Congress tries to put brakes on DoD's Mark Center move

Friday - 12/16/2011, 12:14pm EST

Congress was set Friday to impose new restrictions designed to alleviate expected traffic headaches at the Mark Center, a controversial new Defense Department facility in northern Virginia that was constructed to house the workspaces of around 6,800 DoD personnel.

House-Senate conferees agreed to the language, which was first reported by Federal News Radio, on Thursday night as part of the $1 trillion spending packagethat will fund government agencies for the remainder of fiscal year 2012 and avert a government shutdown this weekend. The House approved the overall package Friday afternoon, and the Senate was expected to follow suit in the evening.

The measure, first reported by Federal News Radio, would forbid the Army, which is in charge of the Mark Center, from occupying any more than 2,000 parking spaces at the facility, down from a planned 3,800. That cap could only be lifted once the defense secretary certifies that DoD has implemented the recommendations of a Defense Department Inspector General's reportmade public earlier this month and takes other steps to mitigate traffic congestion.

Rep. James Moran (D-Va.)

"The parking cap is a long fought victory for Northern Virginia commuters, employees at the Mark Center and nearby residents," said Rep. James Moran (D-Va.), whose district includes the Mark Center. "We cannot stop the Defense Department from fully occupying the building, but we now have assurance they will do so in a way that will mitigate the projected gridlock on I-395.

The latest IG report was a rebuke to the Army's planning and implementation of employee transportation to and from the Mark Center site, which, though located in a suburban area adjacent to Interstate 395, is legally part of Fort Belvoir. The Mark Center move was part of the Base Realignment and Closure decisions initiated in 2005 and initially targeted for completion by Sept. 30 of this year, though some of the moves have already been delayed until next year.

The DoD Inspector General found the Army's transportation plan for the site was faulty on several counts. Among the defects, according to the IG:

  • The Army dramatically undercounted the existing traffic at the site. The counts were conducted around national holidays and while schools were not in session. The IG estimated this led to an underestimation of traffic by up to 35 percent.

  • The Army miscalculated the traffic volume the new Mark Center workers' vehicles would generate. Studies conducted on behalf of the IG suggest peak traffic volumes that are twice as high as the Army's estimates.

  • The Army failed to take into account the vehicle trips that would be taken by DoD contractors, which account for nearly a third of the Mark Center's employees.

  • The Army did not properly plan for getting traffic into and out of the Mark Center from adjacent freeways and roads. The additional traffic on an already congested I-395 could lead to gridlock, the IG said.

  • Even once the Army's planned short, medium and long-term transportation improvements are completed, traffic congestion at several nearby intersections will be worse than before the Mark Center was built

  • The Army has not identified a funding source for its transportation management plans at the Mark Center beyond fiscal year 2012.

  • The transportation plan violates several federal standards designed to make sure federal facilities mitigate the impact they have on local traffic.
The Inspector General recommended the Army conduct a new traffic study from scratch and take several other steps to correct deficiencies identified in the 150-page report.

The Army disagreed with the IG's findings and objected to its recommendations.

"All (Mark Center) traffic studies were conducted following local and Virginia requirements using guidelines and standards germane to the area and similar developments," Army officials wrote in response to a draft version of the IG report. "Additionally, most of the studies were conducted under the auspices of the City of Alexandria or the Virginia Department of Transportation. We believe that the [Inspector General's] references to and strong reliance on research studies and general guides are inappropriate and result in invalid conclusions and recommendations."

Members of northern Virginia's congressional delegation have long complained about the Mark Center move, saying thousands of DoD workers were being transplanted from leased office space with easy access to rail transit to a facility that is only accessible by vehicle.

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) praised the House-Senate agreement, but cautioned that traffic improvements still would take years to complete.

"It'll be two-to-four years before the I-395 ramp project is completed, and this parking cap should compel the Army to more aggressively work to promote telework, staggered schedules and shuttles to help alleviate the congestion that's already obvious to anyone who lives or travels in this region," Warner said.

Virginia lawmakers said they were able to secure language in another piece of legislation, the 2012 Defense authorization bill, that they hoped would force DoD to do a better job of taking traffic impacts to local communities into consideration in the future.

There already is a DoD program designed to help communities fund transportation improvements that are needed because of base expansions or realignments. But until now, that funding wasn't allowed to kick in unless DoD's activities caused a doubling in local traffic. That's a requirement that lawmakers say is unreasonable in already congested urban and suburban areas, and will be eliminated once President Obama signs the Defense bill.

Additionally, the bill requires DoD to take traffic impacts into account before making specific decisions on where to locate BRAC projects, and permits the Department to use regular military construction funds to pay for traffic improvement projects that are located outside of military bases.

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