Road War

How traffic considerations forced the Army to shift its plans to consolidate operations in Northern Virginia.

How traffic considerations forced the Army to shift its plans to consolidate operations in Northern Virginia.

When Richard Murphy studied the plans to move some 19,000 Washington-area Defense Department workers to locations in and around Fort Belvoir, Va., as mandated by the Base Realignment and Closure Commission in 2005, he saw one thing: a looming traffic nightmare.

The shift of those employees, along with 7,000 contractors, would boost the Fort Belvoir workforce from 21,500 to 47,500 by 2011.

Those employees would have ended up at locations not served by either the Washington Metro rail system or the Virginia Railway Express commuter train service. Many would be dumped onto roads ill-equipped to handle a massive increase in traffic, says Murphy, a retired Army helicopter pilot who now heads up planning efforts for the deputy assistant secretary of the Army for installations and housing.

Murphy, who has experience in basing issues and their effects on local communities in the western United States, says traffic studies of the expansion at Fort Belvoir showed one-way commuting times of as long as four hours. "Essentially, people would come into the office, have a cup of coffee and get ready to go home," Murphy says.

In the face of that daunting scenario, the Army has scrambled to modify its plans to ease effects on local traffic. Now it's up to the employees affected by the transfer to decide whether to make the move with their agencies. And their choices will depend in part on whether the organizations being shifted around can come up with an attractive package of policies to alleviate commuting woes and implement flexible work arrangements.

Changing the Plan

The traffic snarl resulting from the initial Fort Belvoir plan would have been compounded by the fact that some employees would have to make trips to and from the Pentagon during the day-particularly the 6,400 employees at Defense's Washington Headquarters Services, which provides administrative support to organizations in the Pentagon. They were originally slated to move to the Fort Belvoir Engineer Proving Ground, a mile northwest of the main post.

The original BRAC plan also called for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) and its 8,500 employees to move to a new building on the Engineer Proving Ground. But the Army realized that putting almost 15,000 workers on that site would overwhelm area roads, especially the Fairfax County Parkway, a key connection to Interstate 95 and the main post at Fort Belvoir.

A provision in the BRAC law allowed the Army to seek commercial sites farther away from Fort Belvoir. So in September 2007, officials started to look for alternative locations for the Washington Headquarters Services, eventually narrowing their choices to three potential sites:

  • A General Services Administration warehouse in Springfield, Va., located a quarter mile from the Washington Metro rail system's Franconia-Springfield stop and also a VRE station.
  • The Victory Center development in Alexandria, Va., within walking distance of the Van Dorn Metro station and one Metro stop away from a VRE station.
  • The Mark Center development in Alexandria, five miles from the Pentagon, but lacking the convenient Metro and commuter rail access of the other two sites.

Fairfax County leaders pushed the Army to choose the GSA site to mitigate traffic impact on the county. In a Sept. 12 letter to Army Secretary Preston "Pete" Green, Gerry Connolly, chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, said the GSA site would provide "the most transportation alternatives and the best access to rapid transit" of any of the three locations.

Mark Canale, Fairfax County's BRAC coordinator, said in an interview that he was concerned that lack of Metro and rail access at the Mark Center site could force 40 percent of the 6,400 Washington Headquarters Services employees off public transit and onto roads in the county.

Nevertheless, on Sept. 29 the Army announced it had chosen the Mark Center option, saying WHS personnel would be moved to two high-rise buildings to be built by Duke Realty Corp. of Indianapolis on 16 acres of land at the site. James Turkel, an Army Corps of Engineers program manager who led the site evaluation team, says the Mark Center site "minimizes to the greatest extent practicable disruption of current commuting needs and mission coordination requirements of the workers."

Tom Fahrney, the Virginia Department of Transportation's BRAC coordinator, says he's relieved that under the revised plan, only NGA would end up at the Fort Belvoir Engineer Proving Ground. Planned road improvements, including the extension of the Fairfax County Parkway, he says, can accommodate that agency's 8,500 employees.

The Army, Murphy says, "did the right thing" by finding a home for the Washington Headquarters Services away from Fort Belvoir. He says the GSA site was impractical, because it would not have been ready until 2014 due to the need to move out existing tenants and build a new facility. While neither the Army nor Duke Realty will disclose the cost of the new building at the Mark Center, sources familiar with the project say doing the right thing will entail a nearly $1 billion bill for the Army. That's more than 20 percent of the $17 billion in construction costs allocated for more than 100 other Army BRAC projects nationwide.

Fahrney says he still has concerns about the traffic impact of the Mark Center decision. As of late October, he says, the Army had yet to produce a transportation mitigation plan. But Murphy says the traffic impact of shifting Washington Headquarters Services to the Mark Center site would be minimal. He notes that the site is closer to the Pentagon than either the GSA warehouse or Victory Center sites.

Peter Scholz, senior vice president of Washington operations for Duke Realty, says the number of employees slated to move to Mark Center will be less than the City of Alexandria approved for commercial development on the site under a 2004 plan.

Duke Realty will develop a transit center with covered commuter bus bays on the site. The King Street Metro station is only 10 minutes away by bus, Scholz notes. The transit center also will serve as a base for shuttles to the Pentagon, a 10-minute trip, and Fort Belvoir, 15 to 20 minutes away. In addition, Scholz says Duke Realty will spend $8 million on road improvements in the immediate vicinity of Mark Center.

Where You Sit

Now that the Army has finalized its plans, federal employees affected by the consolidation have decisions of their own to make. And those choices tend to come down to the same factors that dominate real estate transactions-location, location, location.

Yvonne, an NGA employee who declined to give her last name for security reasons, lives in Woodbridge, Va., and can hardly wait for the agency to move to the Engineer Proving Ground. Her current commute to an agency building in Bethesda, Md., averages about an hour each way. On really bad days-those marred by traffic accidents or bad weather-it can take three hours to travel the 28 miles from home to work. When the agency moves, Yvonne says, her commute should be cut to about 20 minutes.

Lee Schroeder, a nautical cartographer at NGA who lives in Rockville, Md., is in the opposite situation. Now he has a 20-minute drive to work. But when the agency moves to the Engineer Proving Ground, Schroeder faces a grueling commute that he estimates at up to an hour and 45 minutes each way.

Besides the extra time, he is concerned about what will happen if the price of gas spikes like it did last summer-and stays high. Schroeder, who has lived in the same place for 20 years, has started to explore other employment options.

Mark Ricciardi, a program manager with the Network Service Center for the Army's Program Office for Enterprise Information Systems, has decided to move from Fort Monmouth, N.J., to Fort Belvoir as part of the BRAC-driven consolidation of his organization's activities.

"No one likes to move, and given my preference, I would stay at Fort Monmouth," says Ricciardi. But he likes his job and his agency, which he calls a "great organization with good people." He views the move as a way to change his lifestyle.

A single father with two children who both will be in college by the time he makes the move, Ricciardi looks forward to living in Washington or a close-in suburb, where he will have ready access to cultural activities in the region. He intends to commute by public transit and has no desire to live in an outer suburb, where he would have to spend hours traveling by car. Hotels and Home Work

Agencies involved in the vast shift of Defense Department personnel in the greater Washington area know that retention of intellectual capital is a critically important part of the process. One way to approach that issue is to expand the use of telework arrangements. But in the defense context, that raises some tricky issues.

Laura Snow, director of the Human Development Directorate at NGA, says the fact that much of the agency's work is classified poses a challenge. Employees who handle classified information must work on classified networks in a secure facility.

One solution to that problem is set up telecommuting "hotels" at various locations. These work spaces, officially known as sensitive compartmented information facilities, are protected with sound baffles and 8-inch-thick concrete walls. But they're in short supply in the greater Washington area and carry "outrageous" price tags, says Jack Penkoske, director of manpower, personnel and security at the Defense Information Systems Agency. Penkoske is in charge of moving DISA and its more than 4,000 personnel from locations in Northern Virginia to Fort Meade, Md., as part of the BRAC process.

Snow says she and Penkoske have kicked off a pilot program to do an end run on high-priced real estate. DISA employees who live in the northwestern suburbs of Virginia will soon be able to telework from an NGA facility in Reston, Va., while NGA employees who live in Maryland will be able to work from a DISA facility at Fort Meade.

DISA kicked off a telework project three years ago, and Penkoske says 45 percent of the agency's employees nationwide now work three days a week from their homes. To perform unclassified work, all that a DISA employee needs is an agency computer equipped with a common access card to log in to Defense systems, a virtual private network connection and broadband Internet access. The agency picks up half the cost of the broadband service.

Penkoske says productivity for remote workers equals or exceeds their productivity in the office. Many employees can do their jobs just as easily at home, he says, noting that his agency's civilian payroll operation is managed by two teleworkers.

DISA also has adopted a flexible work schedule, allowing employees to work nine days out of 10 during a two-week period. The agency also plans to field a fleet of shuttle buses to link commuting centers in Northern Virginia with Fort Meade. Penkoske says he would like to deploy a fleet of shuttle buses equipped with Wi-Fi Internet access, so employees can be online as they travel.

Easing the Shift

Penkoske says DISA holds frequent town hall meetings to handle employee questions about its move. As a result of the telework arrangement, shuttle bus plans, flexible work schedules and other factors, he says, the number of workers who have taken a "hell no, I won't go" approach to the move has dropped from 52 percent to 20 percent during the past year. The number willing to make the move went up from 20 percent to 40 percent in the same period.

Mike Rodrigue, director of the management office for NGA's new facility, known as New Campus East, says about two-thirds of the agency's employees already have committed to the move. He said NGA is working to ease the pain of commuting by implementing a shuttle bus fleet, flexible work schedules like those at DISA and stocking the new $1.4 billion campus with employee amenities. Those include a fitness facility, food court, day care center and the agency's college, which will make it convenient for employees to keep up with their tradecraft and earn continuing education credits.

Penkoske says DISA has started to put together a financial incentive package to help retain employees planning to sell homes in Virginia and buy new ones in Maryland. It includes paying for closing costs and temporary storage and transport of household goods. Taken together, all of the incentives could be worth more than $10,000.

DISA still has many employees who remain undecided about the move. But Penkoske predicts that the agency will retain 70 percent of its Washington area employees when it opens its new headquarters in 2011. That would be a singular accomplishment, given that in 2005, more than half of DISA employees indicated they would vote with their feet and leave.

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