Search This Blog

Friday, October 31, 2008

cArmy Base: Fort Meade

Military bases dot the landscape all around the Capital region. This is a unique presence, as many cities in America are largely defined by the one or two military bases near their boundaries, cities like Fayetteville, NC; Pensacola, FL; Kileen, TX; Norfolk, VA; and even San Diego, CA. Washington, DC, however, is home to the entire Federal Government, so the fact of a few military bases is pocket change in comparison. among the more prominent is a WWI-era base halfway between DC and Baltimore called Fort George G. Meade.

Nestled at the northeast corner of the junction of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway and MD-32, Fort Meade is by far the largest single job center in the state of Maryland and, after Downtown and Tysons Corner, the third largest in the metro area, and this does not account for National Business Park, a huge complex of government contractor buildings right across the B-W Parkway. Fort Meade is home to tens of thousands of military personnel from all five branches, plus retirees. It houses several major Army units, including the Defense Information School, Defense Courier Service, and the US Army Field Band. The Environmental Protection Agency has a large facility, and let's not forget about the National Security Agency, which housed over 30,000 jobs according to James Bamford's 2000 book Body of Secrets. No doubt that number has increased in recent years. Additionally, 5,700 jobs are being relocated to Fort Meade in the Base Relocation and Closure.

The continued growth of the base is of great concern, considering the institutional problems within the defense department when it comes to planning policy. The Pentagon, for example, sits atop two lines of Metro, yet it still has the largest surface parking lot in Arlington County. Fort Meade's total surface parking rivals (if not overtakes) FedEx Field's. This is particularly alarming considering the surface parking's negative effects on storm water runoff into the adjacent Patuxent Research Refuge (to the point where the NSA has an entire section devoted to it on its website). But the base's planning priority? Two 18 hole golf courses to "maintain soldiers' quality of life".

Surely with all these jobs, thousands of residents, and an explosion of growth in the near future, there must be some kind of transit node on the base, right? Not really.

The base is served by a single bus, a 24-seater that runs only twice in the morning and twice in the evening and serves only portions of the city of Laurel to the NSA's main gate. Various agencies on the base offer shuttles that run a few times a day from the Odenton and Savage MARC stations, which are two and five miles from the NSA main gate, respectively, and each three miles from the nearest regular base gate. It is literally illegal to walk any of those routes, as they are largely along MD-32, a freeway of interstate standards. Even servicemen living on base are likely to commute by car, as the base is so spread out that it is a long walk from any of the housing to any of the jobs on post, including almost all of the shopping and recreation amenities.

The first thing I did when I got stationed at Fort Meade? Buy a car. Sure, I wanted a car to go home and visit my family regularly. But I would not have been able to attend my morning physical training without a car. And this was when I lived in the battalion barracks!

So what do you care about a base 20 miles outside of DC?

Consider that a traffic nightmare reaching the base would have a major impact on transportation between Baltimore and Washington. The economic impacts of the resulting disconnect between the two cities could be drastic. Ryan Avent considered the positive impacts that a high speed rail between DC and Baltimore would provide. clogging the highways between the two cities would likely have the opposite effect.

I have often considered Fort Meade an ideal place for the Baltimore and Washington rail systems to meet. I know many detractors consider it wasteful to run the system all the way out to Fort Meade. But smaller jobs centers in Chantilly and Reston, similarly unserved by transit currently will be getting Silver Line service within a decade. And transportation implications in northwestern Fairfax County do not affect passage between two major cities. Other bases involved in the BRAC, such as Andrews AFB, Bolling AFB, Fort Belvoir, and Bethesda Naval Medical Center, have all had plenty of proposals thrown around to improve transit access to the bases (in some cases, like Bolling and Bethesda Naval, increasing existing transit efficiency). Fort Meade has not, despite the unique opportunity of potentially being able to serve the base by two major cities' transit systems. To alleviate traffic at enormous (50,000+) job centers, connector shuttles from commuter rails (i.e. a necessary modal shift) just won't do the trick. Perhaps for a Metro station, the NSA could donate some of it's 900+ acres of parking.

But today, long before ground will ever be broken on any kind of rail connections, wouldn't it at LEAST be appropriate for Fort Meade to receive some sort of express bus service from Greenbelt Metro? Perhaps more regular service from towns like Columbia, Laurel, Odenton and Annapolis? A bus system for the base itself so that a young GI doesn't have to waste his first few paychecks on a new car?

It blows my mind that 18 year old privates are not allowed to drink alcohol, but they are expected to be mature enough to finance, purchase, insure, and properly operate their own heavy machinery, which they may legally store on base free of charge. Shame on Army bases across the country, but particularly Fort Meade, which has the resources nearby to outgrow ridiculous and deleterious planning policies. For a service known for moving on foot, the Army's bases certainly don't embrace any mode of transportation beyond the car.

No comments: