Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2007

Montgomery officials appeal for BRAC bucks

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County officials last week pleaded for help from the state in planning for the massive expansion at the National Naval Medical Center, saying they fear it is getting short shrift to even larger military projects in Maryland.

The expected $800 million expansion of the Bethesda hospital will suffocate traffic and drive down the county’s quality of life if the state doesn’t widen roads, improve public transportation and increase the amount of moderately priced housing nearby, they said.

The county is requesting at total of $184.8 million from the state for projects to improve transportation infrastructure surrounding Navy Med.

‘‘We need your assistance in dealing with this nightmare,” County Councilman Roger Berliner (D-Dist. 1) of Potomac told members of Gov. Martin O’Malley’s sub-cabinet for base realignment.

The comments came at a meeting of the sub-cabinet at the University of Maryland, Shady Grove. The group has traveled the state in recent months as state officials prioritize spending needs for the 2005 federal base realignment and closure plan, which could lead to 45,000-60,000 new jobs statewide.

Navy Med is expected to increase its staff from about 4,500 to 5,900 as it merges with the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, which made national headlines last year for its poor conditions. The Bethesda hospital would be re-named the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

Patrick L. O’Neil, who serves on the county’s BRAC Committee as a representative of the Greater Bethesda-Chevy Chase Chamber of Commerce, said the group has been hamstrung by the Department of Defense delaying its release of an environmental impact study.

‘‘The message we have been getting so far is not encouraging,” he said. ‘‘It puts us behind in terms of seeking the funding we need.”

County Executive Isiah Leggett called the delay ‘‘unfortunate,” but said officials will still have a chance to respond to the Environmental Impact Statement so long as it is released by December. It was initially scheduled for release in June, officials said.

County officials also listed priorities they said would make the expansion of the hospital work for businesses and residents in the surrounding community. They include:

*Improving pedestrian and bicycle safety by constructing larger sidewalks on heavily traveled streets, such as Cedar Lane, Jones Bridge Road and Old Georgetown Road;

*Building either a new entrance at the Medical Center Metro Station or a pedestrian bridge to get pedestrians across Old Georgetown Road, one of the county’s busiest;

*Considering whether a separate ramp can be built from Interstate 495 to the hospital campus, alleviating traffic;

*Developing ‘‘park and ride” lots with shuttle service to the hospital.

John D. Porcari, Maryland secretary of transportation, said the state is researching long- and short-term options for base realignment-related transportation projects and is prioritizing.

No state funding has yet been committed to BRAC projects anywhere in the state.

‘‘It’s that mix of high and low (priorities) over a long-term process that starts to get the solutions we need,” Porcari said.

In a 20-minute presentation, he said improving the MARC train service and focusing on transit-oriented development are top priorities in planning for the influx of workers. Other plans, such as Metro’s long-sought Purple Line connecting Bethesda and Silver Spring, may take more time.

‘‘These plans will be adjusted as we assess reality on the ground over time,” he said.