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Traffic fears tie up plans to revitalize White Oak

For decades, eastern Montgomery County has lacked the jobs and amenities the more affluent west side has long enjoyed. But plans to finally deliver those things, along with the transit to support them, could get hung up on concerns about car traffic.

LifeSci Village rendering from Percontee.

The White Oak Science Gateway plan would transform sprawling office parks and strip malls around the Food & Drug Administration campus near Route 29 and New Hampshire Avenue into a town center and biotech hub. County officials say they've already heard from international pharmaceutical companies who want to be nearby.

With 8,500 new homes and over 40,000 new jobs, the plan would double what's on the ground today, and many are concerned about the traffic it might bring. County planners say that not doing anything won't get rid of White Oak's congestion, and that the real solution is to improve transit and bring people's daily needs closer to home. The County Council will hold a public hearing on the plan tomorrow night.

Traffic concerns stop development in East County

Once the inspiration for the idyllic family sitcom The Wonder Years, White Oak has long suffered from disinvestment, lagging the rest of the county in everything from shopping options to public school quality.

A promised rapid transit line on Route 29 was never built, and for decades, the area was under a development moratorium because of traffic on 29. Instead, growth and investment simply went further out to Howard County or west to Rockville and the I-270 corridor, meaning that people simply had to drive farther to get what they needed.

Anxious for change, residents have generally expressed support for the plan. County Executive Ike Leggett has made a proposed research park called LifeSci Village, to be built in partnership with local developer Percontee, a priority for his administration, and is already shopping the project around to Chinese business executives who want to be near the FDA.

However, the County Council rejected an earlier draft of the plan last fall because it didn't meet the county's "subdivision staging policy," which requires local roads to meet a certain congestion level, usually by widening them or building new ones, before development can go forward.

Planners say there's really no way to fix congestion in the area. There isn't room for new highways and much of the traffic on major roads like Route 29 comes from Prince George's and Howard counties, which Montgomery County has no control over.

The Planning Board decided that reducing the density wasn't an option, because it would take away the incentive for the development people want while forcing people to travel long distances for work or shopping. Instead, it proposed creating a new standard for measuring traffic, midway between that of suburban areas that are totally reliant on cars and urban downtowns like Bethesda where there is Metro service.

Plan relies on transit, but will it get funded?

The Board also tried to encourage the creation of more alternatives to driving. They also propose creating a Transportation Management District, which would help residents and workers find ways to get around without a car. There's a similar one in existence in North Bethesda. The goal is to have 25 to 30% of all trips made without a car by 2040, which is a little higher than the rate today.

To do so, the Science Gateway plan already proposes a new grid of streets with sidewalks and bike lanes. It also requires a more compact, urban form of development, with a mix of housing and commercial uses.

Planners also added language about the county's Bus Rapid Transit plan, which would serve White Oak with lines on Randolph Road, New Hampshire Avenue, and on Route 29, calling it "essential to achieve the vision of this Master Plan." They propose that any impact taxes or fees the county collects from developers to go straight to BRT to ensure it gets built.

But the board also removed a requirement that the full amount of development not go forward if the BRT lines aren't funded or under construction. It's likely due to pressure from Leggett's administration, who are worried that the high cost of building transit and delays in development approvals could discourage investment.

Economic development shouldn't mean lower standards

White Oak's suburban built form, coupled with decades of leapfrog development to more distant communities, force its residents to travel long distances by car or transit. The area has become less desirable than other parts of Montgomery County, and without easy access to jobs, shopping, or other amenities, that will only get worse.

Traffic tests that tie new development to new highways won't work for White Oak, but residents still need some promise that there will be adequate infrastructure to support the growth they want to happen. Instead of eliminating staging requirements, county officials need to ensure that there's enough funding for transit.

Planners estimate that a BRT line on Route 29 would cost about $350 million, the same as three highway interchanges on the same corridor. While the interchanges would simply make it easier to drive to Howard County, transit would better support the creation of the town center everyone wants.

White Oak has waited decades to catch up with the rest of Montgomery County. While folks may be impatient for economic development, it's important we get this right.

Dan Reed is an urban planner at Nelson\Nygaard. He writes his own blog, Just Up the Pike, and serves as the Land Use Chair for the Action Committee for Transit. He lives in downtown Silver Spring. All opinions are his own. 


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While it's a stretch financially, it probably makes sense to have a Metrorail line (not light rail) from Fort Totten to White Oak. New Hampshire in MoCo there has tremendous density (south of U Boulevard) and there is a lot of other development capacity that could be realized, irrespective of the Purple Line.

by Richard Layman on Feb 3, 2014 2:24 pm • linkreport

@Richard Layman -- Of course, you're right. A Langley Park station maybe and then to White Oak. Or better yet, run the Green (or Yellow) from Fort Totten to Silver Spring and then split off to White Oak. That would make it more attractive to commuters who might take the light rail or BRT to White long as we're fantasizing about money. Seriously, it would remove some residents' concerns about doing a light rail or BRT down from Columbia straight into Silver Spring.

Doing the Metro without adding parking for those coming from the north wouldn't be getting bang for the buck...unless you offer commuters another way to the station, from some place where they can get to easily from their homes. So, that's why the light rail/BRT connection would be essential. If the money could be would bring jobs to White Oak, as well as freeing up a lot of traffic off of 29.

It's a neat solution

by Fischy (Ed F.) on Feb 3, 2014 3:00 pm • linkreport

Nice write-up. Hopefully the state can see the urgency in getting the BRT sped up.

by Thayer-D on Feb 3, 2014 3:04 pm • linkreport

@Richard Layman-

Agreed! (well, in a nonofficial capacity) In my fantasy world I've got the Yellow Line running up MD 650 and terminating either at Briggs Chaney, with LRT/BRT running up to Columbia; or possibly extending all the way to Columbia (I added that after deciding the Silver Line's hefty length set a decent enough precedent). Though beyond MD 193 there'd need to be some extensive land use changes to justify the costs of such investment.

by Bossi on Feb 3, 2014 3:07 pm • linkreport

White Oak is unfortunately situated at the main north/south route into DC (NH ave) and along the columbia pike (aka the howard county commuter pike).

NH Ave is a traffic sewer at all hours of the day because the I-95 extension that should parallel it was never built. This is the same reason that Route 1, just to the east, is also a traffic sewer.

New development in white oak would be great.

by Nick likes highways on Feb 3, 2014 3:32 pm • linkreport

yow, forgot about that Bossi plan... David A. years ago kindly did a diagram for me of the sep blue line (silver in that design) plus my version of M.V. Jantzen's brown line, which captures some of your ideas, but certainly not all of them + the map incorporated the purple line.

But that was before I was down with a separated yellow line concept.

BUT... the sep yellow line idea, going up Georgia Ave. (between the Shaw station and Petworth and between Petworth and Silver Spring) is still different than my thinking about New Hampshire Ave. which is more like your yellow line extended concept on the map (but with a couple more stations probably).

I just think, and Fischy maybe you disagree, that it'd be hard to route this line from Silver Spring and get all the value from it. Once you cross Eastern Ave. and go into MoCo, there is a lot of density and more potential density on New Hampshire, whereas if you routed from Silver Spring, you'd lose that opportunity.

PLUS, I didn't think about this before because for the most part it benefits MoCo and not DC. I don't have a problem with that, it's just that my writings tend to focus on DC as far as Metrorail expansion goes.

HOWEVER, as far as benefiting DC goes, this kind of routing to reduce a lot of commuting traffic on New Hampshire Ave. and maybe Riggs Road so there is a lot of potential benefit to DC as well.

I haven't written lately about the Momentum Plan, but I will do so within the next month or so, and it will include these ideas, plus the point that DC needs to represent its own interests vis-a-vis Metrorail and not rely on WMATA, and then link this to the building height arguments.

Just as Bossi makes the point that land use changes would have to be made to financially justify this kind of Metrorail extension, the same goes for DC, and the greater commercial property tax revenues derived from taller buildings being able to be harvested for financing Metrorail expansion in the city proper.

by Richard Layman on Feb 3, 2014 3:37 pm • linkreport

@ Richard Layman

You do know that parts of New Hampshire Ave from Eastern Ave until Metzerott Road are in Montgomery & Prince George's County it flips back and forth so both would be involved; so you would need to list the benefits of PG County also ?

It’s a good idea but I would add a few changes

1 After Columbia Heights send the Yellow Line west so that it can serve either Cleveland Park or Van Ness then swing back east with a stop in Brightwood go back to meet with the Green line and on to Ft Totten.

2 slit from Green line just after West Hyattsville; sending the Yellow line through the field next to the station and across Sligo Creek then underground along Ray Road until New Hampshire and continue with your idea.

Parts of New Hampshire Ave aren't worth it, unless you buy everybody out. The area between Eastern Ave and East West Highway its 85% businesses so would be great there but between East West Highway and IHop it is all houses with a high-rise complex just before the IHOP. At the point it would probably be better to swing the line over to Riggs Road as there are more houses in the area and thus would serve more residents. From there place a station at Riggs and University Blvd and another wherever the Purple Line station will be. After that it’s tricky because most of the businesses are along University Blvd and it is 100% houses/apartments along New Hampshire until the Beltway. After the Beltway there is only Hillandale, until White Oak. Once you past White Oak you have to go east to Calverton along Cherry Hill Road south of Columbia Pike or you miss most of the population, Fairland would be the next big population center and that’s north of 200 and east of Route 29 but if you go there you might as-well go to Laurel thus crossing I95.

The best route would be zig-zaging back and forth; starting somewhere in Laurel, with stops in Burtonsville, Fairland, Calverton, across the beltway to Beltsville, back across the beltway, White Oak, Hillandale, Adelphi (along Riggs Road), Langley Park, Riggs Road @ East West Hwy, and from there either going to West Hyattsville Station (easier as you could have it above ground) or along New Hampshire Ave and creating a new split with the Green Line that would be underground to get to Ft Totten

What is need is two Metrorail lines not one as a Beltway line and the other as an extension of the Green Line as soon as the line passes White Oak the Green Line station of Greenbelt becomes the closest stations and it would be better to just extend the Green line northwest.

Looking on a map it would make sense where to really place the line where the high voltage power lines are in Montgomery & PG County that is the midpoint between all the population centers but would only allow growth at select points.

by kk on Feb 3, 2014 5:32 pm • linkreport

The plan adopted by a majority plan would add the density to justiy building the BRT. This is building the cart to justify buying the horse. If proximity to FDA is so desirable why is United Therapeutics putting all its eggs in downtown Silver Spring.Unlike Johns Hopkins or NIH the FDA is a regulatory agency with very little money devoted to research or colloboration with industry. The fact is that Percontee does not yet have a single corporation publicly committed to its campus. And the county still has a double-digit commercial office vacancy rate.
If we ignore the staging rules here then what is to stop the county from authorizing high density on Georgia or Viers Mill just to build the BRT. We need to keep the staging policy.

by woody brosnan on Feb 4, 2014 7:19 am • linkreport

Agree with Richard Layman. NH Ave is key. Also connecting across New Carrollton, Greenbelt, Glenmont and Rockville would help east west connections.

by Bill on Feb 4, 2014 8:05 am • linkreport

kk -- I think over the long term, especially because of the Purple Line, that development capacity along NH Ave. is much greater than Riggs Road. Riggs Road between Chillum Road and East West Hwy is pretty under dense and unlikely to generate much momentum for change (especially if that KMart ends up being closed).

and yes, I understand the PG-MoCo thing, was just being sloppy.

by Richard Layman on Feb 4, 2014 11:59 am • linkreport

Here is a very simple, although not cheap, suggestion: Extend the Red Line from Silver Spring to New Hampshire and the Beltway, underground.

The reason that traffic is such a problem in that region is that there are very few feet of ROW that currently cross the Northwest Branch. Adding surface level transit will only constrain the ROW further and while there may be a net benefit, there will be winners and losers.

This would also not have a huge impact on transit capacity. Currently, many Red Line trains stop at Silver Spring. These trains could be continued on to the additional stop.

In addition to the cost of tunneling under NW Branch (and neighborhoods), the other big cost would be the traffic connections between the beltway and the station (inevitably, this would be a park/ride hub) and also capacity improvements at the intersection of US 29 and New Hampshire. But this would alleviate problems at Four Corners area due to diversion of Howard County commuters down New Hampshire to the Metro and would free up parking etc. in Silver Spring.

by John D Wilson on May 27, 2014 9:45 am • linkreport

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