Housing Complex

Congress to Feds: Drive to Work

Get ready to spend more time in your car. (Brooke Hatfield)

A year and a half ago, the Obama administration issued Executive Order 13514. It seemed like the text sprang fully formed from an environmentalist’s dreams, laying out all the ways the federal government ought to green its operations. The ensuing guidelines didn’t just address energy efficiency in buildings, which cities like D.C. have come to expect. They also tackled the harder and more important issue: How to put buildings in places served by transit, rather than on open land between interstates.

The General Services Administration, which acts as the federal government’s landlord, has already congratulated itself on using $4 billion worth of stimulus funding to retrofit its existing buildings with green upgrades. The second part of that presidential order, however, won’t be so easy to comply with.

The problem, like so many in Washington, arises from the combination of a tight federal budget and a tea-partying House of Representatives bent on scrubbing government of fripperies. And these days, things like Metro and other heavy rail, not to mention the cost of land proximate to it, definitely qualify as fripperies.

Scarcely after taking up their gavels in 2011, the GOP bosses of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure went on the warpath against under-used and inefficient federal facilities. In a cutely-titled report, “Sitting on our Assets,” legislators took aim at long-term federal leases in high-rent markets, specifically calling out the well-designed, centrally located Department of Transportation headquarters by the Navy Yard as a building that citizens will pay for “many times over.”

From a D.C.-area resident’s point of view, there’s a problem: The locations people elected from elsewhere believe make financial sense might not actually work. In the short term, cheaper offices far from Metro look like a good financial bet. But traffic, pollution, stressed-out workers, and the lost impact of those facilities on existing urban businesses take a toll, too—as the Obama administration recognizes.

At a panel last week on how federal facilities can help feed local development, Arlington County board member and smart growth champion Jay Fisette shook his head at the disconnect between policy and action.

“It’s a great executive order. It’s just, somebody has to do it,” said Fisette. “What is sprawl? Sprawl is following a cheaper piece of land. Are we going to rely on the private sector to change that philosophy and pull this country in the right direction? If the federal government can’t look long term, and look at the overall total cost, not just the land cost, then who can?”

At the very moment development types were talking facilities in the auditorium at GSA headquarters, their worst nightmare was boiling over in Virginia. The Department of Defense’s Inspector General had issued a report finding that traffic and environmental analysis supporting a 2008 decision to move 6,400 employees from Metro-accessible buildings in Arlington to a new campus off I-395 was massively flawed. (Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who signed off on that analysis, isn’t around to take the blame.) Fisette called it “the number one decision that screwed up the region in terms of transportation,” which would turn the freeway into a parking lot when the Mark Center was fully built out.

That move was a consequence of the now-six-year-old Base Realignment and Closure process, which consolidated Department of Defense personnel. BRAC looked like common sense—but the bases workers were consolidated onto are in far-flung places like Quantico and Fort Belvoir, forcing staff who don’t live there to drive further to get to work. To handle the traffic problems, Congress allocated $300 million in the 2011 budget for improving highway infrastructure around the beefed-up sites. If DoD had looked beyond the impact on the federal government and considered how daily life in the region might be affected, the move might never have been made.

“BRAC is just a disaster, basically,” says Cheryl Cort, policy director at the Coalition for Smarter Growth. “I think there’s just still a struggle between how these decisions are made versus the really terrific policy statements.”

What’s scaring Cort even more: The prospect of a “civilian BRAC,” which is a rare point of simpatico between the Obama administration and congressional Republicans. Given GSA’s millions of feet of under-utilized real estate, they’ve agreed to set up another commission to find places where bodies can be packed closer together.

Sure, the government could save a lot of money by using space more efficiently. But that will cause problems if GSA is pressured into moving employees to far-flung locations to avoid expensive urban offices, as they did with BRAC. In the D.C. area, where GSA has 880 owned or leased buildings, that could make a big impact. Some of their biggest leases have buoyed office markets in downtown neighborhoods like NoMa and the Capitol Riverfront. A reversal could send more jobs to places like White Oak, Md., where the Food and Drug Administration is consolidating its operations on government-owned land six miles from the nearest Metro stop. That would be a bad decision for a private company, too—but the effects are magnified with federal employees, who (thanks to set work hours and government subsidies) tend to use transit more than people in the private sector.

It’s not like there isn’t space near Metro. If government real estate needs were still growing, the 15 largely empty Green, Orange, and Blue Line stations in Prince George’s County would be great candidates for new federal offices—which would also make a difference for economic development. Despite dubious successes like the Census Bureau in Suitland, a big federal tenant is the kind of thing that can—if handled well—inspire confidence in the private sector to invest there as well.

If GSA piles on land it already owns, those Metro stations will remain unused. Complicating Prince George’s desperate attempts to land federal tenants is the government’s $34-per-square-foot rent cap in Maryland. GSA is allowed to spend $4 more per square foot in Virginia, and $15 more in D.C., making Prince George’s Metro-proximate real estate a hard sell; the only properties that fit under the cap are far from transit.

The Feds have done a little better in Montgomery County, where schools and local government have a better reputation. White Flint, for example, has landed the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the anchor in a walkable, mixed-use development planned there.

But other federal plans in Montgomery County make little sense from a transit standpoint. In early 2010, the National Cancer Institute announced it would move its headquarters from Bethesda out to Johns Hopkins’ Science City near Shady Grove. Though the new buildings will be certified to the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Gold standard, that won’t cancel out the negative effect of moving from a spot on the Red Line to one three miles from the nearest Metro station.

It’s hard to take issue with reshuffling federal real estate and personnel for maximum efficiency—but it’s awfully short-sighted not to take into account the kinds of costs that matter to communities. They may not fit on a budget projection spreadsheet, but they’re still costs, even if the Feds want to forget about them.

Illustration from photographs by Taber Andrew Bain/Kim Scarborough/Alex Liivet via Flickr/Creative Commons.

  • http://greatergreaterwashington.org Erik W

    I gotta say, the Capitol Building seems awfully underused and unnecessarily central. We're probably paying through the nose for that place. Let's move it to Lorton.

  • Native American JD

    Dear Congress,

    Pay me like my fellow attorneys in the private sector and I might be able to afford a car. At my current salary, I can barely afford my rent.

  • Eric S

    "[C]heaper offices far from Metro look like a good financial bet."

    This statement is undoubtedly true -- the problem is that we aren't defining "far" as far enough. Given the expense of office space in the DC area and the capacity problems with Metro, local roads, etc., it would make a lot of financial and environmental sense to stop locating federal offices in the Washington, DC area and start locating them in Cedar Rapids, Madison, Boulder, Mobile, and any number of other cities that have: 1)cheaper office space; 2)more easily-expandable transportation capacity and opportunities to add environmentally-friendly infrastructure; and 3)lower costs of living (=lower cost to hire workers).

    The objection commonly raised is that the employees at these locations need to be accessible to agency headquarters in the core of DC. But seriously -- how often does this really take place for most federal workers? And how many of those meetings could be held by videoconference, or consolidated into an occasional (monthly? quarterly?) travel meeting? For that matter, why not move the headquarters, too?

  • Aleck

    Eric S, that's ridiculous. DC is the seat of government and agencies should be headquartered here.

  • RJ

    Eric S.

    The same was true too when they selected DC to be the nation's capital. Cheap land right in the middle of the country.

    Those places sound cheap until you relocate 500,000 people to them. That’s a lot of moving trucks, lots of buildings and homes that need to be built, that’s a lot of CO2 spewing and money flowing. Also how will the DC housing market/economy/community handle the loss of 500,000+ workers? (Hello Detroit 2.0). And who is going to pay for the relocation cost (approx $50-$75K each), lost of real estate equity and loss of tax base?

    Note: relocation cost include (moving, real estate services 3-5% of the cost of house you are selling, storage and travel).

    Fact is the most cost effective and environmental friendly approach is to stay where you are.

  • Nick


    Spreading out government offices throughout the country is a bad idea. You saw how hard some members of congress fought to keep producing the F-35. The military didn't want it but they fought to keep it because it meant jobs for part suppliers in their community. If you spread out government's offices then you will have members of congress fighting to keep or gain government jobs in their community rather than looking at what's the best policy.

  • A.

    I am a number crunching Fed, and I love Eric's idea. I would love to deconsolidate to Boulder!! There is zero reason anyone I know or work with could not move to another city and still perform effectively. The only exception may be those producing the economic indicators at a prescribed time each month, putting them in a different time zone from the stock exchange could be an issue. Still - I will dream about it even though I am stuck in the "dubious success" here in Suitland.