Virginia, Maryland lawmakers want stopgap to fund traffic measures

Virginia and Maryland members are eyeing a stopgap funding measure to avoid traffic jams in their states.

As the House and Senate have negotiated a spending measure that would keep the government running through early December, representatives from the Virginia and Maryland delegations have been fighting to preserve $300 million in the Pentagon budget to avert congested traffic in Southern Maryland and Northern Virginia.

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Democratic Reps. Jim Moran (Va.) and Chris Van Hollen (Md.), as well as Sens. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and Ben Cardin (D-Md.), have been fighting for almost a year to secure the money they say is necessary to widen roads and intersections near Bethesda Naval Hospital and Fort Belvoir, Va.

Their intent is to help the Washington suburbs cope with the thousands of workers and wounded veterans traveling to those hospitals as a result of the most recent base realignment and closure (BRAC) effort. As part of the effort, the Army’s Walter Reed Medical Center will be closed and folded into the Bethesda hospital. An additional 12,000 employees would be traveling into Fort Belvoir each day as well.

However, their effort to reduce traffic in their states and districts has run into a technical snafu that has prevented the $300 million from being spent.

The money ended up in the Pentagon’s 2010 budget during negotiations between the House and Senate. Neither chamber had included the money as part of its bill, so the amount and the recommendation on how it should be spent was included through a rare procedure: The money was “airdropped” into the bill during conference negotiations.

The problem, however, is that the $300 million was allotted for the Defense Health Affairs account, which does not have the statutory authority to spend the money on transportation infrastructure.

And the snafu is putting the Pentagon in an awkward position: If the money can't be properly reallocated for transportation use — and the Pentagon is trying to help make that happen — it would like to spend the funding on research and medical equipment to treat wounded troops.

A source familiar with the issue said senior Pentagon officials have been working closely with lawmakers on the language in the CR that would allow for the transfer of the $300 million to the Office of Economic Adjustment.

Washington-area members have been trying to use various bills this year for a provision that would transfer the money to the Office of Economic Adjustment at the Defense Department, which can spend the money on transportation. So far, they have been unsuccessful.

Their last chance this week is the continuing resolution (CR) to fund the government, which the Senate has started debating. Otherwise, the lawmakers face a renewed battle with the adoption of the 2011 Pentagon-spending bill when they return from the November elections. The lawmakers have expressed a sense of urgency for the $300 million because the actions mandated by the BRAC round have to be completed by September 2011.

The debate started without any details of the CR and, at press time, the issue of the $300 million was still being worked out. The issue lies in writing a provision that would transfer the money from the Defense Health Affairs account to the Office of Economic Adjustment.

The pressure to keep the money for the roadwork in Virginia and Maryland also comes as the Pentagon has asked Congress for authority to use the $300 million to buy health equipment for the treatment of wounded veterans. Because the money was allocated in the wrong account, the Pentagon had not been able to spend it.

Therefore, in August, the Pentagon asked the congressional defense committees to reprogram the $300 million. So far that request has not been granted. The committees have held up the request because the Virginia and Maryland lawmakers have been trying to make a last-ditch effort to see the money spent in their districts, according to congressional sources.

The Pentagon had wanted to spend the money before fiscal 2010 runs out. There are two more days until the beginning of the new fiscal year.

Moran and Van Hollen argue the money should be spent as it was intended.

The provision the House lawmakers have been working on “is a technical correction that will allow previously appropriated funds to be used for their original intent: to improve transportation infrastructure surrounding medical defense facilities at Fort Belvoir and Bethesda,” Moran said in a statement to The Hill. “These communities will be greatly disadvantaged without the infrastructure improvements Congress intended.”

Van Hollen “is committed to making sure that the new Walter Reed is a world-class center of excellence for our wounded warriors, and that they and their families have timely access to the care they need and have earned,” said Bridgett Frey, Van Hollen’s spokeswoman.

Mikulski's office said it would work with the House lawmakers to fix the funding.

"The situation arose on the House side, but we always approach everything as Team Maryland. Sen. Mikulski has been in constant communication with her colleagues to resolve the situation, whether that happens in the CR or in the omnibus appropriations bill," said Jennifer Hlad, Mikulski's press secretary.

When the money was first allocated, both Moran and Van Hollen touted their efforts.

“Without this money, we would have had complete chaos when nearly 20,000 more people tried to get to Fort Belvoir as a result of BRAC relocations,” Moran said last Dec. 16. “In Northern Virginia, the principal purpose of this money is to widen U.S. Route 1 so that our military personnel and their families can access the new, state-of-the-art Fort Belvoir Community Hospital currently under construction.”

At the time, Moran urged the Defense Department to do “more” to address the “looming traffic nightmare” that will occur in Northern Virginia as a consequence of the BRAC decisions.

Van Hollen at the time said the bill “includes an unprecedented fund of $300 million set aside for the purpose of mitigating BRAC-related transportation and community impacts.”

Van Hollen also vowed to work with his congressional colleagues and the Pentagon to “make these funds available for their intended purpose at the soonest possible date.”

This story was last updated at 7:11 p.m.