Winners in military construction bill hope to stave off base closures

The $9.3 billion, fiscal 2004 military construction spending bill President Bush recently signed into law promises more than improvements in readiness, housing and health care for U.S. troops and their families. For dozens of communities across the country, the bill represents a multimillion-dollar investment in the future of their local military facilities, possibly making them less vulnerable to the Pentagon's next round of base closing decisions in fiscal 2005.

In the scramble for military construction funds a year before the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure Commission is expected to cut as much as 25 percent of excess domestic base infrastructure, facilities in Alaska, Hawaii and Texas fared exceptionally well, while some in Alabama, California and Georgia did not.

An analysis by CongressDaily of funding allocations in the military construction bill shows bases with high-priority missions -- for example, Hawaii's Schofield Barracks, home of one of the Army's new Stryker brigades -- among those receiving the most federal funds. Rapid reaction forces at Fort Drum, N.Y., home of the Army's 10th Mountain Division, and Fort Bragg, N.C., headquarters of the 82nd Airborne Division and XVIII Airborne Corps, were among the big winners.

In addition, Virginia's sprawling Norfolk Naval Base and the Navy's sole recruit boot camp at Great Lakes Naval Training Center, north of Chicago, ranked high on the allocation list.

Other facilities, such as Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina and the Blount Island Marine Corps maritime prepositioning facility in Florida, grabbed a sizable amount of money, thanks to well-organized lobbying efforts by groups seeking to protect them from the 2005 closing round, the analysis shows. (For a complete database ranking allocations of fiscal 2004 construction funds by facility, click here.) Lawmakers, prodded by local officials and lobbyists retained by community groups, added millions to the construction bill in hopes of shielding the bases from the Pentagon's ax. But the Defense Department insisted such efforts to protect them would not work.

"All installations are going to be judged equally," said Raymond DuBois, the Pentagon's former deputy undersecretary for installations and environment, last December. "You must approach this in a comprehensive and objective fashion. All installations are on the table."

Maybe not, said Chris Hellman, director of the Project on Military Spending Oversight, a Washington-based watchdog group.

"You can't BRAC-proof a base, even with new construction ... but it doesn't hurt," Hellman said. "And just because there is a BRAC round looming, that doesn't mean you put construction projects on hold, either."

The Blount Island facility, for example, garnered a hefty $115.7 million in 2004 funds for land acquisition. Part of the funds will allow the Navy to buy 137 acres of undeveloped property and a restrictive-use easement on another 133 acres of developed land.

The deal between the Navy and the Jacksonville Port Authority, negotiated with support from Florida Democratic Sens. Bill Nelson and Bob Graham, along with Reps. Ander Crenshaw, R-Fla., and Corrine Brown, D-Fla., could help ensure the Marine Corps' long-term use of Blount Island.

These funds, along with $30 million in congressional add-ons to the bill, are a likely boon to Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's recently formed task force to help save the state's 21 military installations and three unified commands. During the past two BRAC rounds, Florida lost its Cecil Field Naval Air Station, the largest military installation in the Jacksonville area.

A smaller, but no less important, amount of money -- $26.3 million -- is earmarked in the bill for Edwards Air Force Base in California, for the first phase of a complex for the military's next-generation, joint-strike fighter and a House add-on of a new base operations facility. A coalition of local governments and businesses near the base traveled to Washington last spring to lobby for help in protecting Edwards from the 2005 BRAC.

Fort Dix, the venerable New Jersey Army base that has barely survived past closure rounds, received a House add-on of $6.4 million for construction of an urban assault course and a major conference center. The base lately has served as a major processing facility for reserve forces bound for Iraq and Afghanistan.

Funds to improve mission-specific infrastructure and upgrade base housing are the most helpful, Hellman said. The Pentagon has pledged to solve the military's substandard housing woes, giving installations with new or improved living quarters a leg up. Other bases could benefit from new construction allowing them to take on old missions from closed facilities, he said.

"Unlike rounds in the 1990s, we're not going to see missions going away," Hellman said. "We'll see more consolidation; and if they close a facility, they'll probably move it to a new one, so any new construction is going to be positive in that regard."

Shaw Air Force Base, for example, received an $8.5 million congressional add-on to pay for a deployment-processing center. Shaw was a potential candidate for the ax during the 1995 BRAC round, but it is home to the 20th Fighter Wing with three F-16 fighter squadrons. Airmen regularly deploy from this medium-sized base to others around the world, including those in the Persian Gulf.

Local governments near Shaw hope the passage of land-use ordinances to limit encroachment also will protect the base from shutdown. While the Air Force is now planning to reduce its overall number of fighter squadrons, an overseas fighter wing could be moved to Shaw, further protecting it from the budget ax.

But Hellman said the best way for a local community to shelter a base from the next BRAC round is through planning.

"The people that intrigue me are the ones that are looking at what the community can do to make the base a better match," he said. "They can't affect what goes on inside the base, but they may be improving highway access to bases for, say, mobility centers; and that's going to be something that the military is going to look at."

For example, the state of Texas authorized $250 million in bonds in September for communities to do just that type of work, "which makes a lot more sense than hiring a lobbyist," Hellman said.

Mississippi is also taking this approach. Three of the state's installations -- Columbus and Keesler Air Force bases and the naval reserve facility at Pascagoula -- won $16.7 million in congressional add-ons to the administration's $26.3 million Military Construction request for that state.

While Democratic Rep. Gene Taylor has carefully overseen Mississippi from Washington, the state is working locally to protect its military assets, recently establishing authority for local communities to borrow up to $300 million annually for base-related improvements.

Tomorrow: A Look At The Losers.

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