. Particularly with the kind of volume we're expecting," says Rolley. With Fort Meade directly to the south of the city and Aberdeen just to the north, BRAC has Baltimore's major arteries in a headlock.Commuters' choice
Upgrades to the road system have already begun. These improvements mostly involve intersection improvements on the roads around bases. Maryland has little room left in which to build new roads, so the focus is on improving the ones that already exist.
Because the state can't simply build more roads, says Rolley, the CMTA has been doing a lot of advocacy for mass transit as part of their support for the BRAC movement. If the new BRAC personnel use mass transit instead of driving, the state may be able to capture the economic benefit of the move without the increased traffic.
For Ft. Meade and Aberdeen, the two BRAC bases closest to Baltimore, mass transit means MARC trains. MARC already has an extensive expansion plan in place to deal with growth in the area. BRAC transplants, however, will arrive before most of these changes can occur. Gerald Cichy is the BRAC coordinator for the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA). "There are some shorter term things we're doing for BRAC. We bought some bi-level cars. We're refurbishing them and putting them into service as soon as we can. We're making improvements at the Aberdeen and Edgewood station and we've got some stimulus money to improve the Laurel station."
"We've got a comprehensive plan," says Cichy. "Money is a little tight, but we're working on it."
MARC, however, already experiences occasional delays and this is long before the bulk of BRAC employees arrive. "The only way (MARC) is going to keep up is with funding and the political will to provide that funding," says Rolley. "The number one issue is getting the money."Money train
Too bad money isn't part of the BRAC deal. The Federal philosophy, explains Cichy, is that "we're giving you all these jobs, the local governments need to provide the services." Thus the bulk of the money for necessary road and rail improvements must come from local sources.
Unfortunately, local coffers are already under strain. "Because of the budget situation and the state of the economy, our estimates are not what we thought they would be," says Chiang Smith. "We have less money to build infrastructure."
The lack of immediately available cash doesn't mean the state won't be ready for BRAC by 2011, it just means planners throughout the state have had to work harder and be more creative.
The Federal government isn't entirely blind to Maryland's situation. Of the $4.1 billion Maryland has received as part of the Federal stimulus package, $628 million has been used on transportation projects. Because this money was given with the idea of stimulating the economy, the state has used it for smaller projects that could begin immediately. It means there's been a lot of repaving, but it also includes the aforementioned MARC station upgrades and various interchange improvements throughout the state.Military maneuvers
The military is also aware of the tremors BRAC sends throughout the areas around its bases. The Office of Economic Adjustment, a branch of the DoD, has been working with state offices, reports Cichy. They've given the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) money to help fund studies on solutions to the changes brought by BRAC. The bases have also been busy rearranging their entry gates to reduce traffic outside and have begun looking into funding shuttles and bus services.
This kind of non-auto-centric thinking is part of what Chiang Smith and other state officials realize will be necessary to face the challenges of BRAC. "We're taking what we have and seeing what will make the maximum difference. The priority is demand management."
"There is strong support for expanding MARC," claims Andy Scott, who represented the Secretary of MDOT at a recent BRAC subcabinet meeting, but to deal with the entirety of BRAC, MDOT is going through its toolbox pulling out at all of its different tools, including road, transit, and old fashioned carpools and vanpools. Because each base is different, managing demand makes sense."
"The expanding Naval Medical Center in Bethesda is in the heart of an already crowded urban area. Fort Meade and the National Security Administration lie along the busy Baltimore/Washington corridor. Aberdeen Proving Grounds has more room around it but fewer established alternatives to driving. Rather than trying to solve the traffic problems of all three bases with a blanket solution, state officials are trying a host of ideas to keep the number of cars on the road from growing," he continues.
That's where Ben Cohen comes in. He is the director of transportation for the BWI Business Partnership. This non-profit development and transportation management organization deals directly with both Fort Meade and the National Security Administration (NSA). "The agencies moving in are receptive to other ways, whether it be mass transit or commuter buses, to mitigate the traffic that will occur," says Cohen of his military counterparts.
Shuttle service between the bases and mass transit stations or park-and-ride locations has been going on for 20 years at the NSA, and is expanding. The NSA is planning a new shuttle that would connect to the Greenbelt Metro station, while the BWI Business Partnership is trying to help commuters themselves organize their own express bus pools. "I think everyone is resigned to the fact that outside of what they have the money to do, the best plan is transportation demand management. That includes promoting telework, ridesharing, carpooling, and vanpooling in coordination. That will hopefully keep the number of vehicles on the road similar to what it is now."
Get on the bus
Though the MTA has not yet established new bus routes, it too is looking at multiple options and has received approval for a bus running along the new Intercounty Connector, says Cichy. The new bus line would carry commuters from Montgomery County to Fort Meade. Commuter buses already run from Harford County into East Baltimore, and the MTA is studying the idea of a reverse bus to take workers from the city towards the Aberdeen area. Harford County's local government also coordinates a similar rideshare program to the one Cohen runs.
The next year will see some of the states' planned transportation improvements begin. However, even if the MDOT does come up with the money it needs, Cohen stresses, what they don't have is time. New roads and rail lines take time to build, and few of the major projects planned by MARC and MDOT could be completed in time for the September 2011 traffic blitz.
Thus preparation for BRAC is a story of various small changes adding up to a solution. The incremental expansion of transportation options will help the area's new residents get around and may, in the end, be the best thing for the area after all. Maryland's smart approach to traffic management will not only prepare the state for BRAC in an era of dwindling funds, but also prepare the way for a smarter transportation future, one with more economic growth and a lot less traffic.
Michael Cook is a freelance writer born and raised in Baltimore. He now lives in Federal Hill.