BRAC team faces `challenge'

Officials who handled defense buildup in 1990s say cooperation, money are musts

June 16, 2007|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Sun reporter

LEXINGTON PARK -- Military base realignment has been a bonanza for Southern Maryland, boosting incomes and lowering unemployment in a rural region known largely for tobacco farming.

But more than a decade after thousands of new military and civilian workers transferred to work on and around Patuxent River Naval Air Station, traffic still clogs the two-lane bridge over the Patuxent that many commuters use, despite hundreds of millions spent by government on road improvements. Housing prices also have climbed beyond the reach of many St. Mary's County residents.

At a meeting here yesterday of the O'Malley administration's base-realignment task force, Southern Maryland officials warned that close regional cooperation and a huge infusion of funds would be needed to handle the latest round of base job shuffling, which is expected to bring 45,000 to 60,000 defense-related jobs to the Baltimore-Washington area in the next five years or so. And, they said, the effects of such growth are far-reaching and long-lasting.

"It's going to be a real challenge for Central Maryland," said Gary V. Hodge, a member of the Charles County board of commissioners and former director of the Tri-County Council for Southern Maryland, the region's planning and development agency.

The buildup around Fort Meade in Anne Arundel County and Aberdeen Proving Ground in Harford County is likely to be several times greater than the increase in jobs that occurred in the 1990s around the naval air station here, officials said. And the time to prepare appears to be shorter, since Patuxent River's growth occurred in three stages through the 1990s.

Southern Maryland officials said they considered the influx of 5,000 new workers at "Pax River" a major boon for the region. The naval air station and two smaller bases in Charles and Calvert counties employ more than 22,800 military personnel, civilians and contractors -- accounting for about one in three jobs in the region and generating more than $80 million a year in state income and sales taxes.

Officials for the three counties said they had huddled early in the buildup and compiled a list of 27 school, college, library and transportation projects needed to accommodate the increase in workers and their families. Then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening pledged $200 million in state aid, they said.

More than a decade later -- and after more than $350 million in spending -- the last of the 27 priority projects is only now being dealt with. And the Thomas Johnson Bridge over the Patuxent, which few thought was that important then, now looms as urgent.

"The Thomas Johnson Bridge is not only a bottleneck, it has some structural problems," said Todd Morgan of the Southern Maryland Navy Alliance, a group formed to support the base and economic development around it. "I think that bridge is an accident waiting to happen." He and others urged the state to expedite funding for building a new span over the river.

Despite the costs of new schools, roads and other facilities to handle the growth, local officials said that tax revenues generated by the new businesses and their workers have more than repaid the public expenditure.

"That's proving to be one of the best investments ever made in the state," said Hodge.

State Sen. Roy Dyson, a St. Mary's Democrat, cautioned that with the state facing a $1.6 billion structural budget deficit, officials will be hard-pressed to finance the much more costly infrastructure needs of the new defense buildup.

"Your work is cut out for you," Dyson said to Eloise Foster, the state budget secretary, one of eight O'Malley Cabinet secretaries serving on the base-realignment "subcabinet."

Dyson also questioned whether local government and business leaders in Central Maryland shared the same enthusiasm for the defense buildup that Southern Maryland officials had about the Patuxent River growth. Consensus is needed, he and others said, in order to do what's needed quickly.

Noting that there were more than 100 portable classrooms in St. Mary's, Dyson said communities "had a difficult time keeping up" with the base influx, which accelerated the region's already robust growth. "I don't see any light at the end of the tunnel," he concluded.

Local officials said they continue to struggle with managing the growth, particularly with preserving valuable farmland and with a growing economic and cultural divide between the families of highly paid, highly educated workers and families of blue-collar and service workers.

Officials in all three Southern Maryland counties said they are grappling with a scarcity of "work force" housing affordable to schoolteachers and other middle- and lower-income residents.

"It bedevils us," said Jack Russell, president of the St. Mary's County commissioners, who said a survey found that 61 percent of his county's residents could not afford the more than $300,000 median price of a new home.

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