Traffic concerns led Bethesda residents to criticize a major expansion proposed at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center at a public hearing Oct. 4.
“We are already living a nightmare,” said Andrés Bonanno, who lives adjacent to Walter Reed.
On Sept. 14, the U.S. Navy released a draft environmental impact statement, or EIS, that analyzes the effects of the multi-year expansion project. The plan would expand the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences and enhance medical facilities on campus, but add no more than 17 seconds onto a commute through major intersections near the base, Capt. Fritz Kass, commanding officer for Naval Support Activity Bethesda, previously said.
Construction would occur between 2013 and 2018.
“There’s no question some of our neighbors have been effected by BRAC construction. Some of the angst came out today,” Kass said after the presentation, adding that none of the comments were unreasonable.
Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C., and the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, merged September 2011 into the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, as part of the 2005 federal Base Realignment and Closure Act, which called for closing and consolidating hundreds of military facilities nationwide.
The merger brought 2,500 additional employees to the campus — for a total of about 10,500 — and doubled the number of annual visits to 1 million.
Morning rush hour already causes 15-20 minute delays on Pooks Hill Road, said Helma Goldmark, a member of the board of directors for The Promenade, an apartment complex on Pooks Hill Road north of Linden Avenue. She said traffic sometimes backs up from Rockville Pike to the top of Pooks Hill Road.
Bonanno said he thinks traffic surrounding the base will increase more than the maximum of 17 seconds predicted by the EIS. A researcher at the National Institutes of Health, he said he is concerned that the traffic model used in the EIS does not accurately depict current delays.
“It sounds to me as a scientist that you are fooling around with the modeling,” he said.
He suggested satellite parking with a shuttle as an alternative to additional on-site parking.
The EIS traffic study evaluated the effect of all construction alternatives, including no new construction, at 17 intersections at Rockville Pike, Cedar Lane and Jones Bridge Road. It also took into account increased traffic from other public and private developments, including the National Institutes of Health.
Vehicle delay at an intersection is measured by level of service grades A through F. Although the level of service at some intersections would decrease, none would shift to a failing level of service, according to the EIS.
The traffic study also determined BRAC has had less of an effect than was predicted in 2008. Fewer cars are on the road between 5:30 to 9 a.m. and 3 to 6:30 p.m. than was predicted in 2008, according to the study that used data collected in October 2011. Maria Morasso, a Bethesda resident who lives near Walter Reed, questioned why the EIS seeks to maintain, not improve traffic surrounding the base.
“I don’t know how you can present to me a project that has an E or an F and say, ‘This is how we are going to maintain it,’” she said.
She also criticized the timing of the 1 p.m. Oct. 4 meeting on a weekday, and said it was poorly publicized.
The meeting was advertized in three newspapers, including The Washington Post and The Gazette, with the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Regional Services center, and letters were sent to the local homeowners associations, Kass said.
“We feel we have made a very good faith effort to notify the community,” he said.
Edward Reilly Jr. of Bethesda said he can understand concerns about traffic, but Walter Reed staff need a place to park.
“The bottom line is, we have to take care of our kids who have served our country,” Reilly said. “Traffic has increased. It’s going to get worse. You can’t stop progress.”
Kass said the proposed construction would not expand the mission of Walter Reed, it would update cramped facilities and allow staff to better do their job. He said the university has not had a major renovation since it was established approximately 40 years ago, and said the base is not meeting a Congressional mandate to provide world class medical facilities.
The campus expansion would see construction of a new education and research building and as many as 400 new parking spaces in an above-ground garage. It also would modernize space in three university buildings.
As part of the medical facilities development, five buildings would be demolished, with a new building constructed in their footprint. Temporary medical facilities on campus would ensure patient services would not be interrupted. Construction would include a five-story medical facilities building and improved access for injured veterans.
Also proposed is a 500-space, underground parking garage for patients and visitors. Alternatives include three additional sites on campus.
A final decision on the construction plans will be made by the Secretary of the Navy, or their designee, after releasing a final environmental impact statement, according to the EIS report.
That decision is expected in April, depending on a variety of factors, including the number of comments received, Joe Macri, a spokesman for Naval Support Activity Bethesda, previously said.
A second public hearing on the EIS is scheduled from 5 to 9 p.m. Oct. 11 at the Pooks Hill Marriott, 5151 Pooks Hill Road, Bethesda.
Comments on the draft EIS must be submitted or postmarked by Oct. 29 to email@example.com or Joseph Macri NSA Bethesda Public Affairs Office 890-1 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda, MD 20889.