This year the focus was on an additional 21,000-plus daily commuters adding to Route 1 congestion, having an impact on schools, triggering a building boom in everything from residences to office building to four new hotels, and, most importantly, heightening the need for improved transportation facilities.
For the 19th consecutive year, citizens of Mount Vernon District packed the Little Theater at Mount Vernon High School last Saturday morning to learn from and participate in Mount Vernon District Supervisor Gerald Hyland’s Annual Town Meeting.
“I can’t imagine that any commander at Fort Belvoir has faced a greater challenge than that presented by the Base Realignment and Closure Report. It was as much a surprise to him as to us,” Hyland told the audience of 400-plus as he introduced Col. Brian W. Lauritzen, garrison commander, Fort Belvoir.
A native Virginian, Lauritzen assumed command of Fort Belvoir last July from Col. T.W. Williams, who had held that position since July 2002. “One of the disappointing aspects of these assignments is that you often don’t have the opportunity see many initiatives begun under your command come to fruition,” Lauritzen said of his three-year tour at Belvoir.
Not only is the BRAC deadline 2011 but also within that same time frame plans call for the completion and opening the National Museum of the U.S. Army and the Residential Community Initiative housing transformation on the base, according to Lauritzen. “And even though the global war on terrorism is of great concern to all of us, we have every intention of meeting the 2011 BRAC deadline,” he said.
“It’s a bit of a puzzle bringing this many people and factors together. We estimate that the overall cost will top $3 billion. And, this could be a conservative figure,” Lauritzen said.
“The big questions are: when are they coming and how many are they bringing with them. Of the 21,000 new personnel only 5,000 will be military personnel, the other 16,000 are civilian personnel. This will double the Belvoir work force,” he said.
This unforeseen growth at Fort Belvoir will impact the entire surrounding community in a variety of ways, said Hyland.
“It is important in the BRAC process that all the stakeholders are brought together. To accomplish this a series of community meeting will begin on Feb. 7 to explain all aspects of BRAC and its impact to community leaders,” Lauritzen said.
He also announced the formation of a BRAC Board of Advisors. This group of military and civilian elected leaders and community representatives will “hear of changes, have input and recommend solutions,” Lauritzen promised the audience.
A major element of the BRAC recommendations pertaining to Belvoir is the planned expansion of DeWitt Army Hospital. To explain that aspect, Lauritzen called on Col. Jeffrey Peters, facility planner at the hospital.
“We have a lot of duplication in health benefits in this area with Walter Reed, Bethesda and DeWitt. By 2011 the National Capital Area will have 400-plus beds in military facilities,” Peters said.
“When this process [BRAC] is finished this [DeWitt] will be one of the largest Army medical facilities in the nation. We will have 120 beds,” he said.
TIED TO THE BRAC recommendations is the impact they will have on area transportation needs both from the standpoint of road construction and mass transit facilities. Speaking to those needs and challenges was Lee District Supervisor Dana Kauffman.
“We want to make bus transportation a mode of choice, not something that you use when you don’t have any other choice,” Kauffman said. “This summer we will be introducing new REX buses that will be powered by natural gas.”
Kauffman recently completed a one-year term as chair of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority Board of Directors. He has been a staunch advocate of mass transit and of increasing pedestrian safety along the Route 1 corridor.
During his Town Meeting presentation, he listed a series of projects tied to the Richmond Highway Public Transportation Initiative, which included rapid transit along the Route 1 corridor. He also said, “We will have a continuous walkway for pedestrians from Fort Belvoir to the Beltway.”
Kauffman stated that due to increased transportation demands as a result of BRAC, “There is need for an estimated $174 million in urgent and short term funding requirements.” Two of the most pressing transportation projects cited by Kauffman were completion of the Fairfax County Parkway at the Engineering Proving Grounds and the Telegraph Road Interchange which is “still under review pertaining to the proposed flyover.”
KICKING OFF this year’s Town Meeting was Fairfax County Executive Anthony Griffin who identified the challenges and opportunities faced by the county. In addition to the budget, which Griffin characterized as “always a challenge,” he saw the first priority as emergency preparedness management.
“We spend so much time on this now that it requires two meetings per month. Only 39 percent of county residents would know what to do if something happened,” Griffin said.
“Fairfax County covers 400 square miles and we have 4,000 first responders. But, since they work on shifts that are spread over a 24/7 schedule there are only 1,500 on duty at any one time. We are able to do this because we [the county] depend on you [the citizenry] to be prepared,” he said.
“However, we also know that less than 50 percent of the citizens of the entire National Capital Area are prepared for an emergency whether from a natural disaster or terrorism,” Griffin said.
Hyland introduced Board of Supervisors chairman Gerald Connolly, noting that they were both from New England. Hyland used the introduction to present Connolly with a singing lobster attached to a wooden plaque.
Connolly began his presentation with a challenge to the General Assembly now in session. “It’s important that we build more and better coordination between county government and the holy city of Richmond.” Attending the Town Meeting were state Dels. Kristen J. Amundson (D-44), David Englin (D-45), Mark D. Sickles (D-43) plus state Sens. Jay O’Brien (R-39) and Patricia “Patsy” Ticer (D-30).
“We have more jobs in Fairfax County than the District of Columbia. At one time this was just a bedroom area and nearly everyone worked in D.C. The state did not keep up with the change,” Connolly said.
“From an economic point of view we are doing great. Our office vacancy rate, which was high just one year ago, is now only 7.3 percent,” he said.
Another positive Connolly listed was the lowest crime rate for Fairfax County in 30 years. “We live in the safest metropolitan county in the nation with the lowest crime rate and the smallest police force,” he said.
“But, gangs are still a big problem. There are an estimated 80 gangs operating in the metropolitan area. We have an estimated 2,000 kids involved in gangs in Fairfax County,” Connolly said.
“But, if you only focus on law enforcement you are focusing on the most expensive solution to the problem. It’s far better to focus on prevention of gang growth,” he said. Citing education as a key element to “maintaining our status,” Connolly stated, “We had the highest SAT scores last year in our history. You cannot start kids learning too young.”