More congestion for Bethesda

Officials ask state help with growth expected from merger of NIH, military hospitals

October 19, 2007|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Sun reporter

Marylanders worried about congestion coming with the federal base realignment and closure process turned their attention yesterday to the plight of gridlocked Bethesda, where Walter Reed Army Medical Center is to merge with the huge National Naval Hospital-National Institutes of Health complex.

At a BRAC sub-Cabinet meeting in nearby Rockville, Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown and state officials heard pleas from Montgomery County representatives for $210 million in transportation projects for an area ranked second in the nation for traffic problems, even with Washington Metro service.

Brown said he has been visiting counties affected by BRAC "to open up a dialogue with local government" and to prepare a transportation plan for Gov. Martin O'Malley's second budget by January. Montgomery officials took full advantage of yesterday's opportunity.

"This BRAC is the only one that expands a major military facility in an urban area that's already bursting at the seams," said County Executive Isiah Leggett.

He said progress needs to be made on the Metro's new cross-county Purple Line and on the Intercounty Connector highway. Bethesda needs new interchanges at overwhelmed intersections; a widening of Wisconsin Avenue; more turn lanes, shuttle buses, sidewalks, bicycle lanes and telecommuting options, he said.

"This is the greatest world-class center of military medicine and research. When wounded soldiers return, we must do right by them," Leggett said.

The Walter Reed-National Naval Hospital merger is scheduled to be completed in five years, with up to 4,000 more employees and a total of 900,000 patient visits a year in an area where it can now take motorists multiple changes of traffic lights to get though intersections during peak times.

In Bethesda, Metro riders leave trains on the west side of seven-lane Wisconsin Avenue, which many must cross on foot.

"Metro is inadequate," said county Planning Board Chairman Royce Hanson, and "only the most adventurous bikers" would attempt to pedal through Bethesda.

There isn't enough affordable housing for employees or hotel rooms for patients' families, he said. There are 12,262 efficiency and one-bedroom apartments within five miles of the federal medical campus that people earning $66,000 a year or less can afford, and 478 of those were vacant last year, Hanson said. Montgomery has 2,741 hotel rooms.

State Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari told attendees that without federal action, the federal Highway Trust Fund will run dry by 2009. Maryland's Transportation Trust Fund is so low that it can't accept new projects, he said.

The federal government must help, Porcari said. "We simply can't do it alone," he said after the meeting.

Porcari said O'Malley's proposed $400 million-a-year package of higher fees, corporate taxes and gasoline taxes indexed to inflation might not be enough to meet statewide transportation needs.

"We need $400 million to $600 million a year," Porcari said, partly because Maryland should spend $40 billion over the next two decades just to keep pace with its needs.

Brown said $400 million is a minimum but that if O'Malley finds that "General Assembly members have an appetite for [raising] more," additional funding is possible.

"Many of the projects will be completed after 2011," which is when the peak of BRAC's impact is expected to be felt, he said.

Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce representative Patrick L. O'Neil, a lawyer, said a state environmental impact statement vital for traffic-relief planning was due in June but won't come out until December, a month before the General Assembly meets.

"We need to know our elected officials have this on their radar. The message we've been getting so far has not been very encouraging," he said.

Porcari said some lower-cost projects can be done sooner than the eight to 10 years it might take to build major interchanges or a pedestrian tunnel under Wisconsin Avenue.

He also wants to triple MARC commuter rail service, he said.

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