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.|
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- On October 3 (International Walk to School Day), a 16-year-old and an 18-year-old were struck by a car while on the sidewalk on their way to Springbrook High School in Silver Spring.
- On October 31, Christina Morris-Ward, age 15, was struck by a car and killed on the way to Seneca Valley High School in Germantown.
- On December 11, a 9-year-old was struck by a car while in a crosswalk on the way to Westbrook Elementary School in Bethesda.
- On February 27, a 3-month-old baby in a stroller was struck by a car while in a marked crosswalk during the walk signal, next to Bethesda Elementary School in Bethesda.
- On March 12, a 16-year-old was struck by a car while in a marked crosswalk next to Watkins Mill High School in Gaithersburg.
- Also on March 12, an 8-year-old, a 10-year-old, and their mother were struck by a car while on the sidewalk one block from Gaithersburg Elementary School in Gaithersburg.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"We're all drivers. We're all pedestrians. We all just want to get to where we're going," said one Germantown resident at the Action Committee for Transit's public forum on pedestrian issues in upcounty Montgomery County in Germantown on Saturday.
The 50 or so participants ranged in age from elementary school children to senior citizens. The lively discussion pointed to road problems that need fixing and road policies that need changing.
Barbara McCann, founder of the National Complete Streets Coalition, spoke to the residents. Complete Streets are streets that "are designed and operated to enable safe access for all users, including pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists and transit riders of all ages and abilities."
According to McCann, Montgomery County has adopted a Complete Streets policy, but with exceptions "big enough to drive a truck through," and a rating of only 46%.
McCann laid out 4 steps for implementing a Complete Streets policy:
- Changing procedures.
- Educating staff and others.
- Re-writing manuals (such as Montgomery County's road code).
- Establishing new performance measures (for example, adding level-of-service measures for pedestrians, as well as drivers).
The second presenter was Frances Heilig, a Gaithersburg resident whose neighbor, Yessenia Martinez Rivas, was killed at a crosswalk across Muddy Branch Road north of Suffield Drive in Gaithersburg in November, leaving three young daughters. Another pedestrian had been killed at this location in 2009.
Heilig explained that there is a lot of pedestrian traffic at this crosswalk because of the Muddy Branch Square shopping center, but that with a speed limit of 45 mph (and speeding drivers), drivers who stop for pedestrians risk getting hit by other drivers. Another Gaithersburg resident added that southbound drivers focus on the traffic signal further down the hill at Great Seneca Highway, rather than on the crosswalk.
Finally, Clarksburg resident Edward Rothblum talked about how his requests for a marked crosswalk to connect his neighborhood to the elementary school on the other side of Stringtown Road have been repeatedly denied by Montgomery County.
There are curb ramps and a pedestrian refuge here, anticipating a traffic signal one day, perhaps in the far future. In the meantime, though, the county is not willing to put in a crosswalk to help people cross. Catherine Matthews, director of the county government's Upcounty Regional Services Center, said she had spoken with Emil Wolanin, chief of MCDOT's Division of Traffic Engineering and Operations. Matthews said they are now considering a policy of simply not installing any pedestrian features at an intersection until all of the planned road construction is complete.
After the presentations, participants created a list of 5 problematic spots in the county for pedestrian safety, and identified 4 specific actions the county can take to improve pedestrian mobility.
Participants specifically highlighted these problem places, plus all rural upcounty roads, at the meeting for particular pedestrian danger. Image from Google Maps.
Problem places range from rural to fairly urban
The first problem spot is Germantown Road/MD 118 in Germantown, between Wisteria Drive and the I-270 interchange. The stretch of road combines high-speed commuter traffic in up to 9 lanes of traffic with increasing pedestrian (including school) and business activity. Sadly, but not surprisingly, it has been the location of multiple pedestrian deaths recently.
Captain Thomas Didone, director of the Traffic Division of the Montgomery County Department of Police, said that the Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA) had recently agreed to the county's request to lower the speed limit along this stretch from 50 mph to 40 mph.
A second problem place is the intersection of Dairymaid Drive and Great Seneca Highway in Germantown. As the well-defined goat track shows, people living in the Farmingdale Estates neighborhood use this unmarked crosswalk across Great Seneca Highway to walk to the Kingsview Village shopping center.
Third, at the intersection of Mateny Road and Clopper Road (MD 117) in Germantown, there are (narrow) sidewalks, bus stops, and pedestrian signals, but no pavement markings or signs to alert drivers. Note that there are plans to build 104 townhouses in the former shopping center in the northeast corner of this intersection.
A fourth problem place is the more rural parts of the upcounty, where people do not feel safe walking to playgrounds and parks that are in walking distance. For example, Kings Valley Road in Damascus is a rural two-lane road, but because there are no shoulders or sidewalks, residents feel unsafe walking along the road, especially with children. And crossing Ridge Road/MD 27 on foot, on the way to Damascus Regional Park, is something only a committed pedestrian would dare to attempt.
Finally, participants pointed to the crossing in front of Gaithersburg City Hall in Gaithersburg, where drivers do not stop for pedestrians.
The county and state can do better
To make these and many other unsafe spots better for pedestrians, Maryland could change its law to make the use of a non-hands-free cell phone while driving primary offense instead of a secondary offense. Didone said that it is difficult for police officers to issue citations for cell phone use because they must first have another reason to pull the driver over, such as speeding. (Under Maryland law, texting while driving is a primary offense.)
Second, the county could put up signs at every school for lower speed limits during school hours. In Germantown, for example, there are such signs at Northwest High School and Seneca Valley High School. Didone said that enforcing these speed limits is difficult.
A third action would be repainting worn crosswalks. Dunckel commented that budget cuts had affected many maintenance issues, including crosswalk painting. He advised reporting such crosswalks through the county's 311 system, noting the service request number, and then following up a few weeks later if there were no response.
Finally, we must improve driver awareness as well as pedestrian awareness. Montgomery County does conduct such pedestrian safety campaigns. Enforcement, however, is more often aimed at pedestrians rather than drivers, though there are exceptions.
Dunckel and Didone both emphasized that the upcounty was not built for pedestrians and that, with over 5,000 lane miles of county roads, plus state highways, changes to improve pedestrian safety and mobility cannot happen overnight.
But that's all the more reason for the county to design complete streets from the get-go in new development in the upcounty, such as in supposed-to-be transit- and pedestrian-oriented Clarksburg. And it's all the more reason to keep pushing for change in the rest of the county as well.
Only in Clarksburg would it cost $27 million to get a marked crosswalk so that children can walk to school safely and conveniently. That's because the Montgomery County Department of Transportation refuses to install one until it spends $27 million on road construction.
Clarksburg, Montgomery County's last master-planned development in the I-270 corridor, is an on-going planning headache. One reason is that the 1993 Master Plan envisoned Clarksburg as a "transit- and pedestrian-oriented town", but there is little to walk to and almost no transit.
12 years after construction began in Clarksburg, the planned shops and supermarket at Clarksburg Town Center are still vacant land. There will be no library in Clarksburg until after fiscal year 2018, if then, according to Montgomery County's Capital Improvement Plan .
While the residential part of Clarksburg's Cabin Branch development is proceeding, the future of the associated 2.4 million square feet of commercial development is uncertain since the Maryland Health Commission ended Adventist HealthCare's plans to open a hospital in Clarksburg.
Although the County Council recently put the next phase of Clarksburg development on hold, this was not because the Clarksburg built to date falls so far short of the 1993 Master Plan's promise. Instead, the County Council worried that construction would degrade the Ten Mile Creek watershed and further reduce water quality in WSSC's Little Seneca reservoir.
And earlier this year, the Montgomery County Department of Transportation (MCDOT) turned down a request from Clarksburg parents to mark a crosswalk at Stringtown Road and Observation Drive. Parents in the Gateway Commons development use the unmarked crosswalk to walk their children to the elementary school that is literally within sight of their homes.
The parents persisted, asking Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett to reverse MCDOT's decision. But last week, Leggett instead supported MCDOT's denial. Why?
Because, he explained in an e-mail, the county will not install a marked crosswalk at this intersection until the county has built a 2-mile, multi-lane, divided road (Observation Drive Extended) between Germantown and Clarksburg.
It's bad enough that Stringtown Road did not include a marked crosswalk when the road opened in 2007. After all, the Montgomery County Planning Board approved the site plan for the Gateway Commons development in 2003, and the elementary school has been there since 1909.
Did nobody think that people living on the southeast side of the road might want to walk to the school on the northwest side of the road? Was the road's $8.8 million budget too small to pay for a marked crosswalk?
But Leggett's explanation actually makes it worse. The Stringtown Road construction project did include curb cuts and pedestrian refuges at the intersection with Observation Drive. The parents assumed, reasonably, that the county had included these pedestrian facilities so that pedestrians could use them.
But this assumption was incorrect, Leggett's e-mail explained. Rather, the reason the Stringtown Road project included the pedestrian facilities was "to minimize the expense and operational impacts on the roadway when Observation Drive [Extended] is constructed".
Observation Drive Extended is not on the county's Capital Improvement Plan. But it is possible to get a rough estimate of its construction costs, if the county were to build the road today. The similar 1.2-mile extension of Father Hurley Boulevard in Germantown opened in 2011 and cost $10.9 million, or roughly $9 million per mile. So Observation Drive Extended might cost roughly $18 million.
$8.8 million for Stringtown Road plus $18 million for Observation Drive Extended adds up to $27 million that must be spent before parents and children, in a town planned as pedestrian-oriented, can cross at a marked crosswalk on their safe, convenient walk to school.
At that cost, it's no wonder that, as Leggett's e-mail said, "[t]he County simply does not have the resources to provide crossing guards or other control measures at every potential crossing location to make them as safe as possible for everyone who wishes to use them."
Instead, these parents will have to continue to choose between crossing safely at an inconvenient, marked crosswalk and crossing conveniently at an unsafe, unmarked crosswalk.
As Leggett's e-mail explains, "When in the judgment of our engineers and school transportation professionals it is better to compromise the convenience of a pedestrian...than to potentially compromise their safety, I will back that decision. Like them I believe that installing a marked crosswalk at this location may not improve the safety of those who wish to cross there."
But why must there be this trade-off between pedestrian convenience and pedestrian safety? Surely MCDOT is capable of designing a marked crosswalk at this intersection that would allow pedestrians to cross both conveniently and safely. Such a crosswalk would, however, compromise the convenience of drivers.
The Clarksburg Master Plan says that it will "carefully guide the growth of Clarksburg from a rural settlement into a transit- and pedestrian-oriented town". Ike Leggett says that he supports "mak[ing] our area more pedestrian-friendly". MCDOT says that the county supports improvements to "the walkability of our communities".
Why is it so hard to get Montgomery County to do what it says?
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