Thursday, October 08, 2009

Let’s Make this BRAC Work

By Ilaya Rome Hopkins.

The challenging and complex issues associated with an expansion of a military installation in the heart of an urban residential and commercial district will not be solved by slinging accusations and conspiracy theories of secret maps and diversion of funds. There are few certainties with development in Montgomery County. With the Base Realignment and Closure Act of 2005 we know two things: the new Walter Reed will open on September 15, 2011 and we have a long way to go before we are ready. Let’s be real and work together to make this BRAC work.

The communities surrounding the Naval Hospital have been engaged in this process since the BRAC law was announced in 2005 and work is ongoing to leverage limited resources in an effective manner to achieve the goal of reducing the number of Single Occupancy Vehicles on arterial roadways. Since 2007, the Coalition of Military Medical Center Neighbors has advocated for a multi-pronged approach including better use of public transit, creating walkable and bikeable areas around the base, implementing a strong transportation demand management on the base and forward thinking roadway improvements that facilitate access to the base while maintaining the quality of life of surrounding communities. In order for all these pieces to add up, coordination and leadership are key.

On October 5, 2009, representatives from stakeholders involved in this process for the last few years met with Congressman Chris Van Hollen, Lieutenant Governor Anthony Brown, and County Executive Isaiah Leggett. In the presentation by SHA and MCDOT we saw some tangible progress on where coordination is happening, in particular leveraging a grant from the Office of Economic Adjustment from the Department of Defense and funds allocated in the State’s Capital Transportation Program budget so that bike path and roadway improvements, including pedestrian safety, work in concert not at cross purposes.

A major piece of the puzzle is at the Medical Center metro where we have the opportunity to create a gateway multimodal transit hub. The metro stop and bus terminal already exist. Making transit and the facilities they serve more accessible to a greater number of people who arrive at the hub in various ways – as pedestrians, bicyclists, car pools or van pools or from one mode to another such as bus to metro - is critical. The idea of a tunnel to cross Rockville Pike at this area is not new and in fact, in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, discussions began on how to link these critical institutions via a tunnel or bridge to allow for emergency vehicles to travel between NNMC, NIH and Suburban Hospital. The Coalition has worked hard to move from an auto-centric response to one that is more forward thinking, environmentally responsible and can leverage existing assets.

Many of these ideas seem to be captured in the county’s recent submission for a TIGER grant, the details of which will be fully discussed at the October 20 BRAC Implementation Committee (BIC) meeting. Representatives from the community still have a number of questions about the design and look forward to a full analysis and understanding of how this proposal will benefit the many users of the Medical Center area. Even though the committee was not briefed on the details of the TIGER grant application and shared our objections with the BIC chair, discussion about overriding goals and objectives has been a consistent theme at the Coalition’s insistence at BRAC Implementation meetings. We want to see the progress continue and knowing the constraints we have with regard to time and money, achieving the goal of better access to public transit from the east side of Rockville Pike and enhanced pedestrian safety at Medical Center in a cost effective manner is tantamount.

Maryland is often touted as a winner in this BRAC round because of the net gains at Aberdeen and Fort Meade. But if the federal, state and local officials can’t coordinate and implement a comprehensive plan that addresses short term realities and long term goals here in Montgomery County, instead of winners, the losers will be the service members, local businesses and surrounding communities. Rather than divert attention away from the goal of making this BRAC work, we need to work toward realistic solutions that we can all support.

Ilaya Rome Hopkins is the Chair of the Coalition of Military Medical Center Neighbors and serves on the BRAC Implementation Committee representing her neighborhood association, East Bethesda Citizens Association. She is also a former candidate for the Planning Board.