Pedestrian Metro access suddenly turns into grade-separated interchange
Today is the deadline for the region to submit its application for the federal competitive TIGER grants. Eagle-eyed Montgomery County residents noticed a strange and sudden change in the proposal: money for better access to the Medical Center Metro station became a pedestrian underpass under Rockville Pike, and then morphed into a "multimodal" underpass that will accommodate motor vehicles.
Suddenly, hopes for a new elevator entrance on the NNMC campus have turned into fears of walking along a narrow sidewalk of an underground roadway with traffic zooming past.
The TIGER grant proposal is a grab bag of ideas from various jurisdictions. There's the K Street Transitway, a bunch of priority bus corridors, some freeway bus ramps in Virginia, regional bike sharing, a Takoma/Langley transit center, a new Metro entrance at Rosslyn, and some access improvements at Medical Center to make it easier for NNMC workers on the east side of Rockville Pike to access the station, whose escalators are on the west side near NIH.
WMATA studied options to improve access, including a shallow pedestrian underpass somewhat like the one at White Flint, a new elevator entrance directly to the station along with emergency exit stairs, and a combination. As I explained earlier, the new entrance seems far superior to the underpass, and costs about the same amount. It'll save about 6,000 people a day 3½ minutes each, twice a day. It also will add important emergency fire egress from the station, which currently doesn't comply with laws for fire safety.
Nevertheless, the Montgomery County executive branch submitted a request to include the tunnel, not the elevator entrance, in the TIGER grant. The July 15th TPB presentation on the grant lists this item as a "pedestrian tunnel." Subsequently, ACT reported that Councilmember Marc Elrich got a Transportation Planning Board resolution broadening the grant to keep open the option for a direct station entrance.
In the presentation for tomorrow's TPB meeting, this suddenly turned into a "multimodal tunnel," costing $47.3 million instead of the $30 million listed in July. According to officials involved with the project, this will pay for a wider tunnel, big enough to accommodate motor vehicles, though not for any vehicular access ramps. At first, therefore, it will just let pedestrians and bicycles travel under Rockville Pike. In the future, buses going to and from NNMC could use the underpass instead of having to turn left off Rockville Pike, and buses could travel from NNMC to the Metro station or NIH using the underpass as well.
Their thinking makes a certain amount of sense, but only if you are thinking about NIH and NNMC from an auto-centric point of view. Montgomery County is focusing on getting people and bicycles out of the way of its cars, so that more cars can travel through the area. Sidewalks along subterranean roadways are very unpleasant for pedestrians to walk on. It wouldn't be so terrible for bicycles going between NNMC and NIH, but how many will do that?
If most people are riding shuttle buses to and from the Metro station, an underpass would help the shuttles reach the station faster, but it also comes at the expense of helping people walk and from the station instead. With an east side entrance, shuttles could reach the entrance without crossing Rockville Pike at all. And one source familiar with the plans said that the tunnel doesn't connect directly across the street, but sits at an angle, forcing pedestrians to walk a longer distance. I've asked officials to confirm the details of the geometry here.
Finally, are we really sure only buses will use the underpass? That's a lot of asphalt that will remain empty most of the time. It seems only a matter of time before cars can use it too, and then it becomes another grade-separated, pedestrian-hostile grade separated interchange. Moreover, sources in Montgomery County say they have found out about some plans to run new ramps off the Beltway at the Pooks Hill Interchange, along the Beltway sound wall, through NNMC, and then to NIH. If that's true, then a project intended to help pedestrians reach NIH and NNMC, part of a grant proposal to improve transit in the area, will be turning into one piece of another huge investment in making Montgomery County more drivable instead of more walkable and bikeable.
This change has caught advocates, legislators, and residents by surprise. County Executive Ike Leggett promised to keep community members informed via the BRAC Implementation Committee, but this sudden change has slipped in without public discussion or even disclosure. People will be asking questions at tonight's meeting, 7:30 pm at the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Services Center. They deserve some answers; better yet, the people of Montgomery County and employees at NNMC deserve a second Metro station entrance.
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