Posts by Miriam Schoenbaum
|Miriam Schoenbaum lives in Montgomery County's Agricultural Reserve. She serves on the MARC Riders' Advisory Council and is a member of the Boyds Civic Association and the Action Committee for Transit.|
Service on the MARC Brunswick Line only runs one way at a time: toward DC in the morning and away from DC in the afternoon and evening, on weekdays only. Some MARC riders think there is a simple way to make service between DC and Brunswick run both ways in the early and mid-afternoon.
Currently, the Brunswick-bound train that leaves Union Station at 1:30 pm (P871) runs only on Fridays. And when the train returns from Brunswick to Union Station in mid-afternoon (as P884), it does so without picking up passengers. Running P871 every day and having P884 pick up passengers would provide meaningful two-way Brunswick Line service.
CSX constrains MARC's ability to add service
Since 2007, the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) has had the goal of all-day, two-way, and weekend Brunswick Line service. However, CSX, the freight railroad company that owns the tracks the Brunswick Line runs on, has said that MARC may not add trains on the Brunswick Line until Maryland begins to build a third track, which the state has not yet done.
At last week's MARC Riders Advisory Council meeting, riders (disclosure: I was one of them) talked to MTA officials about a way to get two-way service without adding trains to the schedule. The early-afternoon train to Brunswick (P871) and mid-afternoon return train to DC (P884) already exist; they just don't run every day. MARC need only restore daily service to one and passenger service to the other, and voilà: the first step toward full two-way service.
The Friday-only early-afternoon train could run every day
The early-afternoon train (P871) currently leaves Union Station on Fridays at 1:30 pm and arrives in Brunswick by 3:04. Before the MARC service cuts in 2009, this train ran every weekday. If you needed to come home early, that was the train you took. The number of riders on the train each day was low, but the proportion of MARC riders who used the train on occasion was high.
Almost seven years after the service cuts, the early-afternoon train is still running only on Fridays. Riders at the advisory council meeting wanted to know why. MTA has restored other service that was cut in 2009, like service on Columbus Day and Veterans Day. Also, because MTA kept the Friday service, the train already has a train slot, trainset (engine and passenger cars), and crew.
There could be passenger service toward DC in the afternoon
There was also talk at the advisory council meeting of service towards DC in the afternoons. The trainset and crew for the early-afternoon train to Brunswick return to DC as train P884, but P884 doesn't pick up passengers.
In the mid-1990s, there was a mid-afternoon train towards DC that picked up passengers. That train left Brunswick at 4:30 pm, with a scheduled arrival at Union Station at 5:30 pm, and flag stops along the way. Could MTA could restore this service as well?
One potential problem might be a delay in the return to Union Station. MARC uses the same trainset and crew for an evening train to Martinsburg, so a delay in P884's return would lead to a further delay for an outbound train. However, MTA could solve that problem by stopping the train only at Point of Rocks, Germantown, Rockville, and Silver Spring. This would add only a few minutes to the trip.
Discuss the Brunswick Line further at a meeting
There will be a public meeting about MARC Brunswick Line service and other transportation topics in the I-270 corridor, sponsored by state delegates from Montgomery and Frederick Counties, on Wednesday, September 9, at 7 pm, at the Upcounty Regional Services Center in Germantown. People from the Maryland Department of Transportation, including MTA, will be there.
Candidate, now Governor, Larry Hogan said he opposed higher fees and taxes. Yet the Maryland Transit Administration is increasing MARC fares by more than the state law seems to require. This coincides with large cuts to tolls for drivers, raising more questions about the Hogan administration's support for transportation that runs on rails.
The fare increase raises the one-way fare for each zone by $1, for a percent increase for Maryland riders ranging from 9% to 25%. For example, the fare for a one-zone trip, such as Union Station-Seabrook, Union Station-College Park, or Union Station-Kensington, will go up from $4 to $5 (+25%).
The fares for weekly (seven-day) tickets will increase by 45-67% for Maryland riders. For example, one-zone weekly fares will increase from $30 to $50. And the fares for monthly (good for the whole month) tickets will increase by 17-35% for Maryland riders, with one-zone monthlies increasing from $100 to $135.
These increases reflect both the one-way fare increase and a change in the formula for calculating weekly/monthly fares, from 7.5 times to 10 times the one-way fare for weeklies and 25 times to 27 times the one-way fare for monthlies.
Fares have to go up, but not this much
The Transportation Infrastructure Investment Act of 2013 requires MTA to increase MARC one-way zone fares and weekly/monthly passes in fiscal year 2015 by at least the same percentage as the 2009-2013 increase in the Consumer Price Index (CPI) for all urban consumers, to the nearest dollar. The CPI increase was about 10%.
But there is nothing in the language of the law about changing the formula for calculating the weekly/monthly fares. And the change in formula accounts for a meaningful part of the fare increase.
For example, the statutory increase in one-way fares alone would raise the price of a one-zone monthly ticket from $100 to $125 (+25%). But under MARC's fare increase, thanks to the change in formula, the ticket will cost $135, or $10 per month (8%) more.
Also, while MTA does not have to hold public hearings for fare increases required by the 2013 act, state law does require MTA to hold public hearings for other MARC fare increases.
The MARC Riders Advisory Council (MRAC) has called on Governor Hogan to delay the fare increases and hold public hearings about them because it believes that the increases are greater than state law requires. (Disclosure: I am a member of the MRAC.)
Maryland says the law requires the fare increase
MTA maintains that the fare increase is mandated by law. MTA and Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) officials at last week's MRAC meeting gave two reasons for changing the formulas.
The first was that people with weekly/monthly passes can now use them seven days a week. This thinking doesn't account for the whole picture, though, because only the Penn Line offers the weekend service. Trains on the Camden and Brunswick Lines continue to run Monday-Friday only.
The second was that the average number of trips on a weekly/monthly ticket has gone up and that the law requires MTA to adjust the formula based on current ridership data. The ridership data here consists of MARC conductors' daily tallies of monthly, weekly, and one-way tickets. However, MTA officials agreed with MARC riders that these data are unreliable. Also, the data say nothing about the average number of trips an average rider makes on a weekly/monthly pass. Most importantly, the text of the act says nothing about adjusting the formula for weekly/monthly tickets based on ridership data.
Responding to the MRAC's objections, MTA Administrator Paul Comfort announced a new five-day pass, with a price calculated according to the original formula (7.5 times the one-way zone fare). This is welcome news for regular MARC riders. But he also said that MTA will keep the increased new formula for monthly passes and will not hold public hearings on the resulting fare increase.
After the meeting, the MRAC again called for public hearings, specifically citing the questionable data MTA used to calculate the new formula for monthly passes.
Cut tolls, increase MARC fares
As several MRAC members pointed out at the meeting, the greater-than-minimum fare increase for monthly passes looks bad for MTA and the Hogan administration. Hogan opposed taxes, fees, and tolls as a major part of his campaign. A campaign ad from the Republican Governors Association, showing a picture of a MARC train, blamed then-governor Martin O'Malley and lieutenant governor Anthony Brown for a transit fare increase.
On May 7, the Hogan administration claimed to deliver on his "promise to...put money back in the pockets of hard-working Maryland families" with a cut in tolls for drivers. Less than three weeks later, the administration announced a MARC fare increase that is bigger than the law seems to require.
What is the Hogan administration trying to tell us? Aren't MARC riders hard-working Marylanders too?
Boyds, a rural town in Montgomery County's Agricultural Reserve with a MARC station, is a commuting destination for the residents of Clarksburg, a rapidly growing town just north. To handle increasing traffic and make transit more accessible, Boyds residents want to move both a central road and the MARC station.
Boyds, Maryland today. Note that the MARC station's location is off; it's actually one block west of the Clarksburg/Clopper intersection. Base image from Google Maps.
Clarksburg is transit-oriented development without transit. 1994 plans included comprehensive regional and local bus and rail networks. Today, Clarksburg residents only have two weekday-only bus routes and a circuitous trial shuttle to the Germantown MARC station.
Increasing numbers of people are driving through Boyds from homes in Clarksburg and Frederick County to jobs in Germantown and the I-270 corridor. This leads to traffic back-ups at the bottleneck in Boyds where Clarksburg Road meets MD 117 (Barnesville and Clopper Roads) in a double intersection separated by an underpass.
Soon, Clarksburg's Cabin Branch section will have 2,386 housing units, an outlet mall, and an outdoor amphitheater. The adjacent Ten Mile Creek will have 500 houses. The Boyds MARC station would be reachable with a short trip south on Clarksburg Road.
But there are no buses to the Boyds MARC station, and its 15-space parking lot is often full.
The Montgomery County Department of Transportation (MCDOT) is currently studying a bus turnaround and some 40 additional parking spaces for the Boyds MARC station. Their favored site for both may be the future Boyds Local Park, which sits south of the intersection of Clopper Road and Clarksburg Road and a block downhill from the train station. But would the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC), who owns the park, agree to that? The M-NCPPC wants to put cricket fields in the park.
Also, the Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA) is studying traffic signals and/or roundabouts to speed car travel through the intersection-underpass-intersection bottleneck in Boyds. The results of the study may be ready in late spring.
While the Boyds community has asked MCDOT for improvements to the MARC station for years, residents are wary of the suburbanizing effects of MCDOT's and SHA's ideas on an area whose master plans designate it as rural and historic.
Boyds residents propose their own possible solution
The first part is to relocate part of Clopper Road either over or under the railroad tracks. This would form a single, modern, more efficient intersection between Clopper, Clarksburg Road, and Barnesville Road. It would also keep traffic away from the Boyds Historic District and out of Boyds Local Park.
The proposed new locations for the MARC station and Clopper Road. The intersection could have a roundabout or traffic signals. Image from the author.
The second part is to move the MARC station from its current location in the Boyds Historic District to a three-acre industrial storage lot just to the east on Clopper Road next to the proposed new bridge or underpass.
The new station would be much larger, with space for 300 cars and for buses that would run between Clarksburg, Boyds, and Germantown. The additional parking would also delay the need for a parking garage at Germantown, the next station to the east on the Brunswick Line.
SHA's traffic study and MCDOT's park-and-ride study are short-term plans. In contrast, the Boyds Civic Association's long-term, comprehensive idea, if feasible, would both remove the traffic bottleneck in Boyds and greatly expand car and bus access to the Boyds MARC train station. Boyds residents hope that their idea is a vision for the area that everyone can share.
MARC plans to allow bicycles on some weekend trains on the Penn Line before the end of the year, a MARC official said last week.
However, MARC is now spending $359,000 to convert two single-level passenger cars to passenger/bicycle cars, Chief Mechanical Officer Erich Kolig explained to the MARC Riders Advisory Council on October 16. MARC plans to add one bicycle car to certain weekend Penn Line trains. There will be a bicycle symbol on the Penn Line schedule to denote these trains. The other bicycle car will remain in reserve.
The single-level cars have three seats on one side, and two seats on the other. In the bicycle cars, there will be 29 bicycle racks instead of seats on the three-seat side. The bicycle racks will accommodate full-length bicycles, tires ranging in diameter from 10 inches to 29.5 inches, and most fat tires. They are angled to preserve aisle space.
If the bicycle cars on the Penn Line are successful, MARC will convert two more cars and add bicycle service on Friday afternoons on the Brunswick Line, which will allow people to take their bicycles to Harpers Ferry on the train and then ride back to Washington on the C&O Canal trail.
In suburban, car-oriented neighborhoods, simple footpaths can do a lot for people who don't or can't drive. When the owner of a Rockville shopping center inadvertently closed a popular footpath to nearby apartments, residents spoke out and were able to keep it open.
Federal Plaza is a car-oriented shopping center on Rockville Pike near the Twinbrook Metro station. Its owner is Rockville-based Federal Realty, which owns other strip malls nearby but also develops urban, mixed-use projects like Bethesda Row and Pike + Rose, currently being built in White Flint.
South of Federal Plaza are an apartment complex, the Apartments at Miramont, and a condo complex, the Miramont Villas, where my parents live. Until recently, residents used a short, unpaved footpath that connects the apartments to Federal Plaza and lies on both properties. Long-time residents say they have used this path since the Miramont buildings were built in the mid-1980s.
But in the middle of July, a six-foot-tall wooden fence suddenly appeared along the south side of Federal Plaza, blocking the footpath. Miramont residents now had to walk out to five-lane East Jefferson Street, along a narrow sidewalk with no buffer, and back into the Federal Plaza parking lot via the driveway entrance. The detour added about 1/5 of a mile to the trip each way.
This was a serious inconvenience for many Miramont residents. The Miramont condos are a naturally occurring retirement community, with a relatively large proportion of elderly residents and residents with disabilities, including mobility impairments. But Miramont apartment residents now also had to make the detour while pushing strollers, pulling shopping carts, or carrying groceries. The detour was even a big problem for some of the residents of an assisted living facility another block south who also used the footpath.
And the detour wasn't just inconvenient. It was also dangerous. Drivers entering the Federal Plaza driveway from East Jefferson Street cannot see pedestrians in the driveway. And pedestrians now had to walk the full length of the parking lot, in a county where roughly one-third of collisions with pedestrians occur in parking lots.
After the fence went up, it took a few days to figure out who had put up the fence and why. But it soon turned out that Federal Realty had put up the fence to respond to Southern Management, the manager of the Miramont apartments. Miramont residents shook their fists at the fence, met, talked, signed a petition, and called and sent e-mails to Federal Realty to explain the problem and ask Federal Realty to solve it.
Federal Realty promptly committed to solving the problem. And two weeks ago, roughly six weeks after the fence went up, Federal Realty removed the section of fence that blocked the footpath. Miramont residents are once again able to use the footpath to get to Federal Plaza.
In addition, Federal Realty installed a curb cut from the parking lot to the footpath. They also marked a crosswalk across the driveway entrance on East Jefferson, another crosswalk along the driving lane from East Jefferson to the west side of the Federal Plaza building, and a crosswalk from the footpath to the long crosswalk, across the driving lane.
Unfortunately, Federal Realty's willingness to keep the path open appears to be the exception among commercial property owners, not the rule. In Wheaton, the owners of Wheaton Plaza are trying to block a popular footpath, saying it will bring crime to the surrounding neighborhood.
Federal Realty's response is good news for Miramont residents and Federal Plaza customers, of course. But it's also good news for Montgomery County overall. Pike + Rose is surely not the only commercial property in the county that Federal Realty intends to redevelop from car-oriented shopping plaza to mixed-use, walkable development. Their quick and effective reaction to the small problem of the fence bodes well for their bigger plans for the future.
Bus Rapid Transit is years away in Montgomery County, but residents got a preview when Action Committee for Transit and Transit Alternatives to Mid-County Highway Extended brought a bus rapid rabbit transit bus to the 76th annual Gaithersburg Labor Day Parade.
ACT's Tina Slater and Bee Ditzler conceived of, designed, and built the bus, which traveled the one-mile parade route in a rapid 45 minutes. It sports drawings of rabbits riding the bus, making this not just Bus Rapid Transit, but Bus Rapid Rabbit Transit.
In addition, a dance team performed a routine ably choreographed by the Coalition for Smarter Growth's Kelly Blynn to the sounds of the Hollies' Bus Stop, the Fatback Band's Do the Bus Stop, and the Four Tops's bus stop song.
But don't feel bad if you missed it. ACT is already planning its second year of marching in the Silver Spring Thanksgiving parade. If you have ideas or want to join, please visit ACT's website and get in touch! But don't delay, because the big day is only 11 weeks away.
While Chevy Chase spends hundreds of thousands of dollars to lobby against the Purple Line, town officials are demanding over $1,000 to provide documents about their campaign. Meanwhile, they've asked Maryland to waive fees for their own information request.
When the Action Committee for Transit filed requests under Maryland's Public Information Act, the town government demanded $1,025 to produce documents about the lobbying effort, but the law provides for fee waivers when requests are in the public interest.
The town's Purple Line lobbying is an issue in tomorrow's election for town leaders. One candidate, Donald Farren, explicitly supports the Purple Line; others have also voiced concerns about the town's move to spend so much money on lobbying.
Chevy Chase puts big money into lobbying against the line
Town leaders have long opposed the Purple Line, which will run through the town for half a mile along its 16-mile route between Bethesda and New Carrollton.
The town's latest step was in December 2013, when it quietly hired the law firm Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney for $20,000 a month to lobby the state and federal governments. This move came after the line had gone through years of planning and public review and won approval from county, state, and federal governments.
In January, when the move became public, it turned out that one of the firm's lawyers is Robert Shuster, brother of US Representative Bill Shuster (R-PA), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Both Maryland and the federal government currently expect federal funding for the Purple Line.
The Town's contract with the law firm has been problematic in other ways as well. A state board found that Chevy Chase violated the Maryland Open Meetings Act in November 2013 when it interviewed the firm. And two of the five town councilmembers have described irregularities in the hiring process.
Nonetheless, the town voted in February to extend the contract, adding two more lobbying firms as subcontractors and raising the cost to $29,000 per month plus expenses, or up to $350,000 total.
ACT files public records requests to find out more
ACT, a transit advocacy group and long-time supporter of the Purple Line, wanted to find out what this $29,000 per month (plus expenses) was going for. (Disclosure: I am a non-voting board member of ACT.) Last month, ACT filed two requests under the Maryland Public Information Act (PIA): one for the town's agreements, contracts, invoices, bills, correspondence, and meeting minutes related to the three lobbying firms; and a second for town records about the public relations firm Xenophon Strategies. ACT also filed a third request for town records about compliance with the new training requirements of the Open Meetings Act.
The PIA is a Maryland law analogous to the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). It applies to state and local governmental bodies in Maryland and gives the public the right to access government records without unnecessary cost and delay.
Under the PIA, anybody can request records. The government may charge a "reasonable fee" for the time spent looking for and preparing these records, although the government may waive the fee if release of the records is in the public interest. The first 2 hours of search and preparation time are free.
On April 17, the Chevy Chase town government responded to ACT's PIA requests with a demand for fees: $700 for 3 hours for the request about the law firms (5 hours total), $250 for 3 hours for the request about the public relations firm (5 hours total), and $125 for 1 hour for the request about the training requirements (3 hours total). ACT would have to pay these deposits before town officials would start looking for the documents.
ACT asks for fee waiver; Chevy Chase says no
ACT promptly asked the town to waive the fees as provided in the PIA, because ACT was seeking this information for public rather than commercial purposes and because the requested disclosures would contribute to public understanding of government operations and activities.
But officials denied the request, stating, "It is anticipated that the Town will expend a significant amount of time researching and processing your requests."
Is this a legal reason to deny a fee waiver request? The Maryland PIA Manual mentions only the ability of the applicant to pay, whether the information is for a public rather than a commercial purpose, and "other relevant factors". For more about these factors, the PIA Manual advises looking at case law for the FOIA. And while the FOIA Guide has a six-factor test for fee waivers, none of the factors is how long it will take the agency to look for and prepare the documents.
In any case, this is how the matter currently stands: if ACT wants a government body's public records on the government body's expenditure of public money, ACT has to pay that government body $1,075. This may not be much for a municipality with an $8 million surplus and 1,000 households. But it's far more than ACT is willing to pay for public records whose release is in the public interest.
And so the Town of Chevy Chase achieves its stated goal of preventing Purple Line supporters from finding out about its taxpayer-funded activities. What Chevy Chase is getting for $350,000 in public money will remain a secret for now.
Ironically, on April 16, the day before the Town told ACT to pay up, Chevy Chase made its own PIA request to the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA). The Town requested all of MTA's records about 3 organizations (ACT, Purple Line Now, and The Purple Rail Alliance) and 54 people belonging to those organizations. (Disclosure: I am one of them.)
And the fees? Chevy Chase asked MTA for a waiver.
If Montgomery County is serious about creating walkable places, it must fix dangerous intersections like Hoya Street and Montrose Road in White Flint. Drivers turning right from southbound Hoya to Montrose can't see pedestrians beginning to cross. A bulb-out would make pedestrians visible and the intersection safer.
Last fall, my mother tried to cross here, and told me that she would have been run over here if she had crossed when the walk signal turned green. So I went to see for myself. Recent pedestrian safety improvements had not made the intersection safe. Drivers turning right from Hoya onto Montrose can't see pedestrians on the north side of Montrose Road because a wall at the Monterey Apartments complex blocks drivers' view.
That wall was there before the pedestrian improvements. Why hadn't the changes included a solution for this hazard?
The Hoya/Montrose intersection was part of the $117 million Montrose Parkway West project. Before 2010, Montrose Road intersected Old Georgetown Road here, before crossing Rockville Pike and becoming Randolph Road on the other side. But in 2010, Montgomery County finished building the adjacent Montrose Parkway at a cost of $70 million.
The Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA) also finished their own $47.2 million project, which removed the intersection between Montrose Road and Rockville Pike. The end result is that Montrose Road now ends at what used to be part of Old Georgetown Road, now renamed Hoya Street, while Old Georgetown meets Rockville Pike farther south.
Pedestrian safety improvements followed between 2010 and 2012: new curb ramps, a pedestrian refuge in the median of Hoya Street, an improved pedestrian island between the main part of Montrose Road and the slip lane onto southbound Hoya Street, and a marked crosswalk across the slip lane. And yet, nobody in MCDOT or SHA fixed the hazard the wall causes. Why not?
When asked via email how to make this intersection safe for pedestrians, Bruce Mangum, head of MCDOT's signals engineering team, said that they will add two signs reading "Turning Traffic Yield To Pedestrians." One will put one on the traffic signal and the other at street level just behind the curb.
Mangum added that "[n]o amount of engineering (signs, signals, pavement markings) can assure safe intersection operations unless motorists and pedestrians alike know and recognize their respective responsibilities." But a few more signs won't make this intersection safe. Research shows that these signs don't significantly increase the likelihood of drivers yielding to pedestrians during right turns. So extra signage likely won't help. And that's at intersections where the drivers can see the pedestrians. Even the most responsible drivers and pedestrians can't see through a wall.
Fortunately, there actually is an engineering solution that can make the intersection safe: a bulb-out (also called a curb extension), where the sidewalk extends farther toward the middle of the road.
With a bulb-out into Montrose Road, a driver making a right turn would be able to see pedestrians waiting to cross. Also, pedestrians would only cross one lane of traffic, instead of two.
It's true that a bulb-out would reduce westbound Montrose Road from two lanes to one at the intersection. But since Montrose Road no longer connects with Rockville Pike, it doesn't need two lanes there anyway. Plus, since this intersection is part of Montgomery County's transformational 2010 White Flint Sector Plan, pedestrian safety and walkability should be the priority.
Signs alone won't make this intersection safe for pedestrians. Sooner or later, a right-turning driver will hit a pedestrian here. Installing a bulb-out would prevent this from happening. MCDOT, please do it.
M-83, also known as Midcounty Highway Extended, is an environmental calamity that will cost hundreds of millions. Yet Montgomery County continues to pursue its construction. Will county leaders consider a transit alternative to a new highway?
When Montgomery County planners put M-83 on the master plan of highways in the early 1960s, the county's population was 340,000. DC's streetcars had recently gone away. And highways were the future of transportation. Today, the county population is one million, DC is about to bring back the streetcar, and highway removal is common. But M-83, the county's zombie highway, is still around.
This Thursday, the Planning Board will review alternatives for the proposed highway between Gaithersburg and Clarksburg. But planning staff recommends that they ask the Montgomery County Department of Transportation (MCDOT) to study a transit alternative as well, and remove the alternative with the most property takings.
Highway laid out according to 1960s standards
Midcounty Highway was supposed to be an 8.7-mile, limited access, four to six lane highway east of Route 355, connecting the planned corridor cities of Gaithersburg, Germantown, and Clarksburg. The county has built the southern end, a 3-mile divided highway between Shady Grove Road and Montgomery Village Avenue in Gaithersburg. And developers recently built the northern end, called Snowden Farm Parkway, in Clarksburg.
The Planning Board last reviewed the remaining middle part of M-83 in 1992, but for over a decade, not much happened due to a lack of money. In 2003, MCDOT began to study building the rest of M-83 along the master plan route. But that route dates from before the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA), when planners thought it was a good idea to put highways in stream valleys.
So the Army Corps of Engineers, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) got involved. And MCDOT had to follow NEPA's requirement to identify alternatives and evaluate the environmental effects.
In May 2013, MCDOT issued its draft report on the environmental effects. The Army Corps of Engineers and MDE then held a public hearing in August about MCDOT's application for a permit to build M-83. They have yet to publish their findings.
Planning staff recommend studying a transit alternative
But this week, the Planning Board will nonetheless review the master plan route and its alternatives. In a report issued last week, planning staff say that MCDOT should evaluate a transit alternative, including the planned bus rapid transit (BRT) route along 355, and that MCDOT's transportation systems management/transportation demand management (TSM/TDM) alternative should also include BRT along 355.
Their analysis suggests that the area can meet its transportation needs through 2040 without M-83. They also note that the 355 BRT corridor would have the second-highest daily ridership of the 10 proposed transit corridors in the Countywide Transit Corridors Functional Master Plan.
MCDOT says they didn't look at a transit alternative because Montgomery County has not adopted any plans for BRT. They also did not consider transit in their TSM/TDM alternative, even though TSM/TDM usually includes transit.
The staff report's recommendation will please M-83's opponents, including Transit Alternatives to Mid-County Highway Extended (TAME) and the Action Committee for Transit, who have been calling for years for MCDOT to study a transit alternative.
County planners also recommend asking MCDOT to eliminate the alternative route through Goshen, which would involve widening existing two- and four-lane roads. The Planning Board already recommended eliminating the route in 1992. Some community groups have strongly opposed this alternative in favor of the master plan route so that M-83 wouldn't go through their neighborhoods. If the threat from this alternative route goes away, some of the support for M-83 along the master plan route will probably go away as well.
MCDOT's report underestimates environmental and property impacts
In addition, the staff report points out problems with MCDOT's evaluation of environmental effects. For example, MCDOT reports that if M-83 isn't built, 16 intersections will exceed traffic congestion standards. But the staff report notes that at least 6 of these intersections are south of M-83 and would also exceed the standard under all of the alternative routes, including the master plan route.
Similarly, MCDOT's traffic modeling estimates a 55% reduction in travel time for the master plan route and a 37% reduction for Alternative 5, compared to not doing anything at all. (Alternative 5 proposes widening Route 355 and adding service roads.) The staff report notes that the 37% reduction represents a trip that is 3 minutes shorter.
The staff report also points out that MCDOT used a roadway width of less than 150 feet to estimate how many properties each alternative route would disturb or displace. However, 150 feet is the standard roadway width in the current county road code. In addition, MCDOT did not estimate how many properties stormwater management and noise abatement measures might affect. Thus, MCDOT's estimates of the number of affected properties are probably too low.
As for the cost of building M-83, MCDOT estimates for the build alternatives range from $41 million for the TSM/TDM alternative to $357 million for the master plan route. But these estimates are probably too low as well.
According to the staff report, MCDOT's estimates of environmental impacts do not account for stormwater management and the effects of retaining walls. For example, the master plan route would require a retaining wall 400 feet long along Great Seneca Creek, most of which would be in the flood plain within 20-30 feet of the stream channel.
Along Whetstone Run, the master plan route would have to be built on fill, with a retaining wall next to the stream channel. And while the smaller stream reaches may not have delineated flood plains, they have wetlands that function much like flood plains.
What's more, much of the master plan route goes through parkland, including Great Seneca Creek Park and the North Germantown Greenway Stream Valley Park. According to the staff report, the master plan route would have "calamitous" effects on 3 of the largest biodiversity areas in the county, far beyond the official limits of disturbance. And the staff report recommends mitigating impacts on parkland through a combination of trails, environmental projects, and replacement of parkland with land of equal or greater value.
So how much would it cost to build M-83, including parkland mitigation and the environmental requirements of building across streams and along stream valleys? Presumably more than MCDOT estimates.
For now, asking MCDOT to evaluate a transit alternative is a good idea, and so is repeating the Planning Board's 20-year-old request to remove the alternative route through Goshen. But ultimately, it's time for Montgomery County to say no at last to this environment-destroying, obsolete, expensive highway.
Perhaps in the early 1960s, transportation meant moving cars, and the environment was supposed to make way for progress. But it's 2013. Shouldn't we know better by now?
The Planning Board will review the alternatives for Midcounty Highway in Silver Spring on Thursday, November 21, beginning at 6 pm. If you want the Planning Board review to include your thoughts about this project, you can send written comments by e-mail through Wednesday.
If you're a pedestrian who uses a state road in upper Montgomery County, don't expect much help from the State Highway Administration (SHA).
That's the message in highway planners' response to a letter from the Action Committee for Transit (ACT) about pedestrian safety in the upcounty. ACT's letter asked SHA to look at 4 problem areas for pedestrians on state roads designed to prioritize driving over everything else.
At one location, SHA agreed to conduct a pedestrian audit, but did not agree to actually use its audit's recommendations. At 2 others, SHA declined to mark a crosswalk because not enough people use the unmarked crosswalk. And at the fourth, SHA declined to mark a crosswalk because it would inconvenience people in cars.
The first problem area is Germantown Road (Route 118) between Wisteria Drive and the I-270 interchange in Germantown. This stretch of road has up to 9 lanes of high-speed commuter traffic. At least 5 pedestrians have died there in recent years, including a student at Seneca Valley High School.
ACT asked for a pedestrian road safety audit, and SHA agreed to conduct one. This is a good start. But will SHA then do what its own audit recommends? SHA says only that they will evaluate "which suggestions [from the SHA audit] are warranted and feasible".
The second problem area is the intersection of Great Seneca Highway and Dairymaid Drive in Germantown. People who live in the townhouses and apartments east of Great Seneca cross here and then follow a desire path to the Kingsview Village shopping center. ACT asked for signs, pavement markings, and engineering so that people can cross safely and conveniently.
SHA responded that too few people cross this intersection on foot to warrant a marked crosswalk. In addition, they explained that a marked crosswalk would be more dangerous, because people might then feel safe crossing there, even though crossing there is not safe. How could SHA make crossing there safe? SHA's letter does not say.
The third problem area is the intersection of Clopper Road (Route 117) and Mateny Road in Germantown. Both drivers and pedestrians have died along this stretch of road in recent years. ACT asked for walk signals and high-visibility pavement markings for all 4 legs of this intersection, as well as signs to alert drivers about people crossing the street on foot.
SHA responded that there are plans (it's not clear whose) for improving the intersection for pedestrians, including marking the crosswalks across Mateny north and south of Clopper. Thus, 3 of the 4 legs will have marked crosswalks, instead of just one. This is good news. However, the fourth leg will still not have a marked crosswalk. SHA explained that a marked crosswalk is unnecessary because not enough people cross there.
The last problem area is the intersection of Route 355 (Frederick Road) and Shady Grove Road, between Gaithersburg and Rockville. A pedestrian needs eight and a half minutes to cross the street here. ACT asked for high-visibility pavement markings, signs, signals, and appropriate walk intervals for all 4 legs of the intersection, in conformance with the Shady Grove Sector Plan.
SHA explained that they can't mark the crosswalk in the south leg of the intersection, for 2 reasons. First, if drivers turn from northbound Shady Grove onto southbound 355 using the combined right-turn/through lane, they cannot see people in the crosswalk well. Second, the amount of car traffic makes a separate pedestrian-only signal phase impractical.
7 of the 11 pedestrian deaths in Montgomery County in 2013 so far occurred on state roads. The Montgomery County government says that "crossing the street [should not be] a death defying act" and that engineers should design and operate roads so that people on foot can use them safely and conveniently. Wouldn't it be great if SHA learned this lesson too?
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