The U.S. military remains committed to building up its forces on Guam while avoiding further encroachment on the island to meet the needs for an additional 8,000 Marines, according to a top official from U.S. Pacific Command who is visiting the island this week.

But there’s still an enormous amount of local and military planning to be done in this “unprecedented project” as the number of servicemembers on the 212- square-mile island more than doubles in the coming years, Air Force Lt. Gen. Daniel P. Leaf said Tuesday in a telephone interview. He is the deputy commander at PACOM who is overseeing much of the expansion.

“When I’ve described it to local leaders here, I said we’re at the finish of the starting line of a marathon,” said Leaf. “I think there’s a strong commitment to execute this well, and there needs to be because it’s an unprecedented project.”

No money for the $10.3 billion project has been approved, either by the U.S. Congress or the Japanese Diet, which has pledged assistance to ease the military burden on Okinawa, from where the Marines will be relocated to Guam.

Plans for a proposed $1 billion road on the island’s eastern corridor remain too preliminary to discuss. Challenges within the island’s schools and medical community loom, as both military and local officials acknowledge that the increase in population and construction will further stress the struggling systems.

“That’s work that remains to be done,” Leaf repeated during his interview with Stripes when discussing federal budgeting, setting up bases that will serve multiple military branches and helping Guam’s public and private leaders use the military’s investment to shore up the island’s aging infrastructure and frail economy.

Yet despite the challenges and the details still to come, Leaf said he’s met “purposeful determination” on the island as he meets with thousands of people this week.

“Everybody realizes that this is not a $10 billion lottery ticket for Guam,” he said. “It’s a chance to improve the economy and quality of life on the island.”

Leaf’s schedule in the five-day visit resembles a politician’s more than a three-star general’s. He’s holding three town hall meetings, lunching with business owners and a women’s focus group, talk radio appearances and meeting with native Chamorro leaders and elected officials — from village mayors to the territory’s legislature.

And he’s not ignoring the island’s upcoming November election. His visit also will include sit-downs with the current governor, Republican Felix Camacho, and his challenger, former congressman Robert Underwood, a Democrat.

“One of them is going to be the next governor and so I want to have a little time to talk about the transition after the election and the need for continuity, regardless of who wins,” Leaf said.

By Tuesday afternoon, Leaf said many of the concerns he’s heard were similar to those voiced in the past. Small business owners want a chance to bid for government contracts. The mayors need help navigating military offices to get answers. Others ask about the expected immigration of foreign workers needed to fuel the massive project.

Leaf said he is offering advice where he can and taking back concerns with him.

“One of the things that I’ve shared with many of the leaders in Guam is that this is going to be challenging,” he said. “It’s a big program. It’s going to demand a lot of good, hard work to tie it all together and then keep it tied.”

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