The first of 10,000 additional federal workers expected next year at and around Fort Meade begin arriving next month, but the roads both inside and outside the World War I-era facility aren't ready, according to local officials monitoring the situation.
"The first people are coming up Jan. 8," Jean Friedberg, regional growth coordinator of the Fort Meade Regional Growth Management Committee told a small private group called Transportation Advocates in Columbia on Thursday morning. But of the roughly $1 billion to $2 billion in transportation infrastructure upgrades thought to be needed (including $600 million to widen Routes 175 and 198), only $50 million has been provided to widen one mile of Route 175 from the Baltimore- Washington Parkway to the base entrance, which also would be enlarged. Work on that project is to begin in the spring or summer.
"Twenty-eleven is going to be a difficult year. We're doing everything we can to get people out from behind the wheel," Friedberg said. The first arrivals work for the Defense Information Systems Agency, now based in Northern Virginia, whose new quarters on the military base are ready. Many of those workers are nearing retirement age and plan to commute, the officials said, and the difficult economy has encouraged older workers not to leave the agency to search for other jobs or to try to relocate to Maryland.
Although 750 DISA workers have already signed up for rider-financed charter buses or van pools, and more will work from home one or two days a week, the commuter challenge is only going to increase — especially on the Baltimore Washington Parkway and Route 32, already used by nearly 93 percent of Fort Meade commuters, the officials said. Longer term, employment on and around Fort Meade and the National Security Agency is expected to eventually double, bringing about 41,000 new jobs to the area in the next decade or two. But transportation improvements are expected to lag.
"We're not going to see any new road construction until 2020. It's just not going to happen" because there's no state or federal money for it, Friedberg said. In addition, he said the interior Fort Meade road system is still basically the one designed in 1917, when the base opened. That will be another challenge.
"It is a fact we have to deal with," Howard County's BRAC coordinator Kent Menser told the group of about 20 people meeting in the Florence Bain Senior Center in Columbia. "It's not there," he said about the transportation improvement money. "We have to get on."
Some fear major congestion, but Friedberg and Menser, who work with both Howard and Anne Arundel officials, said planners are working on ways to ease the crunch. They hope to get 27 percent of the new arrivals out of their cars using van pools, car pools, buses and telecommuting, which they hope will represent a third of that savings.
"I think it's going to be gridlock. It's frustrating to me," said Carol Filipczak, a 10-year member of the Howard County Transportation Board. All of Howard County's efforts to cut or prevent congestion could be overwhelmed, she said.
Others feel the problem presents an opportunity to show motorists caught in back-ups that there are other options to driving.
"I see this as a blessing in disguise," said Michael G. Riemer, a member of Transportation Advocates. "It could help get us out of our cars."
Menser said unusual solutions may be needed, like reserving one of the lanes on Route 32 for high-occupancy commuter traffic.
"If we had a bus lane with buses going 55 miles per hour right into the base and cars going 10 miles per hour. …" Menser said. "For people to ride buses, it has to be better than taking your car."
No one is suggesting things won't get dicey, however.
"There will be a time during the third quarter [of 2011] when there's going to be maximum employees and maximum construction and it will be messy. Is it a scary ride? Yeah. We're trying to do something no one's done before," Friedberg said.
From an economic growth perspective, the influx of mostly high-paying jobs will be a boon, Menser and Friedberg said.
The Fort Meade area development, which includes a 5.8-million-square-foot office complex for the new cyber command intended to battle computer hackers, should pump $18 billion a year into Maryland's economy, and Howard County can look forward to about a $2.5 billion-a-year impact. New housing and office projects are already starting along Howard's U.S. 1 commercial corridor, and more are coming.
"We all realize we're very fortunate at this time in our national economy to see this overall Fort Meade growth," Menser said.