Beltway widening plans should not be a secret
Back in October 2009, residents found out about a secret plan to switch federal funds granted for pedestrian and transit improvements around the Medical Center Metro into funding the construction of a 4-lane automobile underpass under Rockville Pike.
After receiving documents from a Freedom of Information Act request, the Action Committee for Transit has found that the truth appears to lie even farther down the rabbit hole:
The specifics of the plan remain secret, but a FOIA request from ACT to the Navy has now unmasked MCDOT's objectives. The attached letter from the Navy to Clark [Construction Company] about the July 8 meeting has the subject line "355 & 270/495 Roadway Designs." This reveals that Clark's full plan includes roadway construction along the Beltway, adding lanes (at a minimum) along the two-mile stretch between I-270 and the Bethesda Naval campus.Looking at this project feels like looking at a black hole. In astronomy, a black hole emits no light. It can only be detected by its effects on other surrounding matter.
The FOIA request didn't uncover the actual plan, only the Navy's reaction to the plan which references elements. But the elements only fit with a plan to add lanes to the beltway and on-ramps directly to the Medical Center, which explains the secret plans to build a 4-lane underpass under Rockville Pike.
There has been a long precedent in our county and region about public disclosure and debate regarding infrastructure construction, from the beltway, to the Metro, more recently to the ICC, and the Purple Line. The ICC, while I disagree with it, has at least withstood public debate in a transparent process. The same applies to the Purple Line. I can't even remember how many forums, presentations, and hearings I have attended and testified at regarding that project.
Since the details of the plan are not available to the public, we have no way of knowing why the plan remained in the TIGER grant request despite the Navy saying:
The National Naval Medical Center, Bethesda, Maryland met with you and Shirley Contracting Company, LLC on Wednesday, July 8, 2009 by the request of Montgomery County to review roadway design alternatives. ... During the meeting we expressed our initial concerns with the proposal...In October, it was hard to figure out why MCDOT would want an automobile tunnel. Bethesda Naval Medical Hospital is not an emergency care hospital. Neither is Walter Reed, which will be merged with Bethesda Naval in the future. Patients at Bethesda Naval are long-term patients and are usually transported from Andrews Air Force Base after returning from overseas.
The National Naval Medical Center strongly reiterates that no consideration will be given to roadway design alternatives from Clark Construction, Edgemoor Real Estate, Shirley Contracting Company, LLC or any subsidiary thereof that do not address the above listed concerns. In addition, all communication with the National Naval Medical Center must go through proper public affairs channels.
Further, what good would an automobile tunnel as proposed between Bethesda Naval and the National Institutes of Health do? Even for the extremely rare emergency vehicles, why four lanes? It's not like there is currently a lot of automobile traffic between the NIH and the hospital. One is a civilian research institute. The other is a long-term military hospital. The two organizations have completely different staffs and completely different objectives.
Due to history, they happen to be located across the street from each other and share a Metro station. There is negligible emergency traffic between them and there are no plans for any such traffic in the future. The unanswered question about why the MCDOT was pushing for a 4-lane automobile tunnel makes a lot more sense in the context of a larger highway building scheme rather than in the context of connecting the hospital with the NIH.
Montgomery County has an established history of good, transparent governance. Plans that involve billions and billions of dollars along with a future with more sprawl, traffic, road maintenance bills, and environmental degradation are things that have always been discussed publicly in the county. I see no reason to depart from our proud history of transparency to go down a path towards the late Robert Moses' power brokering.
Note: BRAC coordinator Phil Alperson posted a denial about the "secret plan" to a neighborhood email list over the weekend, though his message leaves plenty of questions. I'll address those in the next post. - David
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