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Vol. LX, No. 4
February 22, 2008

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NIH Makes Plans to Cope with Changes BRAC Will Bring

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For more than a year, NIH has been considering ways of coping with the increased volume of local traffic and other impacts projected to occur as the National Naval Medical Center expands—due to Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) legislation—to become Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

In January 2007, Dan Wheeland, director of NIH’s Office of Research Facilities Development and Operations, provided NIH input to a scoping study that initiated the Navy’s EIS (environmental impact statement) preparation effort. He recently gave a presentation to NIH’s facilities working group that concluded: NIH employees and patients will be adversely affected by the BRAC move; NIH’s ability to attract and retain a high-quality workforce will be diminished; and NIH needs to take external and internal measures to mitigate the impact of BRAC, both short- and long-term.


The new Walter Reed taking shape across the Pike from NIH anticipates about 3 million square feet of facility and parking lot construction, demolition and renovation; up to 2,500 additional staff; and almost 2,000 added outpatient appointments and other visitors per day by 2011. This is on top of a road system that already earns failing grades of E and F for congestion. “We’re already at the high end of the congestion scale even before the new traffic arrives,” said Dennis Coleman, director of NIH’s Office of Community Liaison (OCL). “According to the county’s annual Highway Mobility Report, 4 of the 10 worst intersections in the county are within a mile of NIH.”

ORFDO’s Wheeland says NIH is preparing for BRAC in three ways: “We are trying to encourage the Department of Defense to do what they can, especially in terms of their transportation demand management and improving ingress/egress of vehicles and pedestrians. We’re trying to get the state, county and Metro transportation folks to expedite the projects that would improve roads and mass transit. And we’ll try to do more here at NIH in terms of transportation demand management [TDM] and teleworking.”

NIH’s TDM guru is Tom Hayden, acting director of ORS’s Division of Amenities and Transportation Services. He says some 41 percent of NIH’ers (not including pedestrians, who are too hard to count) currently use alternative modes of transportation, and that NIH’s goal is to continue to increase that figure.

Starting this summer, at about the same time construction begins at Navy, ORS—with its director Dr. Alfred Johnson leading the charge—will launch a campaign to boost the number of employees who use car/vanpools, bicycles and Transhare (Metro bus and rail subsidies), Hayden reported. NIH currently spends between $500,000 and $600,000 per month on Transhare incentives, he said, and there’s no ceiling on how many can take advantage of the offer.

NIH is also encouraging some relatively inexpensive roadway improvements. The first priority is the intersection of South Drive and Rockville Pike, which most people know as the Medical Center Metro intersection. “That was designed in the late 1970s and is now outmoded,” Hayden said. “There are too many buses—we’ve got to widen that throat at South Drive.”

He said the opening of NIH’s new Gateway Center, just south of the Metro escalators, will take visitor traffic off of South Dr. The Center is expected to open later this year.

“We are studying every entrance to campus to determine if there are areas where we can increase queueing capacity,” Hayden said. “Where possible, we need to widen or add lanes to keep cars off the Pike.”

“Over 40 percent of the jobs in the county are located in North Bethesda. It’s a regional problem. We’re prepared to work with whomever we need to. We can’t solve the traffic problem alone. But even if we manage our traffic better, it’s not going to solve the problem.”—Ron Wilson, ORFDO

State and county authorities estimate that infrastructure improvements of at least $231 million are needed to mitigate BRAC transportation impact on Bethesda. Short term (3-5 year) projects total about $70 million, but thus far only $45 million has been committed for such improvements.

Not all of the new traffic is Navy or NIH-related, noted Ron Wilson, director of the Division of Facilities Planning, ORFDO. “You’ve got new condos going up in Bethesda, new schools opening, new development in Friendship Heights. Suburban Hospital is planning a $160 million expansion. Over 40 percent of the jobs in the county are located in North Bethesda. It’s a regional problem. We’re prepared to work with whomever we need to. We can’t solve the traffic problem alone. But even if we manage our traffic better, it’s not going to solve the problem.”

Wilson noted that NIH supports expansion of Metro’s Medical Center Station to include either above-ground or below-street access to the Navy side of the Pike. Heavy pedestrian traffic at this intersection only complicates the congestion problem.

NIH is also encouraging more employees to telework via computers from home, which reduces car trips to campus. “That’s another tool in the toolbox,” said Hayden.

He said it is likely that NIH will solicit transportation solutions from employees at some point, and may hold a town hall meeting on the topic. Sought are creative incentives to use alternatives to single-occupancy car trips, such as the preferential parking carpoolers get ’til 9:30 each morning in NIH lots. More employees might bike to work if more showers were available, Hayden added. “We will be working closely with our NIH Bicycle Commuter Club on ideas and suggestions on who we can partner with to promote increased participation. Additionally, and to the extent that people can, we will encourage walking to campus.”

The next BRAC milestone is April, when the final EIS is planned to be issued. A month after that, Navy will issue a Record of Decision (ROD) itemizing how it intends to address issues raised by the EIS. Construction is set to begin in June and conclude in fall 2010. New staff and patients will begin to ramp up between then and fall 2011, when the new Walter Reed is expected to be fully operational.

“NIH would like a chance to work with the Navy on solutions before the ROD phase,” said Wilson.

Already, NIH is involved with a welter of external bodies coping with BRAC. In addition to participating in the EIS process, NIH has a seat on the Montgomery County BRAC implementation committee and works with the county planning board and the Medical Center Metro transportation working group, which also has input from the county, Navy and Suburban. Further, NIH’s Office of Legislative Policy and Analysis is working to ensure that Congress is kept abreast of BRAC impacts on the area.

Internally, in addition to encouraging alternative modes of travel, more telework and increased use of alternative work schedules (AWS), which stagger arrival/exit times, NIH will continue to rely on remote parking lots and shuttling employees to campus, according to ORS. NIH is also encouraging new recruits to the Bethesda campus to find housing near work or near mass transit hubs.

OCL’s Coleman notes that NIH’s posture with respect to BRAC is not oppositional, but accommodative. A veteran of municipal government (he was once mayor of Half Moon Bay, Calif.), he predicts there will be a gap of several years between when BRAC impact begins and when mitigation takes place. “It’s all going to work out okay eventually, but there will likely be a bumpy transition period.” NIHRecord Icon

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