Photo courtesy of U.S. Army
For security reasons, military bases often feature long, snaking lines of cars waiting to get inside the front gates. Now, thanks to the Pentagon’s decision to shift workers among numerous bases around the country, some military sites are likely to see even longer lines of cars and plenty of other traffic-congestion problems—but without adequate public transportation to help ease the burden.
That’s the conclusion of a new federal study that found that public transit needs to be given much more serious consideration as the Base Closure and Realignment Commission (BRAC) shifts workers from closed bases to active ones.
The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) examined how BRAC decisions in 2005 to move personnel from bases slated for closure to new ones have affected four areas of the country, from the Washington, DC, region to Washington State. It found that military planners did not always consider in advance how the moves would aggravate traffic problems, and recommended that the Pentagon assume a greater share of the costs involved.
The study, released in February, said the Defense Department’s efforts to deal with increased traffic demand focused largely on building new roads. It noted that the department’s Defense Access Roads program—the only dedicated funding source for assisting communities with BRAC-related transportation needs—cannot, by statute, fund public transit improvements.
The study recommended “a wide range of options” to address congestion, including expanded transit services, transit benefit programs, bus shuttles, and vanpooling. To fund such efforts, it said Congress should consider either a one-time special appropriation or reprogramming of uncommitted economic stimulus money.
“If you’re talking about urban areas where congestion exists, public transportation has to be a part of the discussion,” said Joseph Sussman, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who chaired the NAS study committee.
The study “calls attention to serious issues that need a higher profile” among federal lawmakers in a time of tight budgets, agreed Martin Wachs, a senior principal transportation researcher at the RAND Corp. in Santa Monica, CA.
“The BRAC program is supposed to save money for American taxpayers, yet in the realm of transportation, it’s clear that consolidation brings new and sometimes substantial costs,” Wachs said. “Sometimes consolidations create opportunities for transit operators by creating concentrated employment clusters at transit-supportive densities, but transit today is starved for cash and there usually is no BRAC funding of either capital or operating costs to extend transit service.”
The BRAC process was begun as a way of closing unneeded military bases and realigning the workforce at existing ones. More than 350 installations have been closed in four BRAC rounds: 1989, 1991, 1993, and 1995. The most recent round became law in November 2005 and must be fully implemented by mid-September.
Washington, DC Region
In the Washington, DC, area, where BRAC-related changes from the 2005 round have caused significant transportation concerns, several members of Congress vowed to look for more money. Some military leaders also agreed that bus and rail deserve more consideration.
“I’m very bullish on opportunities for mass transit … It seems the Washington and Baltimore transit systems work in isolation,” Army Col. Kenneth McCreedy, commander of Fort Meade, MD, told the Washington Examiner newspaper. Fort Meade, located midway between Washington and Baltimore, expects to receive some 22,000 new commuters in September.
The current spending bill for Fiscal Year 2011 being debated in Congress includes $300 million that could be used to pay for improvements stemming from the relocation of Walter Reed Army Medical Center from the city of Washington to the nearby National Naval Medical Center (NNMC) in Bethesda, MD. Local officials hope the funds can survive congressional efforts to further slash spending.
The BRAC decision on Walter Reed, which will result in NNMC’s workforce growing from 8,000 employees to about 10,200, is “an unfunded federal mandate on state and local governments that are having to deal with local transportation needs,” said Phil Alperson, BRAC coordinator for Montgomery County, MD, home of NNMC.
Alperson said the $300 million has been unfairly characterized as a special-interest earmark that is of little use. “It’s not an earmark,” he said. “The untenable gridlock [from BRAC-related traffic] will affect the hospital's ability to provide for patients.”
The other BRAC-related move in the Washington area involves Fort Belvoir in Northern Virginia, 12 miles outside the District of Columbia. Its workforce is expected to grow from about 24,000 to as many as 43,500 employees, causing substantial demand in a region that the Texas Transportation Institute has said is tied with Chicago for the nation’s worst traffic congestion.
At least 30 major highway or public transit projects have been identified as necessary to serve the fort’s expansion, but only four are fully funded and an additional 10 have partial funding, according to the NAS report. Officials in Virginia’s Fairfax County and the Virginia Transportation Department have estimated needing $1.9 billion for the unfunded projects, including $600 million to extend the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s Metrorail system to Fort Belvoir.
The report said public transit does not work at every military installation, noting that some bases are located a considerable distance from nearby communities with transit systems. In addition, there can be disincentives to making greater use of public transit, such as free parking.
At Washington State’s Joint Base Lewis-McChord, located southwest of Tacoma, nearly 80 percent of the traffic to and from the base uses one interstate highway and there is little to no transit service. The base also has extensive parking, something the report said has discouraged bus use. Most of the solutions being implemented there involve improving the timing of traffic signals and boosting towing crews so to allow the prompt clearing of disabled vehicles.
However, several other communities that have seen increases in BRAC-related personnel reported that they have been working to successfully incorporate public transit—particularly expanded bus service—as part of the solution. In most cases, they said responsibility for the added costs is still being worked out.
San Antonio and El Paso, TX
In San Antonio, officials at VIA Metropolitan Transit are working on ways to manage personnel increases at the city’s four military bases, which are expected to receive nearly 5,000 new employees.
“What we’re having to talk about is how many bus turnarounds we will have and where the turnarounds actually take place,” said Deborah Seabron, chief of command for the 502nd Mission Support Group and member of a VIA task force. “We’ve got to be real careful with the dollars involved, and we’ve got to make sure we’re meeting the needs of the customer. If we have a bus coming to our main access control [gate], we want to make sure the turnaround or drop-off point is in the most expeditious place.”
Also in Texas, similar discussions are underway between El Paso’s Sun Metro system and nearby Fort Bliss, which is expanding by about 25,000 troops. As the transit system works to determine the configuration of new bus routes, spokeswoman Laura Cruz said the base is seeking to make incoming arrivals aware of its travel voucher program subsidizing $48 monthly bus passes.
“We’re lucky in El Paso because we aren’t restricted like DC, where they’re landlocked. We have a little more room to breathe,” Cruz said. “The biggest obstacle is finding the resources, but also maintaining security there.”
Fort Knox, KY
Fort Knox, KY, considers its employee voucher program successful; the fort is getting 4,300 mostly civilian personnel from the Army Human Resources Command, plus another 3,400 soldiers and employees from the 1st Infantry Division’s 3rd Brigade.
In the last three years, the fort’s park-and-ride bus service has gone from attracting just 15 daily riders to around 160, with more people becoming interested each week, said Jodi Alford, transportation director for the Transit Authority of Central Kentucky in Lebanon, KY. She said the authority is expecting many more users as BRAC-related transfers arrive, and it has ordered more buses.
“A lot of [the service’s popularity] has to do with gas prices in the area, as far as people riding goes,” Alford said. “Once they get used to it, they realize how nice it is.”
In Fayetteville, NC, officials are hoping to begin running an express bus to nearby Fort Bragg. One of the nation’s largest military bases, the fort is expecting as many as 23,000 new employees as a result of BRAC.
A task force in 2008 recommended studying the feasibility of a light rail streetcar system between Fayetteville and the fort. Although there are unused railroad tracks between the two points, the tracks would be removed to widen a road and security at Fort Bragg would have made train service impossible in any event, said Rick Heicksen, coordinator of the Fayetteville area’s Metropolitan Planning Organization.
But officials still consider public transit important—especially with some of Fort Bragg’s new employees arriving from Atlanta’s Fort McPherson.
“Those people are used to MARTA [Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority] and the bus service there,” Heicksen said. “We believe in multimodalism.”
More Serious Thinking Needed
The NAS study concluded that the Pentagon must start thinking much more seriously and systematically about the congestion problems that result from shifting workers to bases in future BRAC rounds.
“Agencies and staff in [the Defense Department] are not developing and sharing information, or facilitating processes, that would identify all the direct and indirect costs of traffic congestion and the range of related funding available to give base commanders the resources that could help address base impacts,” the study said.
Photo courtesy of U.S. Navy
Members of the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission question Secretary of the Navy Gordon England, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Vern Clark, Commandant of the Marine Corps Michael W. Hagee and Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy (Infrastructure Analysis) Anne Davis during 2005 hearings on the recommended restructuring of the nation’s defense installations.
Photo courtesy of URS Corporation
The exterior of WMATA's Medical Center Metrorail Station, located on the campus of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Plans connected with the relocation of Walter Reed Army Medical Center to the National Naval Medical Center, located across a highway from NIH, include improved access to the station.
Photo courtesy of VIA Metropolitan Transit
VIA Metropolitan Transit is using vanpools to help the four military bases in San Antonio deal with the arrival of nearly 5,000 new employees.