A wave of defense workers, the likes of which Anne Arundel County hasn't seen in decades, will descend upon Fort Meade within the next several years, triggering a torrent of growth that government officials and economists believe could last a generation or longer.
While state and federal estimates differ slightly on the size of the boom, officials agree that more than 20,000 jobs will settle within a three-mile radius of the 5,400-acre installation.
"This is an epicenter of growth not only in this state but also in the country," said John D. Porcari, Maryland's transportation secretary.
Much of that growth is related to the military base realignment and closure process, known as BRAC, which will bring nearly 6,000 defense personnel to Fort Meade around 2011. The influx is expected to produce "a contractor tail" that could bring along 10,000 or more private-sector contractors.
On top of that, county and state leaders estimate that the National Security Agency will add about 4,000 public- and private-sector jobs over the next few years.
The secret surveillance agency reportedly has begun to significantly slow its hiring pace of 1,500 workers a year since 2004. But those leaders predict that hiring will pick back up, pointing to the demand by NSA contractors for office space near the gates of the Army post.
Fort Meade also projects that an additional 2,000 non-BRAC-related jobs will settle at Fort Meade in the next few years.
"The magnitude should be the focus, not the exact number," said Bob Leib, the BRAC liaison for County Executive John R. Leopold. "The exact numbers may vary, [but] the best projections won't be borne until after the fact."
Starting next year
Col. Kenneth O. McCreedy, Fort Meade's commander, told the County Council last month that building projects for the installation's new BRAC tenants - including the 4,000 members of the Defense Information Systems Agency - will begin next year. The new DISA headquarters will occupy 1 million square feet near the fort's center.
It is thought that the NSA will move portions of its operations to the center of Fort Meade as well over the next several years for security reasons. The two agencies are expected to work together in the process of gathering intelligence and communicating it to troops in the field.
The average salary for personnel making a BRAC-related move to Fort Meade - government personnel and private contractors - is expected to exceed $100,000, according to state estimates.
BRAC jobs are expected to arrive at Fort Meade starting in 2009, with the vast majority of them landing in 2010 and 2011. Leib noted that officials are projecting BRAC growth out to 2015.
The transportation infrastructure costs alone to handle the influx are daunting: $5 billion for projects in Anne Arundel to widen the Baltimore-Washington Parkway from Route 175 to Interstate 695; overhaul a five-mile stretch of Route 175 around Fort Meade's perimeter; widen a portion of Route 198; overhaul a nine-mile section of Route 3 that cuts through Gambrills and Crofton; and extending the Metro Green Line from Greenbelt to BWI Marshall Airport.
"I think it's fair to say that Anne Arundel County, because of Fort Meade/NSA, is an area that the entire country has stock in," Leopold said recently. "We are the heartbeat of our nation's security efforts. Our nation's defenses is focused on intelligence-gathering and technology, and that is centered in this county. Everyone in this country has a stake in Anne Arundel County being provided the infrastructure" for the BRAC expansion.
With an estimated $40 billion needed for transportation projects across the state over the next 20 years, Porcari said tough choices will have to be made toward funding projects, including in Anne Arundel.
The Leopold administration is pushing the state to increase funding for the half-billion-dollar Route 175 project, but county officials fear the money will not come in time for it to be complete by 2011. Current projections place completion closer to 2016.
"We all wish we could snap our fingers and get six lanes [built] in the next year or the year after," McCreedy said.
Route 175 is emblematic of the challenges that Anne Arundel faces in providing the schools, roads and services necessary to accommodate the new workers.
County officials fear that many of the infrastructure improvements needed to make BRAC a success will be delayed, causing grief for long-distance workers and county residents alike.
Mass transit solutions are being taken in the short term. A group of developers will soon start construction of a parking garage at the Odenton MARC station to expand use there. Leopold is also trying to create a commuter bus service that would take defense workers between Fort Meade and train stations in Odenton and over the Howard County line in Savage.
But the county's growth is not just limited to BRAC.