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Proposed overpass could be key to 'BRAC-proofing' Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst

Cars are backed up entering the main gate to Fort Dix in Wrightstown, N.J., as security personnel check identification on May 8, 2007.

DAVID SWANSON/PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER/MCT

By DAVID LEVINSKY | Burlington County Times, Willingboro, N.J. | Published: April 27, 2019

(Tribune News Service) — When Fort Dix first landed on the Pentagon's dreaded closure list in 1988, it caught many state and local officials by surprise.

The Army post which had trained American soldiers since 1917 – ended up being spared outright closure, but lost it's basic training mission and with it thousands of military and civilian jobs. Many predicted it would quickly bring about the end of the historic installation.

The same doomsday predictions were made about the adjacent McGuire Air Force Base and Naval Air Engineering Station Lakehurst in Ocean County when those formerly separate military installations wound up on recommended closure lists during subsequent Base Realignment and Closure rounds, also known as BRACs, throughout the 1990s.

All three installations survived thanks to intense lobbying efforts by the likes of former Congressman Jim Saxton and other elected officials and volunteers, who successfully made the case that the bases were too important to the nation's defense and the state's economy to be shuttered.

Today the three bases are alive and well as the so-called megabase known as Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, and by most any measure the installation is thriving. While no longer an active duty basic training site, the base still trains and mobilizes thousands of Reserve and National Guard soldiers annually. And the Air Force's recent decision to make the base the future home of a new fleet of KC-46 refueling tankers will help ensure its large air mobility mission continues there for the foreseeable future.

Despite those successes, state and local leaders agree New Jersey can't afford to become complacent when it comes to the joint base, which is the state's second-largest employer, behind only state government, with more than 40,000 military and civilian workers. With the KC-46s secured, they've started having serious discussions about what is considered the next most critical project for "BRAC-proofing" the installation.

The project, known as the Route 539 Interconnector, involves construction of an overpass on Route 539, which bisects the joint base in Ocean County, in order to allow large convoys of military vehicles to safely and easily travel beneath the public highway from one side of the sprawling military installation to the other. It may seem relatively benign, but military leaders and experts say the connector would be a major enhancement for the base, particularly for its Army Reserve and National Guard training capabilities.

"The overpass on Route 539, that's a big one," Brigadier Gen. Jemal Beale, who commands the New Jersey National Guard and leads the New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, said earlier this month while testifying about the department's programs and military issues before the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee.

He explained that Guard and Reserve units are required to complete training exercises that simulate combat and large troop movements. While the joint base includes 42,000 acres of contiguous territory, there's still not enough space on the Fort Dix side for some of those major exercises, and it's often difficult to safely and quickly access land on the Lakehurst side in Ocean County because of the traffic on Route 539.

"It's a big deal with a couple thousand soldiers doing a lot of things," Beale said. "Right now we have to do that in Virginia. That's a lot of dollars (that could) stay in state and can grow mission, grow mission, grow mission."

The overpass project concept was first made public in a 2016 report by Cassidy & Associates, a Washington D.C.-based lobbying and consulting firm specializing in defense issues, that was contracted by the state to examine ways to protect and enhance the joint base and the state's other military installations.

The report noted the Fort Dix side has "'outstanding facility for joint training exercises," but that the Army Reserve and Guard training missions could be among the most at risk during a new round of base closures as a recent Pentagon study found that Army Reserve bases across the country were at 53 percent capacity.

The Fort Dix section was included in the Pentagon analysis.

Since military construction funding has become scarce due to federal budget constraints, the report recommended state and county officials work with joint base commanders to develop a strategy for building the overpass/underpass beneath Route 539 in order to keep military vehicles off the public road and expand the available training space on the base. Doing so, would not only enhance the existing missions on the base, but it would also make the installation more attractive for locating new missions.

Funding the overpass

While there's widespread agreement about the importance of the overpass for the base's future, its estimated price tag of $15 million has posed a challenge and there was little movement on the project until recently.

State Sen. Troy Singleton, D-7th of Delran, who previously served as chair of the Senate Military and Veterans Affairs Committee before switching to Community and Urban Development this year, is widely credited with organizing a meeting of state, county and local officials from Burlington, Ocean and Monmouth counties to begin discussing ways to cobble together funding for the critical project.

While Monmouth does not host any portion of the joint base, many of the employees who work at the installation live in the county, and it also benefits economically from the installation.

During the meeting, leaders from the three counties agreed to a funding concept, where each county would contribute an equal sum for the project, and believe the state government would also contribute funding from the state's Transportation Trust Fund.

While no agreement has been finalized, officials in attendance said it was generally agreed that the state and counties would try to find funding for half of the $15 million cost and then seek the remaining half from the federal sources.

State Sens. Cory Booker and Bob Menendez and Reps. Chris Smith, R-4th of Hamilton; Donald Norcross, D-1st of Camden; and Andy Kim, D-3rd of Bordentown Township; are spearheading the effort to identify federal funding, officials said.

"Nothing is finalized, but we're all on the same page and in agreement that we'll all do what we can," said Ocean County Freeholder Director Virginia Haines.

While the state budget for the upcoming fiscal year unveiled by Gov. Phil Murphy does not direct any funding specifically to the overpass, Singleton said he plans to work with colleagues and legislative leaders to make sure language is added to ensure money is appropriated.

Singleton spoke about the county-level discussions and commitments during the April 16 budget hearing with Beale. "That is something through this budget process I will be engaging and asking my colleagues to help support to try to make sure there are resources for that (overpass) because it does distinctly go to mission," the senator said.

He did not specify an exact amount of funding he would seek to include in the spending plan. New Jersey spends about $2 billion each year from the Transportation Trust Fund, which is largely supported by the state's gas tax.

Beale told the budget committee there have also been conversations with federal lawmakers, the state Department of Transportation and joint base leaders.

"We have a bunch of different tentacles working on this," he said.

The overpass project is also expected to be a major discussion item during a congressional delegation trip, or codel, with the governor to the joint base and the state's other military installations in July.

It's not yet clear how the federal funding might be secured or through what source, although there have been discussions about tapping a new Defense Community Infrastructure Program.

The program was authorized in last year's annual National Defense Authorization Act, which specified that the Pentagon can help fund infrastructure improvements outside military installations, provided those projects directly benefit an installation or military families that serve there. Projects that could be eligible for funding include electric, natural gas, telecommunications and other utility work; road improvements; school construction or renovations; police, fire and emergency response facilities; and other infrastructure projects in communities near military installations.

Although authorized by Congress, money for the program was never appropriated, so the Pentagon was unable to begin soliciting projects to fund.

Earlier this month, Smith, R-4th of Hamilton, co-authored a letter with Rep. Denny Heck, of Washington, seeking the appropriation of $100 million for the program, noting that it could be used for Route 539 and other infrastructure projects near military bases.

"By investing in road infrastructure that goes through and around our bases, this program will make our communities safer, while enhancing readiness," the two lawmakers wrote.

Haines, a former state assemblywoman and National Republican Committeewoman, is working with Burlington County's Democratic freeholders, on the issue. She stressed that support for the project is bipartisan and a top priority for all the lawmakers involved.

"It's not a Republican or Democrat issue. We're all unified," she said.

Col. Mike Warner, a retired former commander of Fort Dix and leader of the Defense Enhancement Coalition, a nonprofit group of residents and business leaders that advocates for government actions to protect and enhance the joint base, said he was encouraged by the progress on the project.

"It's getting real movement," he said last week. "Sen. Singleton has been kinda the pusher on this thing and the counties agree on a concept to work together. It's as close as it's ever been."

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