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Report: Pentagon should share BRAC costs

ANNAPOLIS — The Pentagon should pay more for transportation improvements around military bases that are getting tens of thousands of new workers under a national plan to reconfigure bases, a report commissioned by Congress recommended Monday.

The report by the National Research Council’s Transportation Research Board looked at six large bases: Fort George C. Meade and the National Naval Medical Center in Maryland, Fort Belvoir in Virginia, Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state, Florida’s Eglin Air Force Base, and Fort Bliss, Texas.

They are among 18 domestic bases slotted to expand as others are closed or reduced in size under a periodic review called base realignment and closure. The current BRAC plan was approved by Congress in 2005 and is gradually being implemented.

The report warned that the early stages of base realignment and other sources of military growth, including troops returning from two wars, are already causing “severe” transportation problems at most of the six facilities studied.

“The resulting traffic delays will impose substantial costs on surrounding communities and may even be harmful to the military,” the report said.

But the Defense Department considers its responsibilities for off-base transportation needs to be limited, the report said.

To help ease congestion, the report recommended that the Defense Department expand its only program to help pay for transportation infrastructure off-base. The Defense Access Roads program requires that traffic double in metropolitan areas from base expansion to be eligible.

The Pentagon largely leaves local and state authorities responsible for off-base transportation needs, even if decisions by the Pentagon increase congestion, the panel found.

“This policy is unrealistic for congested metropolitan transportation networks,” it said.

Communities that benefit economically from the military should pay their fair share, and the military and local communities should improve communication in planning infrastructure improvements, the report said. The report also noted that the recession has reduced state tax revenues far below levels needed to maintain capacity in response to normal demand.

Congress should consider a special appropriation or reallocation of federal stimulus money to pay for near-term improvements in the communities most severely affected by base realignment, the report recommended.

The report calls particular attention to the Washington, D.C., area, where three of the six bases in the case studies are located: the National Naval Medical Center in Rockville, Fort Meade, and Fort Belvoir. The report describes the region as the second-worst metropolitan area for travel time delay nationwide.

At Fort Meade, at least 5,700 additional workers are expected to arrive by September because of base realignment, with up to 13,300 others arriving due to growth at the National Security Agency and increased contractor presence at the base. The report cited $786 million in needed highway improvements that do not have funding around Fort Meade.

The report brought a response from Democratic members of the Maryland and Virginia congressional delegations. Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md., said traffic congestion and overwhelmed mass transit threaten the effectiveness of the base realignment process.

“The consequences of inaction would gridlock our national security, as well as affected urban and metropolitan areas,” Cardin said.

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., said the delegation looked forward to working with the Pentagon “to determine how we can improve these outdated regulations.”

In the Florida Panhandle, roads surrounding Eglin Air Force Base are already being widened and rerouted to ease congestion from thousands of new Army and Air Force members. The Army’s 7th Special Forces Group from Fort Bragg, N.C., is relocating to the sprawling Florida base. Training for the Joint Strike Fighter F-35 stealth jet will also take place on the base.

“We are excited about this spurring real estate and housing construction, about all of the potential economic impact,” said Okaloosa County Commissioner Dave Parisot, a retired Air Force major who came to the area in 1981 and decided to retire there.

Parisot said the military is paying for construction of some roadwork to ease congestion near the bases.

Community leaders hope to find funding for additional construction along Highway 98 along the Gulf of Mexico. The road is a major tourist corridor and is an entrance for Eglin and Hurlburt Field Air Force bases, he said.