BRAC report affirms plans

Study highlights areas county already intended to improve

December 09, 2007|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Sun reporter

With lines of commuters already crawling along Howard County's major highways each weekday, motorists can only imagine how much worse traffic will get with the arrival of thousands of more people by 2011 as part of BRAC, the federal base closing and realignment process.

But a new report from Howard's BRAC task force concludes that the county is better prepared than first thought to absorb the influx from what the task force called "the biggest single component of regional growth for the foreseeable future."

Indeed, according to Kent Menser, Howard County's BRAC director, the addition of defense-related jobs could help the county plan its future by speeding solutions to pressing current problems, such as highway congestion.

"It has shown a spotlight on these [highway] projects to get more things done," he said. In addition, "Fort Meade growth will push mass transit to the forefront."

Menser said "Fort Meade growth is really just putting names and faces on the projections in the General Plan," the county's 20-year growth blueprint.

"It's the first time we're getting a look at growth before [people] actually arrive here," he said. Menser said a groundbreaking is planned for mid-April on a new building to house the Defense Information Systems Agency that is to move to Fort Meade with 4,300 jobs from Northern Virginia.

When 1.5 million square feet of new office buildings go up, Menser said, plans are to provide only 60 percent of normally needed parking spaces. That means carpools or express bus routes could flourish, whether from Clarksville or even Northern Virginia nonstop to Fort Meade.

The task force report to County Executive Ken Ulman last week came from 150 volunteers serving on committees examining education, health and human services, infrastructure and commercial development, public safety, transportation and work force development.

Menser said the first groups of federal employees are supposed to start work in new buildings on Fort Meade before 2011, and they'll be joined by more private contract workers. In all, 22,000 more jobs are expected in Central Maryland because of BRAC.

Despite the confidence expressed in the county's planning efforts, the task force recognized highway congestion, solid-waste management and the need to find enough skilled workers as current problems that BRAC will magnify.

Other concerns include providing affordable homes for working families, child care and services for the elderly.

Transportation is the most obvious problem.

Top priorities include building an interchange at Route 175 and U.S. 1 in Jessup; widening Route 175 east to the Baltimore Washington Parkway; widening Interstate 95 with two High Occupancy Vehicle lanes; and other improvements along U.S. 1, which will likely get the greatest impact.

The task force also recommends expanding the state's Transportation Trust Fund, boosting commuter rail service and extending bus service to the Fort Meade area. Other projects the county is pushing for, regardless of BRAC, include adding a third lane northbound on Route 29 near Columbia and along Interstate 70 near Marriottsville.

Finding enough technically qualified people who also have security clearances may also be a big problem as BRAC jobs arrive, the task force concluded. Officials expect about half of new BRAC jobs to arrive unfilled.

Howard County also needs to craft a new solid-waste disposal plan after the current contract to ship most residential trash to Virginia landfills runs out in 2012. The report suggests this could be an opportunity to explore a regional waste-to-energy plant.

In education, task force members suggested working with county schools to tell students about jobs that may become available, starting as early as elementary or middle school.

"We can start an awareness of job skills for all students. Show them what's out there," Menser said.

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