Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Bush launches Walter Reed campus

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J. Adam Fenster⁄The Gazette
President George W. Bush chats with Marine Capt. Ray Baronie during the groundbreaking ceremony for the new Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda on Thursday. (From left) Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England, Army Sgt. John Borders, Bush, Baronie, and Maryland Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown helped kick off construction of the $970 million complex.
Construction officially began on a consolidated Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda on Thursday with a groundbreaking ceremony attended by President George W. Bush.

Bush, along with more than 60 wounded warriors from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington, D.C., and the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, welcomed the beginning of a new era along Rockville Pike.

‘‘We look forward to the day when the joy of recovery will echo through the halls of this new facility,” Bush said.

The Navy Med campus currently has about 8,000 employees and 1,300 daily visitors. The consolidation of Walter Reed and Navy Med under the military’s Base Realignment and Closure program will add at least 2,200 employees and 1,860 daily visitors to the Bethesda campus, according to Department of Defense estimates.

The new facility will house 345 beds, up from 205.

According to federal law, the transition to the combined facility must be complete by September 2011.

The project is currently estimated to cost $970 million.

While the groundbreaking represents a new era in Bethesda’s history, it also comes with questions about traffic.

U.S. Rep. Christopher Van Hollen Jr. (D-Dist. 8) of Kensington said traffic mitigation in and around the new center is a concern that has yet to be addressed by federal funding.

‘‘It’s nice to see real progress, but we still have an obligation to the people who live around here,” he said Thursday after the ceremony.

Van Hollen said one major hurdle has been cleared in securing funds requested by the Department of Navy for traffic improvements. On June 24, the U.S. House Appropriations Committee approved the fiscal year 2009 Military Construction-Veterans Affairs appropriations bill, which includes support for projects proposed by Navy Med officials.

The money would be used to help fund additional turn lanes on Rockville Pike to mitigate the impact of vehicles entering the base as well as a $20 million tunnel under the busy road for commuters walking between the military hospital and the Medical Center Metrorail station.

The Department of Defense is currently reviewing the request, according to Montgomery County’s BRAC Coordinator Phil Alperson, but a decision still isn’t expected for a few more months.

About $45 million is allocated from state funds to pay for major intersection improvements in the vicinity of the hospital, according to Montgomery County staff.

And while the appropriations bill still has a way to go before it is approved, other area officials say the money included in it is important.

‘‘For the community it’s a mixed blessing right now,” said County Councilman Roger Berliner (D-Dist. 1) of Potomac. ‘‘But if we can secure the federal funds for traffic, it will be a pure benefit.”

Berliner joked after the groundbreaking ceremony that President Bush understood the traffic issues that already clog Rockville Pike, electing to arrive at the 10 a.m. ceremony by helicopter instead of motorcade.