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Base closings become a burden

Areas that didn’t lose facilities now faced with paying for growth

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Like most states on the receiving end of big military base moves, leaders in Maryland crowed four years ago when the Pentagon announced thousands of jobs would be transferred to the Aberdeen Proving Ground from Fort Monmouth, N.J.

“Having won the battle of Monmouth versus Aberdeen, we are in good shape now,” said Aris Melissaratos, who was Maryland’s secretary of economic development at the time and had testified as the military weighed its decision that Maryland is “ready to handle any expansion that is bestowed upon us.”

That was 2005, back when communities that lost out in the reshuffling could take solace that the overall economy was strong.

Now, in the grip of recession, the big winners are scrambling to pay for the growth expected over the next two years in the most recent round of what the Department of Defense calls “base realignment and closure,” or BRAC.

Topping local concerns are the costs of building new roads, schools and water and sewer systems for an influx of commuters and families uprooted from other bases.

“We’re pretty hopeful it isn’t going to become a nightmare for a decade,” said Jean Friedberg Jr., regional transportation coordinator for the Fort Meade Regional Growth Management Committee. “I would say it will become a challenge for a decade and maybe longer.”

For years, towns and states have vied for infusions of defense-related jobs and spending as the military went through repeated waves of closing bases in one place and building up others, moving tens of thousands of troops and civilian workers at a time around the country.

In base realignment rounds in 1989, 1991, 1993 and 1995, much of the burden of building local infrastructure fell to state and local governments. That was considered part of the cost of reaping long-term economic benefits. But the size of some moves in this latest round has local officials wishing the Defense Department had given more thought to the civilian side of preparations.

“We have more growth in areas than ever before because of a BRAC, and quite honestly I don’t think the department or the feds understood what that meant,” said Robert Leib, who chairs a BRAC task force for Anne Arundel County, home to Fort Meade, which is gaining jobs from the Defense Information Systems Agency in Arlington, Va.

With Maryland facing big state deficits this year and in years to come, new road improvements are being put on hold in favor of urging people to use car pools and shuttle buses. Officials are telling constituents to be ready for more congestion and longer commutes.

Maryland has cut about $45 million that had been set aside for 66 specific BRAC-related transportation projects within five miles of bases. That has left about $100 million in actual funding for projects that have a total cost of about $3 billion.

“With the fiscal environment in which we’re operating, you know that some projects have been delayed, but they are still on the books and we’ll move forward as resources become available,” Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown told local officials at a December meeting.

Fort Meade, about 20 miles from Washington, serves a number of purposes including as headquarters for the National Security Agency. It already has about 40,000 military, civilian and contractor personnel and an estimated 22,000 more are expected from a mix of base realignment, NSA expansion and other growth.

“The Pentagon employs 27,000, so you’ve got almost a Pentagon’s worth of people that are being added to Fort Meade,” said Friedberg, the transportation coordinator.

The transformation at Fort Bragg, N.C., will give it the largest concentration of general officers outside the Pentagon. Planners said Fort Bragg will grow from its current 50,000 soldiers and civilians to about 70,000.

The biggest impact will be in Harnett County, a rural area north of the post where soldiers are moving into new housing developments. The county expects to need five new schools by 2013, when BRAC changes are supposed to be fully implemented.

Harnett County schools superintendent Phil Ferrell said that translates to a need for $200 million to build a high school, two middle schools and two elementary schools for an estimated 4,000 new students.

Officials are hoping the economic stimulus plan in Congress, which will bring billions of dollars to states for transportation and infrastructure aid, will ease the BRAC strain.

“We are a poor, rural county and you learn to do everything you can with what you have,” said Donna McNeill, chair of the county school board. “Now we’ve reached the point where we feel state and federal help is absolutely necessary.”

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