Greater Greater Washington

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 Action Committee for Transit

Government


Purple Line meets a stone wall in Chevy Chase

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.


Photo by Nick Thompson on Flickr.

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.

Roads


Turn on a bulb-out to protect White Flint pedestrians

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?


Image from Google Maps.

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?


Photo by Peter Blanchard on Flickr.

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.

Roads


Will Montgomery County study a transit alternative to M-83?

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?


Seneca Creek Greenway Trail. Photo by Vickiís Pics on Flickr.

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.

Pedestrians


MD highway planners to pedestrians: youíre on your own

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).


Photo by Gary Kavanagh on Flickr.

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.

In addition, SHA said that they would not mark the crosswalks with high-visibility markings because the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) calls for 2 parallel lines.

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.

Impractical for whom? Presumably for people in cars, since a marked crosswalk with a walk signal would be very practical for people trying to cross the south leg of the intersection on foot.

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?

Transit


MARC backs away from all-day service on Brunswick Line

In 2007, the Maryland Transit Administration proposed adding a third track to the MARC Brunswick Line, which could make it possible to have all-day, two-way service. With a recent plan update proposing less third track, it's unlikely that this will ever happen.


MARC's Brunswick Line in Dickerson. Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

The 2007 MARC Growth and Investment Plan proposed a third track from Georgetown Junction in Silver Spring, to Point of Rocks in Frederick County. It would have been built in three stages between now and 2035. In contrast, the 2013 draft update proposes one small portion of third track in Montgomery County and at unspecified locations elsewhere.

This reduces the chance that there will ever be all-day, two-way service. CSX owns the tracks that MARC trains use, and the agency will not allow MARC to run more service if there isn't a third track. If MARC doesn't say where they plan to put a third track, Montgomery County can't reserve the right-of-way for it, making it harder to build the third track later.

Current service on the Brunswick Line consists of 18 daily trains, peak-service headways of 40-75 minutes, one off-peak train on Fridays only, no reverse-peak service, and no weekend service. The Maryland Transit Administration's original plan for MARC called for bringing all-day, two-way service to the Brunswick Line in three stages.

In 2015, there were to be at least 6 additional peak-service trains, or 3 round trips. By 2020, there were to be shorter peak-service headways, plus some reverse-peak and off-peak service. And in 2035, there were to be reverse-commute and weekend service, as well as service to L'Enfant Plaza and Northern Virginia.

As for the third track, first, MTA would build near Rockville and along the Frederick branch of the Old Main Line. In 2020, there would be a third track on Barnesville Hill, roughly between the Monocacy River, west of Dickerson, and the Bucklodge interlocking, west of Boyds. In the long term, MTA would build the remaining sections of track between Georgetown Junction and Point of Rocks.

In comparison, the 3-stage expansion in the 2013 draft update builds up to only marginally more service. There would be no additional trains in the short term. During the 2020s, MARC would add 3 additional trains, including one reverse-peak train.

Between 2030 and 2050, there would be 6 additional peak-service trains (3 round trips), plus some off-peak service and some more reverse-peak service. The draft update only proposes building a short section of third track on Barnesville Hill in the 2020s, with "additional triple tracking" at unspecified locations in the long term.

Why is MTA's 2013 draft update so much less ambitious than its 2007 plan? Perhaps MTA is trying to hold down the costs of the plan. But unlike the 2007 plan, the 2013 draft update does not provide cost estimates for the long-term plans. So reducing the scope of the long-term plans does not affect the total cost in the 2013 draft update.

Or maybe MTA now believes that there will be insufficient demand for all-day, two-way service and weekend service on the Brunswick Line in the future. But this seems inconsistent with MTA's explicit recognition of transit-oriented development (TOD) in the 2013 draft update, including the creation of high-density, mixed-use TOD on existing surface parking lots within walking distance of MARC stations.

In Montgomery County, there are plans for MARC-related TOD at Kensington and White Flint, and construction is already underway at Gaithersburg, Germantown, and Metropolitan Grove. But will there be enough transit to support TOD at these stations, if even MARC's own Growth and Expansion Plan does not call for eventual all-day, two-way service?

And will these plans leave room for an eventual third track, if MARC's Growth and Expansion Plan does not call for one? Montgomery County's draft Countywide Transit Corridors Functional Master Plan, which proposes a countywide Bus Rapid Transit network, also covers right-of-way for MARC. But it only includes a third track northwest of Metropolitan Grove.

All of these projects should maintain a reserved right-of-way for the third track that will make it easier to provide all-day, two-way service on the Brunswick Line. And for this to happen, MTA's final update of the Growth and Investment Plan must restore both all-day, two-way service and a third track between Georgetown Junction and Point of Rocks as long-term plans.

If you support all-day, two-way service on the Brunswick Line, please e-mail MTA at MGIP@mta.maryland.gov. MTA will accept public comments on the draft update through mid-November.

Transit


MARC plan calls for new stations, more service

MARC commuter rail could eventually get new stations, more frequent service, and connections to Northern Virginia and Delaware. That's what a draft update of the system's Growth and Investment Plan calls for over the next 40 years.


Photo by morganglines on Flickr.

The Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) envisions $467 million in capital improvements between 2013 and 2019 and another $1.8 billion for the following decade, according to the draft plan, an update of the original 2007 plan. It also includes potential plans for between 2030 and 2050.

The draft update identifies four trends affecting MARC. Over the past 15 years, system ridership has gone up an average of 3.5% per year, largely due to the Penn Line between DC, Baltimore, and Perryville. Parking is at capacity at stations on all 3 lines. MTA wants to make the system more sustainable. And MTA wants to encourage transit-oriented development.

MTA already has programmed investments for MARC that are either underway or are planned to happen soon. They include weekend service on the Penn Line, starting December 7; a new station at Halethorpe, on the Penn Line; and the purchase of 54 new railcars. MTA also plans to buy 10 new diesel locomotives, overhaul 63 bi-level railcars, and repower 6 diesel locomotives.

MTA also plans to implement positive train control, as required by law. And MTA plans to improve the track on the Camden and Brunswick Lines, build a facility for mid-day train storage in Washington, procure a maintenance facility at Riverside Yard in Baltimore, and build an interlocking at Hanson, just south of New Carrollton.

For the future, the draft update lays out four objectives for MARC: maintain a state of good repair, increase ridership, improve service, and enhance the customer experience.

On the Penn Line, MTA has $1.296 billion of planned improvements for 2020-2029, including new stations at West Baltimore and BWI and station construction at Bayview (in Baltimore) and at Elkton (in Cecil County). Plans also include expanded parking at Aberdeen, Halethorpe, Odenton, Bowie State, and Seabrook. Trains would have expanded peak and reverse peak hours and 30-minute headways for off-peak service. And there would be a shuttle link with SEPTA, the transit system for Philadelphia and southeastern Pennsylvania. MTA also plans to expand capacity at the Martins maintenance yard north of Baltimore and to build a pedestrian overpass at Odenton.

For 2030-2050, the potential plans for the Penn Line include a complete fourth track, including new bridges and tunnels, as well as service to L'Enfant Plaza and northern Virginia.

On the Camden Line, the $33 million of planned improvements for 2013-2019 include longer trains, a pedestrian crossover at Savage, 2 additional round trips, and turnback service between Washington and Dorsey. For 2020-2029, the $186 million of planned improvements include parking expansions at Laurel, Muirkirk, and Laurel Park Raceway; a third track between Savage and Laurel; one additional mid-day afternoon train; and one additional reverse-peak train. The potential plans for 2030-2050 include more third track, 20-minute headways for peak service, limited mid-day service, and weekend service.

On the Brunswick Line, the $57 million of planned improvements for 2013-2019 include longer trains and more bus connections. The $264 million of planned improvements for 2020-2029 include a third track on Barnesville Hill, east of the Monocacy River, as well as an additional or expanded station in Montgomery County and a parking garage at Germantown. There would be increased limited-stop and express service, along with one additional round trip from Brunswick and one reverse-peak trip to Brunswick. Potential plans for 2030-2050 include more third track, limited reverse-peak service, and 3 additional round trips from Frederick.

For comments on the draft update, you can e-mail MTA at MGIP@mta.maryland.gov until mid-November.

Transit


CSX explains slower train speeds in heat or heavy rain

Why do trains on MARC's Camden and Brunswick Lines sometimes run slowly? One reason is the weather: CSX, which owns the tracks, orders MARC trains to slow down for safety when it's hot or very rainy.


Photo by Don Shall on Flickr.

That's what CSX Vice President for Passenger Operations Jay Westbrook told the MARC Riders Advisory Council last week. High temperatures can make the rails buckle. If a train goes over a buckle or sun kink, the train may derail, as Amtrak's Capitol Limited did near Kensington in 2002. Meanwhile, a lot of rain can wash out the track bed, causing the tracks to collapse.

Heat is a problem because modern railroads use continuous welded rail, rather than jointed track. Continuous welded rail is sections of rail that are 1/4-mile long, with the ends welded to the next section of rail. Unlike jointed track, there are no gaps between the sections of rail to accommodate expansion when the rail gets hot. Instead, the rail spikes, tie plates, rail anchors, and track ballast are supposed to keep the rail in place.

The Federal Railroad Adminstration requires track owners to have a plan for continuous welded rail. The plan must include procedures governing train speed on continuous welded rail track when "the difference between the average rail temperature and the average rail neutral temperature is in a range that causes buckling-prone conditions to be present at a specific location."

CSX owns the tracks on MARC's Brunswick and Camden Lines. CSX issues a heat order for operations between 1 pm and 7 pm if the predicted high temperature for the day is 90 degrees or higher, or if there is a large predicted change in temperature (e.g., 25 degrees or more), especially if the predicted high temperature is higher than 85 degrees. Large predicted changes in temperature are usually the reason for heat orders in the fall or spring.

If CSX issues a heat order, passenger trains must go 20 miles per hour below the maximum authorized speed, but not less than 40 miles per hour. Freight trains must go at least 10 miles per hour below the speed limit, but not less than 30 miles per hour. On the Brunswick and Camden Line tracks, under normal operations, the maximum authorized speed is 79 miles per hour for passenger trains and 60 miles per hour for freight trains.

Thus, for example, the usual maximum speed for a passenger train with a heat order would be 59 miles per hour. However, if the maximum authorized speed for a particular section of track were 45 miles per hour, then under a heat order, the passenger train would go 40 miles per hour, not 25 miles per hour.

The slower speeds not only help the engineers look out for buckles but also prevent buckling in the first place, because a slower train puts less stress on the track, Westbrook said.

For rain, said Westbrook, CSX currently uses Accuweather's Skyguard service, which provides weather information for specific locations. Skyguard issues flash flood warnings based on recent rainfall, the predicted hourly rainfall rate (more than 1 inch per hour or 3 inches per 3 hours), the total predicted rainfall, and local conditions, such as elevation and soil. Under flash flood warnings, the maximum speed is 40 miles per hour.

Development


Clarksburg residents call to protect environment, add transit

The 1994 Clarksburg Master Plan envisioned a "transit- and pedestrian-oriented community" in upper Montgomery County with comprehensive transit service, a bustling town center, and phased development to protect the environment. 20 years later, many residents feel the promises have been broken.


Photo by Dan Reed on Flickr.

Instead, Clarksburg has little transit, no town center, and children who are bused across the street to school. Residents have formed a new organization, the Liveable Clarksburg Coalition, to influence the process for the final stage of development, which they call "our last chance to get it right." Their first meeting on May 26 drew a standing-room only crowd of 250 people.

The Liveable Clarksburg Coalition wants to halt further development until the plan's promises are fulfilled. And they warn against any development that might put pristine, environmentally-sensitive Ten Mile Creek at risk.

A town without a center, TOD without the T

The Master Plan called for 4 stages of development. Property owners in some areas could not build until adequate sewer infrastructure, some roads, and parts of the town center were in place. Meanwhile, safeguards tried to protect the health of Ten Mile Creek, called the county's "last, best creek."


Map of Clarksburg showing each of the 4 stages along with existing and proposed transit. Click on the image to see an interactive map.

The first stage was Clarksburg Town Center, which broke ground in 2000. Stage 2, including the Clarksburg Village and Arora Hills developments, started around 2003. And work began on the third stage, Cabin Branch, last year. The continuing construction suggests that development has gone smoothly. But actually, the opposite is true.

In 2004, residents discovered hundreds of site plan violations, a scandal that led to the resignation of the Planning Board chairman. The town center that was supposed to come first never got built; instead of stores, a supermarket, and a library, there are 17 acres of vacant land.


A man walks through Clarksburg's future town center. Photo by dan reed! on Flickr.

For Clarksburg to get its first supermarket, set to open in Clarksburg Village this year, the County Council had to pass a limited amendment waiving the master plan's requirement that commercial development happen in the town center first.

Meanwhile, the promised "comprehensive transit system" has turned out to mean 2 Ride On routes: the 75, which runs every 30 minutes on weekdays between the Germantown Transit Center and the Montgomery County Correctional Facility, and the 79, which runs non-express every 30 minutes during rush hour between Clarksburg and Shady Grove.

The Corridor Cities Transitway was supposed to stop in Clarksburg at Comsat, 2 miles south of Town Center and across I-270 from Cabin Branch. Now, the Maryland Transit Administration plans for the still-unfunded line to end at Metropolitan Grove in Gaithersburg, 9 miles south.

And as for pedestrian-friendly roads: children in the Gateway Commons neighborhood take the bus to a school across the street because it's unsafe for them to cross on foot. There will be a crosswalk and traffic signal after a bypass of Route 355 is built, as the master plan calls for. However, the bypass would go through the school.

Plan requires more evaluation before developing around Ten Mile Creek

The fourth and final stage of Clarksburg development is on the east side of Ten Mile Creek. Because the creek is environmentally sensitive, the master plan requires the County Council to evaluate its water quality before Stage 4 can begin.


Photo by Dan Reed.

If the water quality is worse, they must decide whether to require property owners in Stage 4 to take extra measures to improve the creek, study the water quality further, make changes to Stage 4 to prevent additional deterioration, or just let Stage 4 go forward anyway. In 2009, the Department of Environmental Protection completed the required evaluation and found that construction in Town Center had degraded the water quality in the Ten Mile Creek watershed.

The Planning Board recommended that the County Council amend the master plan to change Stage 4. Instead, the council appointed a water quality working group to study whether planned development could occur without harming the watershed.

The working group's recommendations split along predictable lines. Consultants felt that development could continue without problems thanks to more stringent requirements for stormwater management and sediment control.

However, the majority of the group, including county government staff, a Clarksburg resident, and a member of an environmental group, felt that the planned development could not happen without harming the Ten Mile Creek watershed. They cited studies that show urbanization at any level degrades water quality, as well as the way construction at Town Center had already degraded one Ten Mile Creek subwatershed.

This majority recommended changing the master plan for Stage 4, and last October, the County Council asked the Planning Department to prepare a limited amendment to the plan.

The stakes are high

On June 20, the Planning Board will hold a worksession to present and discuss the proposed amendment. A public hearing will follow in September. If the Planning Board votes to endorse the amendment, it will then go to the County Council for a final vote that will determine how Stage 4 development will proceed.

Groups including the Sierra Club, Audubon Naturalist Society, and the Liveable Clarksburg Coalition are calling for changes to the Clarksburg Master Plan to protect Ten Mile Creek and support the vision of Clarksburg as a transit- and pedestrian-oriented town.

However, the two major developers in the watershed are pressuring the county to let Stage 4 proceed without major changes. Pulte Homes owns 538 acres in the Ten Mile Creek watershed and says they've spent $70 million preparing for the 1,000-unit development they're already advertising. And the Peterson Companies want to build a Tanger Outlet Center on a 98-acre property in the creek's watershed east of I-270.

Councilmember Craig Rice, whose district includes Clarksburg, has introduced 2 bills that would let projects with pervious pavers include more paved surface area than the Master Plan's limits would otherwise allow. Planners say that these bills "propose a solution to a problem that does not exist, and would create new problems."

For nearly a generation, development in Clarksburg has been a history of missteps, mistakes, empty words, and broken promises. Instead of a transit- and pedestrian-oriented town, the first 3 stages of the Clarksburg Master Plan have produced a car-dependent, transit-less sprawl. With the master plan amendment on Ten Mile Creek, Montgomery County has one last chance to get development in Clarksburg right.

Pedestrians


Small changes can make walking to school safer

Montgomery County could do a lot to make walking to school safer and more convenient, and at little cost. All it takes is a few changes to the law, signs and paint, and retiming some traffic signals.


Photo by The Tire Zoo on Flickr.

These are the recommendations from the Safe Walk to School campaign, which launched last week. The Action Committee for Transit, the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, the mother of a high school student killed while walking to school last October, and others started the campaign because walking to and from school in Montgomery County can be hazardous.

In this school year alone, at least 8 kids and one parent have been struck by cars:

Unsafe walks to school cost Montgomery County residents millions of dollars a year. Montgomery County Public Schools must provide "hazard busing" for children who live within walking distance of school but can't walk there safely. Parents driving children to and from school adds meaningfully to traffic congestion. Children who don't walk to school experience decreased physical activity and mental well-being. And the air pollution from school-related car trips contributes to asthma and premature deaths.

To make walking to and from school safer for children in Montgomery County, the Safe Walk to School campaign calls on the Montgomery County Department of Transportion (MCDOT) to take the following low-cost but effective steps:

Expand school zones: Amend the county's criteria for school zones to include all county roads within a half-mile radius of a school. This would allow MCDOT to reduce speed limits and increase fines on roads near schools.

Lower speeds and limit unsafe right turns: Change the following rules in the amended school zones and post new signs to inform drivers:

  • Establish a maximum speed limit of 20 miles per hour during school hours, including arrival and dismissal. This could decrease the risk of child pedestrian crashes by up to 70%.
  • Double the fines for speeding violations, to motivate drivers to slow down.
  • Prohibit right turns on red during school hours to reduce conflicts between pedestrians and drivers at traffic signals.
The engineering cost would be about $350 per sign, including installation. (For comparison, the estimated cost in 2011 of the 1.62-mile Montrose Parkway East project was $120 million. That's equivalent to the cost of roughly 340,000 signs.)

Retime traffic signals: Change traffic signal timing in the amended school zones in the following ways, to make it safer for pedestrians of all ages to cross the street:

  • Put in leading pedestrian intervals for traffic signals at intersections where at least one of the roads is an arterial, to allow walkers to get a head start crossing busy streets.
  • Use a walking speed of 2.5 feet per second to calculate the minimum pedestrian clearance interval, to give everyone, including children and adults pushing strollers, sufficient time to cross.
  • Have the walk signal appear during every signal cycle during school hours at intersections with traffic signals, without pedestrians having to push a button. This can be done either by putting the signals in pedestrian "recall" during school hours (including arrival and dismissal) or by removing the pedestrian pushbuttons altogether.
  • Shorten traffic signals during school hours (including arrival and dismissal) so kids don't have to wait longer than 40 seconds for a walk signal on any leg of an intersection. This would lead more pedestrians to wait for the walk signal to cross.
The engineering cost for retiming the traffic signals would be about $3,500 per intersection. (For comparison, the estimated $120 million cost to build Montrose Parkway East would be equivalent to the cost of retiming roughly 34,000 signals.)

Change road markings: Add paint to the pavement in school zones in the following ways:

  • Mark all crosswalks with a "ladder" or "zebra" crosswalk, using material embedded with retroreflective glass beads. This increases the visibility of crosswalks, raising driver awareness and encouraging pedestrians to cross at crosswalks.
  • Narrow traffic lanes to 10 feet, to reduce vehicle speeds, increase drivers' compliance with the 20 mph speed limits, and reduce the length of pedestrian crossings across traffic lanes.
Ladder crosswalks cost about $300, and lane restriping costs about $1,000 per mile. (For comparison, the estimated $120 million cost of Montrose Parkway East would be equivalent to the cost of roughly 400,000 crosswalks or 120,000 miles of lane restriping.)

Montgomery County says they support safe walks to school. To encourage them to show they mean it, go to SafeWalktoSchool.com and send an e-mail to the Montgomery County Council.

Transit


MARC makes improvements, plans even more

MARC riders will see a new Halethorpe station on the Penn Line in June and the first of 54 new bi-level train cars by the end of the year.


MARC train at Halethorpe. Photo by Skabat169 on Flickr.

MTA also has a wish list of projects to fund with money from Maryland's recently-passed gas tax increase. David Johnson, chief customer communications officer for the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA), briefed the MARC Riders' Advisory Council last Thursday.

MTA would like to overhaul the Penn Line station at West Baltimore, similar to the Halethorpe overhaul. This would be in conjunction with the future Baltimore Red Line. Other items on the wish list include 10 new diesel locomotives and weekend service on the Penn Line.

At Halethorpe, where MTA reported 1,209 boardings on March 13, 2013, the southbound high platform is complete and will open this week, Johnson said. The high platform will reduce the time each train spends at the station (dwell time), because the floor of the train cars will be at the same level as the platform. Passengers will no longer have to use stairs to get on and off the train. In addition, passengers will be able to use all doors of the train to get on and off.

However, Johnson said that MTA does not expect to adjust the Penn Line schedule to account for the reduced dwell time until the northbound high platform and the footbridge connecting the two platforms are completed in June.

When the overhaul is finished, people who use wheelchairs will be able to ride the train from Halethorpe, because of the high platforms and elevators in the new bridge. All stations on the Penn Line between Washington Union Station and Baltimore Penn Station will be wheelchair-accessible, except West Baltimore.

After this, the next step at Halethorpe might be an $18 million parking garage, said Johnson. Many people who drive to the station park their cars on Southwestern Boulevard (US Route 1) and on nearby neighborhood streets.

As for the 54 new bi-level cars, MTA expects the first of the cars to be in service in November. The cars were delayed by a strike at the factory in Quebec and Federal Railroad Administration-required modifications to the brake rotors. They will be certified to run at 90 mph, but MTA would like to get them certified to run at 125 mph.

MTA will use the first cars to replace the 4 40-year-old Pullman gallery cars currently in service on the Brunswick Line. In the meantime, MTA plans a light overhaul of the air conditioning systems on the gallery cars, to get them through one more summer.

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