For BRAC, road congestion, education issues remain -- Gazette.Net







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While American flags have been transferred and the shuffle of military personnel among bases in Maryland and surrounding states technically was completed Thursday under the federal BRAC program, Harford County still lacks the accompanying infrastructure and educational resources it needs, its county executive said.

The county has gained nearly 20,000 jobs from Base Realignment and Closure.

The BRAC initiative, which began in 2005 under the Department of Defense as a means of consolidating the country’s military installations, is creating congestion around Harford County’s Aberdeen Proving Ground and generating a significant demand for colleges and universities that can offer advanced degrees, Harford County Executive David R. Craig (R) said.

“That’s kind of like the bride and groom walking up the aisle saying they just got married,” Craig said of the Sept. 15 deadline to complete BRAC personnel and equipment transfers. “The wedding is over, but the marriage is just getting started.”

The transfer of military personnel and defense contractors to Aberdeen, which included 5,200 positions from Fort Monmouth in Oceanport, N.J., has meant that Harford County has suffered less than other places in the national housing market crash and subsequent recession, Craig said. But that also has meant more traffic on roads for which the state lacks funding to upgrade.

The county’s 2012 capital budget calls for $8.19 million in road improvements and another $4.9 million in resurfacing projects, paid for with local funds.

“Most people look at it as a quality-of-life issue, you can’t get around,” Craig said. “It’s not just the people coming off post, it’s everybody. It makes some people make a decision about where they live.”

While Harford County has made several intersection improvements to accommodate BRAC, mass transit and other upgrades are still a ways off, experts say.

Maryland’s depleted Transportation Trust Fund, the pot of money used to pay for local road projects, has languished in recent years as lawmakers directed the funds to other programs, and it remains to be seen whether supporters of a gas tax increase can muster enough momentum next year to rebuild the fund. An attempt to increase the state’s 23.5 cents-per-gallon tax by 10 cents died during the 2011 General Assembly session.

“One (hurdle) is the challenge of infrastructure, keeping pace with the traffic demands generated by the new jobs,” said J. Michael Hayes, director of military and federal affairs for the state’s Department of Business and Economic Development. “And that in the best of times is a challenge.”

Hayes also points to road improvements that are still incomplete under a similar base realignment at Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Southern Maryland in the 1990s.

Van-pooling, rapid bus transit and telecommuting centers could help stem traffic problems in Harford County and other areas impacted by BRAC, which is projected to bring 500,000 new households to the state by 2030, including Fort George G. Meade in Anne Arundel County and the new Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Hayes said.

In Howard County, where BRAC is responsible for 5,800 jobs, or a third of the growth expected at nearby Fort Meade over the next 10 years, officials are focusing on getting more people into fewer vehicles, said Col. Kent Menser, co-coordinator of the Fort Meade Regional Growth Management Committee.

A privatized bus system hopefully will carry the majority of commuters to and from the base, Menser said.

“It’s going to take a lengthy period to change that culture of getting one person in one car to look at more efficient means,” said Menser, who also is the executive director of Howard County’s BRAC office. “We’ve got an initial bus system, and so we understand that for people who take buses, they’re going to have to offer more than riding in a car.”

In Bethesda, where injured veterans were transferred from the original Walter Reed center in Washington, D.C., BRAC-related traffic is clogging an already-congested area.

Before the U.S. Senate in April, Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) testified that more federal money must be released for BRAC transportation projects. He cited the $1 billion shortfall in funding for projects on state roads, even though many of those projects are not BRAC-related.

The U.S. government subsequently appropriated $300 million toward transportation projects in BRAC-affected communities, including Bethesda. But Leggett said in June that he is still concerned about the short term and has told residents that they face a challenge, particularly from the increase in visitors to the new Walter Reed.

It is unclear when the state and federal governments would be able to commit money to such transportation projects.

Congress must decide by the end of the month if it will reauthorize its current transportation funding levels and whether to continue an 18.4 cents-per-gallon gas tax.

Should lawmakers make changes to funding or tax levels, Maryland might have to eliminate or rethink certain transportation programs, a panel of experts told state legislators last week.

While BRAC’s transportation issues have created headaches for planners and lawmakers, the program also has been a catalyst for increased focus on science and math education, Hayes said.

Craig, however, said that Harford County, which has no four-year colleges or universities, is not equipped to meet the needs of employees coming to work for defense contractors who will be in need of additional work-force training as well as master’s and doctorate degree programs.

Craig is critical of state universities and colleges, which have not set up satellite campuses in his county.

“Our universities are not working collaboratively or cooperatively on this,” he said. “They’re working on this competitively.”

However, as with transportation dollars, the University System of Maryland lacks the funds to build a new campus that could house programs from multiple colleges, said Michael A. Parker, chairman of the task force to study the creation of a regional higher education center in northeastern Maryland.

While USM has setups to handle programs from multiple colleges in Rockville and Hagerstown, adding another campus in Harford County currently is financially impossible, Parker said.

Parker’s task force, created by legislation sponsored by Del. David D. Rudolph (D-Dist. 34B) of Rising Sun earlier this year, is not set to make recommendations on how to improve higher education in the northeast part of the state until December.

“We have certainly not gotten to the point of drafting recommendations yet,” Parker said. “So it’s very much a work in progress and within certain bounds (of) the fiscal realities of the state.”

A new USM campus is unlikely in the near future, he said. Courses likely will have to be offered in existing space at Harford Community College and the HEAT Center, a multipurpose education and conference facility in Aberdeen. Courses potentially could be offered at Aberdeen Proving Ground, if a clearance system for students not affiliated with the post can be worked out, Parker said.

“BRAC really added an additional complexity at the master’s and doctoral level,” Parker said. “It exacerbated a problem that existed.”