The Defense Department's BRAC 133 facility sits almost complete along I-395 in Northern Virginia. (Army Corps of Engineers)
After five years of planning and a $1 billion construction project, a gleaming new Defense Department facility sits atop a hill alongside I-395. The hulking 1.4 million-square-foot landmark will be the new headquarters of the military's Washington operations.
By next September, the department must relocate 6,400 civilian, military and contractor personnel to the facility — equivalent to more than a quarter of the Pentagon's staff — in a move driven by the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure Commission.
Only problem is, the plan won't work, according to many experts. There is no agreed-upon way for that many people to get to the building, no place to put all their cars, no nearby Metro or rail station.
Virtually all studies done so far show that surrounding roads — even after planned expansions are completed — cannot accommodate the traffic expected to stream in and out of the Mark Center facility each day. One approach proposed by the Army, which leads the project, would construct a large ramp linking the highway and the building — but it would affect a nearby nature reserve, which the local community rejects.
With no obvious solutions in sight, a battle has erupted on Capitol Hill and the fate of the building lies in limbo, even as the Army puts finishing touches on the facility and pays for construction projects to expand nearby roads and intersections.
"A building of this size — with no access to [Washington's mass transit system] Metro — should never have been considered at this location," said Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., who represents the district where the building — and anticipated traffic catastrophe — is located. "With one year until 6,400 people are slated to begin commuting to the Mark Center, we need to act quickly to minimize the negative impact for Northern Virginia's roads, businesses and neighborhoods."
Moran authored a provision in the House-passed 2011 Defense authorization bill that would limit parking spaces at the new facility to 1,000 — effectively choking plans to fully open the building — until a viable transportation plan is hatched that all parties can agree on. Affected employees would remain at their current leased offices throughout Northern Virginia until then. Virginia's two Democratic senators — Jim Webb and John Warner — offered similar amendments to the Senate's version of the bill, but they have yet to be voted on.
"The transportation and commuting challenges posed by the Army's new development at Alexandria's Mark Center won't be resolved by simply encouraging military and civilian employees to ride-share, carpool or telecommute," Warner said in a news release.
The Obama administration strongly opposes the Moran amendment. "These restrictions are unnecessary and set an undesirable precedent on addressing challenging BRAC execution issues," an Obama administration statement said.
How it came to this
Recommendation 133 of the 2005 BRAC directed the Defense Department to consolidate its leased offices in Northern Virginia at nearby Fort Belvoir. But in 2007, the Army decided Fort Belvoir could not handle the additional population and it opted to explore alternative sites for 6,400 personnel.
The Army considered an available General Services Administration warehouse in nearby Springfield, Va., but decided against it since 8,500 employees from the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency were moving to another new facility nearby and it didn't want to add to the traffic congestion in the area.
When it chose the Mark Center location, which was welcomed by the city of Alexandria, the Army planned to build a ramp directly from I-395 to the facility, which would have helped mitigate some of the traffic problems. But the Army dropped the plan after local residents strongly objected to the ramp's proximity to a nature reserve.
Officially, the Army claims it will make the project work by reducing employee commuting traffic and adding more lanes to surrounding local roads. To reduce traffic, it will encourage employees to use mass transit, bikes, carpooling and a new shuttle bus system that connects to area train stations.
In August, Moran fired off a sharply worded letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, saying the Army's transportation plan would result in "failing levels" of traffic on I-395 and other nearby roads.
"The DoD relocation to the Mark Center will undoubtedly delay tens of thousands of commuters to Washington in the morning and a comparable number returning home on I-395 in the evening," he said. He asked Gates to personally ensure the Army develops a better transportation plan.
In addition, a Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) study found the Army's plans will lead to significantly more congestion. VDOT also developed several alternative ramp designs but the department encountered opposition from local residents for environmental reasons or from Alexandria for cost or traffic-flow reasons. In every scenario VDOT outlined, residents and commuters would still see a sharp increase in traffic and congestion around the center.
After developing several options for accommodating more traffic — and seeing all of them shot down — the state of Virginia threw up its hands. In April, Virginia Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton declared VDOT had done as much as it could, spending more than $700,000. VDOT was open to further study, he said, but would need more funding to examine other alternatives.
Nevertheless, last month the National Capitol Planning Commission — a federal panel that must approve all large federal construction projects — approved the Army's current transportation, to no one's apparent satisfaction.