Rethinking BRAC

Our view : High gas prices and slowing economy signal a shift

June 15, 2008

When state officials produced a report on the impact of the base realignment and closure decisions on Maryland last year, some complained that its estimate of 17,000 workers moving into the state was overblown. After all, a certain number of civilian employees were likely to quit or retire, and a considerable number might choose to commute from New Jersey or Virginia.

But the downturn in the nation's economy, rising unemployment numbers and record-high fuel prices have changed that thinking altogether. Should Maryland be prepared for that many and more? Some fundamental assumptions about growth between now and 2020 may have to be changed.

Already, there is evidence that far more workers will follow their jobs. A recent survey by the Defense Information Systems Agency, which anticipates moving 4,000 jobs to Fort Meade, found that four out of 10 employees plan to keep their jobs. That's 60 percent more than was reported two years ago.

Private contractors who must soon make decisions where to build or lease new offices may be more inclined to locate close to Fort Meade or Aberdeen Proving Ground, the two major centers for BRAC-related growth. Their workers may follow suit and choose to buy homes in Anne Arundel or Harford counties rather than deal with long and expensive commutes.

These trends underscore the need for Maryland to revive the Smart Growth effort that began under Gov. Parris N. Glendening. One of its fundamental principles was to encourage people to live closer to where they work and thereby lessen their impact on the environment.

High gasoline prices may have accomplished more for Smart Growth advocates than state or local planning could ever hope to do. The economic case for stopping sprawl is now abundantly clear: With gas at $4 a gallon, even time spent idling in rush-hour traffic jams can be costly.

Fortunately, Maryland still has time to make these needed adjustments. The biggest wave of growth is likely several years away. But from investing more in MARC trains and other forms of transit to encouraging more urban and town-centered residential development, governments need to be prepared for a changing pattern of growth, not only from military workers but for the rest of the state as well.

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