Commuters stuck sitting on Rockville Pike, around Mark Center

Montgomery County commutes have doubled, tripled, even quadrupled as thousands of patients and hospital employees crowd the already failing roads around Bethesda's military medical center -- and it's only going to get worse, officials say.

The new Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, with its 2,500 new employees and hundreds of thousands of new patients, is giving drivers constant headaches as they search for winding routes and back roads to avoid the gridlock on Rockville Pike and other roads around the hospital.

Future Bethesda construction
Gate improvementsJones Bridge Road2012
Road resurfacingWoodmont and Wisconsin avenues2012
Road reconstruction*Rockville Pike and Cedar Lane2013
Intersection improvements*Rockville Pike and Jones Bridge RoadTBD
Metro tunnel*Rockville PikeTBD
*Projects require federal funds
Source: Montgomery County BRAC Implementation Committee

Some residents say that military personnel are using their neighborhoods as parking lots after the hospital's limited spaces fill up. Others report unbearable afternoon commutes, with 15-minute waits to turn at traffic signals. Still others have abandoned roads like Rockville Pike -- and its four traffic lights backing up traffic next to the medical center -- out of frustration.

Chevy Chase Village resident John Spain said his mile-long drive on Rockville Pike to his Bethesda office now takes about 30 minutes.

"When there's bad traffic to begin with, it could be like that sometimes," Spain said. "But now it's a daily occurrence."

Across the Washington region, thousands of military workers have moved to new office space and medical facilities, causing major delays across Maryland and Virginia at facilities like the Mark Center in Alexandria and Fort Belvoir in Fairfax County. Though some traffic pain has been delayed, as some 10,000 workers in Metro-friendly Arlington are staying put for now, all defense workers soon will have to move to their new, less-accessible sites.

The transfers were a part of the Defense Department's Base Realignment and Closure Plan, more commonly known as BRAC.

In Montgomery County, where the military consolidated the District's Walter Reed with the Navy's medical center in Bethesda, minor improvements were made to bike lanes, sidewalks and bus service near the hospital, but cash-strapped county and state officials couldn't complete any major road improvements in time for the military's Sept. 15 deadline.

"Unfortunately a lot of the mitigation projects haven't gotten started yet," said Ilaya Hopkins, a member of Montgomery County's BRAC Implementation Committee. "It will get worse before it gets better."

Rockville Pike isn't the only clogged road -- medical center traffic has sent a ripple effect throughout the area, backing up once-quiet side streets and winding neighborhood roads.

In an email to Hopkins, one resident complained that military personnel were being instructed to park in nearby neighborhoods. There's only enough parking at the medical center to provide one space for every four hospital employees, according to officials.

Capt. Michael Malanoski, commanding officer of Naval Support Activity Bethesda, issued an order for employees not to park in adjacent neighborhoods, according to spokeswoman Sandy Dean. The Navy is continually monitoring the parking situation at the medical center, she said.

County officials, with the Maryland Department of Transportation, are applying for about $100 million in federal dollars made available for traffic improvements at BRAC-affected military hospitals, according to Montgomery County BRAC Coordinator Phil Alperson. The deadline for the application is Oct. 12.

Hopkins and Alperson urged commuters to stay patient, but also warned that the full effect of the medical center's influx of patients has yet to be felt.

"We're in a new state of normal," Hopkins said. "This gridlock is really just starting to impact how we're going to live our lives."