Traffic is the haunting specter hovering over all discussions about the impact of 22,500 more personnel coming to Fort Belvoir and its Engineering Proving Grounds (EPG) as result of the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure Report (BRAC). The big question, as yet definitively unanswered, is: "Where are they coming from?"
That query has been raised since the very beginning, particularly by both Supervisors Gerald Hyland (D-Mount Vernon) and Dana Kauffman (D-Lee). Hyland, early on, made several requests that the Department of The Army do a Zip code survey to determine the answer to that question.
Originally, BRAC's traffic impact seemed potentially to create the ultimate gridlock for Richmond Highway, when it was believed those personnel would be coming to the main base. Then, the emphasis shifted to Interstate 95 and the Fairfax County Parkway when the Army decided that the vast majority — approximately 18,000 of the 22,500 — would move to the EPG in Springfield.
This brought into play various elements: completing the missing link of the Fairfax County Parkway along the EPG site, a new I-95 interchange, traffic impact on neighborhood streets, development of mass transit capabilities and more. During a public information session at the Springfield Hilton in January these and other factors were displayed on an array of charts and discussed by consultants dubbed the Fort Belvoir New Vision Planners (BNVP).
The largest contingent of incoming personnel are employed by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency now based in Bethesda, Md. It will account for 12,000-plus of the anticipated 18,000 planned for EPG.
"But 70 percent of their present work force now live in Northern Virginia, primarily in western Fairfax and Loudoun counties," said Donald N. Carr, director, Fort Belvoir Public Affairs. "It is very unlikely they will be moving from their present homes, just changing the direction of their commute."
"People also have to remember that there are 22,000 jobs coming to Fort Belvoir and the EPG. That doesn't necessarily translate into 22,000 people. Many of the latter are already here," he said.
"Since most of the incoming personnel are already in Northern Virginia, we anticipate virtually no impact on schools and other public services. And, the majority of Fort Belvoir's personnel today comes from south of the Occoquan River and to the west," Carr said.
THAT ASSESSMENT was buttressed by James Curren, director, Transportation Systems, VHB, one of the BNVP consulting firms. "We have looked at a number of surveys including payroll data from the Department of Defense which gives us Zip codes and have concluded that most of the incoming personnel live in the Tysons Corner area of Northern Virginia," he said.
"The two organizations that will be supplying most of the personnel are the Washington Headquarters Services, now located in the Crystal City area, and the National Geospatial agency, with offices in Bethesda, Reston, the District Navy Yard, and some already at Belvoir," Curren said.
"Well over 80 percent of those personnel live within an hour of Fort Belvoir presently. Actually, many will see some lessening in their commute time," he said.
"Many people already at Fort Belvoir live in Prince William County and south," Curren said. "Therefore, BRAC is not likely to cause a lot of real estate transactions."
According to Curren, George Mason University completed a demographic study back in 2004, prior to BRAC, which indicated that such a shift would not change those projected demographics. "Therefore, BRAC will have very little impact on school populations other than what would occur normally, BRAC or no BRAC. Primarily, it will be a change in traffic flow direction," he said.
However, the big intangible is new personnel coming to the transferring agencies between now and 2011, the BRAC completion deadline. Where will they choose to live? The natural tendency, which traffic consultants and urban planners have been encouraging, is for people to live closer to their place of employment.
"The normal personnel turnover rate for both the public and private sector is 15 percent per year," said Curren. "Any company that has less than that assumes their employees consider it a great place to work."
Based on that assumption, 15 percent turn over per year, would mean an estimated 75 percent change in the present employees by the BRAC deadline.
THAT IS WHAT WORRIES Thomas Fahrney, VDOT's BRAC project coordinator for both Fort Belvoir and Quantico Marine Base. The latter is expecting an additional 4,000 personnel as a result of BRAC.
If Curren's assumptions hold true that "most new hires will locate to the south," Fahrney sees that as "greatly increasing traffic on I-95 and causing even greater backups than are experienced today." A question also remains about access and egress to EPG from I-95.
"VDOT has been part of the Transportation Working Group in preparing for BRAC's impact," Fahrney said. "We've been involved in receiving and analyzing input to the traffic models and will be continuing that effort."
"We are very concerned about north-bound I-95 traffic. We are sure it will be severely impacted by the BRAC decision to make EPG the preferred site for the largest personnel contingent," he said.
"We also believe the single lane loop ramp from I-95 to the Fairfax County Parkway will not have the capacity to handle that increased volume of traffic," Fahrney said. "It will greatly increase the backup. But, we are awaiting the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) draft to be released by Fort Belvoir."
VDOT has not given its blessing to the impact package unveiled at the recent information meeting at the Springfield Hilton. "We are trying to work with the Army to get a plan that works but we are not there yet," he said.
"When that draft EIS comes out concerned citizens need to closely review the transportation portion. They also need to submit comments at the public hearing to be held after its release. Those comments become part of the official record evaluating the EIS," Fahrney said.
The draft EIS is due to be sent to the Federal Register on Friday, Feb. 23. "They will probably publish it on March 2," said Donald Dees, Belvoir public affairs officer.
The release of the EIS will be followed by a 45-day public review period. "During that period we will schedule our public hearing," said Dees. "Only one hearing is required." At that hearing individuals will be able to make verbal comments or submit written comments, according to Carr.
It has not been decided at this point whether or not there will be more than one public hearing or the exact location of that event.
Carr said that the event would likely be at the Springfield Hilton, but that has not been finalized. He did confirm that a court reporter will be present to capture verbatim testimony.
"The only hard copies of the EIS available to the public will be in public locations such as libraries," Dees said. "However, the entire report will be available on line. Specific locations of where the hard copies are located and the Web address will be made public in our press release announcing the EIS publication." The report is expected to exceed 500 pages.
Hyland views the personnel turnover percentage as significant in assessing the potential impact on public services and infrastructure, particularly the school population. "If we are looking at only those people presently working for the incoming groups they [the Army] are right," Hyland said. "There probably is very little impact on schools."
"But, given the turnover percentage we are looking at, it's virtually a whole new group of people. We know nothing about them, the number of children, housing needs, transportation needs, and all the other demographic factors."