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Montgomery's traffic tests for new developments encourage sprawl, but that could change soon

Montgomery County is expected to gain 232,000 new residents over the next 30 years. Currently, Montgomery's traffic tests measures whether development leads to people driving faster rather than whether development leads to more people driving. Reforming this practice could help discourage sprawl.


Under the current system, development like this one in Silver Spring, where it's easy to walk around, doesn't get credit for reducing how often and how far people drive. Photo by Dan Reed on Flickr.

Montgomery County is currently updating its four year "growth plan", known formally as the Subdivision Staging Policy (SSP). The SSP governs everything from school infrastructure needs to the amount of taxes developers pay for new projects.

While any number of those issues have a huge impact on guiding growth, it's hard to say any are more important than revising how Montgomery tests the way new developments impact traffic.

Here's how Montgomery currently tests traffic

The test Montgomery County uses measures just car speed at intersections. Incoming development, whether located in dense areas or not, is projected to generate X amount of car trips, and therefore create Y amount of car delay at intersections.

The test does not take into account the number of people walking, biking or busing-- it assumes that a project a block from a Metro station will produce the same amount of car traffic as a project in Clarksburg. If a project is found to create an "unreasonable" amount of traffic, developers have to pay to mitigate the impact----even in an area where many folks may not drive.

Currently, a single occupant car is valued the same as a bus carrying 80 passengers. Even though a dedicated bus lane could carry vastly more people than a lane of single occupant vehicles, that bus lane would fail current traffic tests because it hurts the speed at which single occupant vehicles can drive.

In real terms, this often means a developer paying to widen a road in order to pass a traffic test-- an outcome that's inherently contradictory to Montgomery's transit and environmental goals. We're rewarding sprawl and making infill development more difficult.

Evaluating car delay ensures we aren't looking at all the possibilities for moving the most people-- we're just looking at how to move single-occupancy vehicles the fastest. These tests prize car speed over increased mobility options, rewarding development that is far from urban centers. Why build a new grocery store in Downtown Silver Spring, which would require a traffic mitigation payment for a failing intersection, when you can build one five miles away near the highway and pass your traffic test with flying colors?

In fact, the type of traffic tests Montgomery uses has been called the "Transportation Planning Rule Every City Should Reform". Focusing solely on automobile congestion has the strange effect of making transit improvements like bike and bus lanes look bad but road widening look good.

The county is considering another way of doing things

The good news is that the Montgomery County Planning Department is considering adopting less auto-centric traffic evaluations. A possible solution might be using the Vehicle Miles Travelled (VMT) standard, which measures how many miles residents are actually driving-- not just speeds at arbitrary intersections.

VMT takes the total amount of vehicles being driven on a daily or annual basis and divides it by the total number of miles being driven. For example, 10,000 vehicles each travelling an average of 15 miles per day, would result in 150,000 vehicle miles travelled per day.

By attacking traffic tests from this angle, we can set goals to decrease the amount of car trips residents take. Montgomery could set a goal of reducing VMT by 10% over ten years, and evaluate how future development fits in with that vision.


Building near transit and retail can mean people won't need cars at all, but that doesn't show up with Montgomery's current testing system. Photo by Dan Reed on Flickr.

To appreciate the difference, imagine CVS plans to build two new pharmacies in the county, one in Downtown Silver Spring and the other in Germantown. Under the current system, both projects would be projected to generate the same amount of new trips using a standard formula.

Because Silver Spring is already more densely developed, those new trips would be added to roads that are likely already failing from a car delay perspective, forcing the developer to fund costly "mitigation" efforts. In less developed Germantown, those same trips are unlikely to cause any intersections to "fail" the car delay test, so no mitigation is required.

VMT ends the incentive to build in less dense areas, many of which are far from transit. It provides a holistic look at mobility options in an area.

This is about equity for residents, too

The current test is inherently unequal, giving priority to single occupancy vehicles and completely overlooking those who are transit reliant (by choice or by necessity). This is especially important, as study after study shows transit access is a huge indicator of someone's odds of being socially mobile.

This issue is even more important when we consider that Montgomery saw the most significant increase in poverty of any jurisdiction in the DC region. Inequality of mobility leads to inequality of opportunity.

If we want an equal county, measuring traffic in a way that encourages inclusive growth, not just destinations that can be reached exclusively by car, is certainly an important step.

Can you get involved? Yes!

You can help be a part of the change. The Montgomery County Planning department is currently producing their staff draft of the growth policy. Send the planning board emails, write them letters, make your voice heard.

Tell them: "I am a transit reliant Montgomery County resident. Every day, I am confronted with both the positives and negatives of our transit infrastructure. Far too often in planning meetings, or County Council hearings, the voices of people who actually need transit are not in the room. We need better approaches to how we grow."

If we want a county that is more walkable, and inclusive we need to make our voices are heard. The fight to change our traffic tests should be a rallying cry for environmentalists, progressives and transit advocates. This is a critical opportunity for Montgomery to fufill its reputation as a bastion of progressivism.

Transit


Montgomery backtracks on a sprawl-inducing highway

After a decade-long process, it looked like Montgomery County was pushing ahead with a new highway through streams and wetlands at the edge of the county's built-up areas. But last week, county officials announced they don't support the road project after all.


Image from TAME.

In March, the county Department of Transportation issued a report recommending a new limited-access highway, around the edge of developed areas. The road, designated M-83, would approximately parallel I-270 and MD-355 but farther east, connecting the east side of Clarksburg to the current Midcounty Highway, Route 124.

This dismayed advocates who had been asking the county instead to study ways to better connect to Clarksburg with transit and fixes to local roads. Last week, DOT Acting Director Al Roshdieh put out a statement essentially repudiating the DOT's earlier recommendation:

The County Executive does not support building this road, he did not recommend the preferred alternative, nor was it an option that I as MCDOT acting director recommended. Further, there is no funding proposed for the project in the County's capital budget.

The study, "Draft Preferred Alternative/Conceptual Mitigation Report" (PA/CM) was conducted before the Route 355 Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system was in the master plan, and therefore it was not considered as one of the alternatives. If BRT is considered, I believe the results of the PA/CM study and its recommended alternative could be significantly different. I strongly endorse this reassessment.

During my three months as MCDOT Acting Director, I continue to look for ways to promote a broader view of mobility in Montgomery County that is not necessarily wedded to building more roads. Taking a fresh look at various M-83 options, including the Route 355 BRT, is an important step in my vision for this department.

The council pushes M-83 out of limbo

In 1964, before the Clean Water Act had passed, Montgomery planners drew a future highway on maps to the east of MD 355. The road ran through wetlands and stream valleys to complete a "ladder and rung" network of arterial roads that would facilitate development in upcounty Montgomery. Since then, Midcounty Highway, also known as M-83, has been the subject of battles for over 50 years.

In its most recent chapter, the Montgomery County Council asked the county DOT in 2004 to study whether the highway, with its impacts to wetlands and streams, would be legal under modern environmental laws. Last year, DOT officials said they would complete the study in March of 2014, but were then silent about their progress for the rest of the year.

On March 2nd, the council's Transportation and Environment Committee surprised MCDOT leadership by asking about the study. Members suggested that, if it was complete, it should go to federal regulators for a decision one way or the other. It appears that Council transportation staffer Glenn Orlin learned that the study had been finished for some time, and suggested that the committee ask for some resolution on the issue.

"If we're not going to build it, we should take it out of the master plan", he said in the committee session. "My understanding is that the report was done last summer and has not been sent to the feds. However you feel about the project, it's delaying a resolution."

Chair Roger Berliner said, "It's no secret I'm not a big fan of this project. I'm even less a fan of ambiguity and being in limbo." The committee members, while harboring different opinions about the project, all agreed that MCDOT should make the study public and send it to regulators. Berliner and fellow committee member Tom Hucker, along with a majority of council members, now publicly oppose to the project, while Nancy Floreen, the third member of the committee, supports it.

The county suggests a destructive option, then backs away

After getting the prod from the council, the DOT issued its report and recommended Alternative 9A, the original alignment from the 1960s master plan. At $350 million, it is the most expensive of the six alternatives analyzed, a price tag that doesn't include environmental mitigation to compensate for the wetlands, floodplains, and forests it would damage.

In contrast to his agency's position, County Executive Leggett has said he is against the road: shortly after the release of the study, a spokesperson for the County Executive told the Washington Post that Leggett "opposes the road project because of its cost."

Throughout the study, it has been clear that the those in charge were building up arguments towards 9A. But more recently, top leaders who were most focused on building roads have left. Their replacements are already backing away from the controversial project.

WTOP reporter Ari Ashe tweeted recently that MCDOT Acting Director Al Roshdieh told him he was against M-83, and that it was "over." After I mentioned the M-83 report in a list of cautionary notes about whether the DOT was really reforming, DOT spokesperson Esther Bowring called to say that Roshdieh considers the 9A option "dead."

"If we don't do this, we need to do something else"

During the March 2nd committee meeting, Councilmember Floreen said, "If we don't do this, we need to do something else." Many residents in Clarksburg rightly feel that the county made and broke many promises, including to build retail and provide good transportation. Development in Clarksburg was initially supposed to coincide with transit service, but the transit has not materialized.

However, this road is not the answer. It will only make new sprawl development, including up in Frederick and Carroll Counties, even more desirable, leading people to live there and work in Rockville, Bethesda, or DC, be dependent on cars, and clog the roads further for commuting and shopping.

The better solution for all upcounty residents is to build the transit that was promised in the first place. Berliner and many advocates have recommended building the study's Alternative 2, a package of small widenings to congested intersections as well as new sidewalks and bike paths, and Alternative 5, which would widen MD-355—but using the new lanes as dedicated lanes for BRT rather than new car capacity.

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Left: Alternative 9. Right: Alternative 5.

Bowring said that county officials are meeting next week to discuss next steps to reexamine the county's recommendations and start moving toward, or at least seriously studying, the transit options that many residents are pushing for.

To fully put the idea of a new highway to rest, the county would have to remove it from the master plan. The decision to do that would be up to the county council, Berliner said, and the council could ask the planning department to be involved if it wished.

Unless something changes, the Army Corps of Engineers will go ahead and evaluate Alternative 9A. Some may be hoping the corps just tells Montgomery County it can't build the road; that would forestall a local political battle between those who still want a new highway and the majority of the county council that doesn't.

Either way, this 50-year battle is far from over.

Transit


Rural Montgomery residents write their own transportation proposal

Boyds, a rural town in Montgomery County's Agricultural Reserve with a MARC station, is a commuting destination for the residents of Clarksburg, a rapidly growing town just north. To handle increasing traffic and make transit more accessible, Boyds residents want to move both a central road and the MARC station.


Boyds, Maryland today. Note that the MARC station's location is off; it's actually one block west of the Clarksburg/Clopper intersection. Base image from Google Maps.

Clarksburg is transit-oriented development without transit. 1994 plans included comprehensive regional and local bus and rail networks. Today, Clarksburg residents only have two weekday-only bus routes and a circuitous trial shuttle to the Germantown MARC station.

Increasing numbers of people are driving through Boyds from homes in Clarksburg and Frederick County to jobs in Germantown and the I-270 corridor. This leads to traffic back-ups at the bottleneck in Boyds where Clarksburg Road meets MD 117 (Barnesville and Clopper Roads) in a double intersection separated by an underpass.

Soon, Clarksburg's Cabin Branch section will have 2,386 housing units, an outlet mall, and an outdoor amphitheater. The adjacent Ten Mile Creek will have 500 houses. The Boyds MARC station would be reachable with a short trip south on Clarksburg Road.

But there are no buses to the Boyds MARC station, and its 15-space parking lot is often full.

The Montgomery County Department of Transportation (MCDOT) is currently studying a bus turnaround and some 40 additional parking spaces for the Boyds MARC station. Their favored site for both may be the future Boyds Local Park, which sits south of the intersection of Clopper Road and Clarksburg Road and a block downhill from the train station. But would the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC), who owns the park, agree to that? The M-NCPPC wants to put cricket fields in the park.

Also, the Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA) is studying traffic signals and/or roundabouts to speed car travel through the intersection-underpass-intersection bottleneck in Boyds. The results of the study may be ready in late spring.

While the Boyds community has asked MCDOT for improvements to the MARC station for years, residents are wary of the suburbanizing effects of MCDOT's and SHA's ideas on an area whose master plans designate it as rural and historic.

Boyds residents propose their own possible solution

In an effort to participate in the planning process, the Boyds Civic Association has asked SHA, the Maryland Transit Administration, MCDOT, and M-NCPPC to study a two-part proposal.

The first part is to relocate part of Clopper Road either over or under the railroad tracks. This would form a single, modern, more efficient intersection between Clopper, Clarksburg Road, and Barnesville Road. It would also keep traffic away from the Boyds Historic District and out of Boyds Local Park.


The proposed new locations for the MARC station and Clopper Road. The intersection could have a roundabout or traffic signals. Image from the author.

The second part is to move the MARC station from its current location in the Boyds Historic District to a three-acre industrial storage lot just to the east on Clopper Road next to the proposed new bridge or underpass.

The new station would be much larger, with space for 300 cars and for buses that would run between Clarksburg, Boyds, and Germantown. The additional parking would also delay the need for a parking garage at Germantown, the next station to the east on the Brunswick Line.

SHA's traffic study and MCDOT's park-and-ride study are short-term plans. In contrast, the Boyds Civic Association's long-term, comprehensive idea, if feasible, would both remove the traffic bottleneck in Boyds and greatly expand car and bus access to the Boyds MARC train station. Boyds residents hope that their idea is a vision for the area that everyone can share.

Public Spaces


Change is coming to the Montgomery DOT. Will things get better for residents?

Montgomery County leaders and residents want walkable, transit-served neighborhoods, but the county's department of transportation has a reputation for putting cars over everything else. Now that two of the agency's top officials have departed, will new leadership bring the department in line with a changing county?


Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

MCDOT's former director Art Holmes retired at the end of last year. Holmes had brought little vision or leadership to the department. Instead, most of the on-the-ground decisions fell to Deputy Director for Transportation Policy Edgar Gonzalez, a dyed-in-the-wool champion of designing roads for more and more cars to the exclusion of all else.

Last month, county officials announced that Gonzalez, too, was leaving the department, to become deputy director of the Department of Liquor Control. Gary Erenrich, who ran the county's transit programs, will fill the post on an acting basis, reporting to MCDOT's acting director, Al Roshdieh.

Gonzalez's legacy: Lanes yes, walkability no

While an accomplished planner, Gonzalez prioritized building of highways over other priorities. He relentlessly pushed to extend the Midcounty Highway (M-83) from Gaithersburg to Clarksburg over protests from both neighbors and county councilmembers. MCDOT even protested a bill from councilmembers Hans Riemer and Roger Berliner that would require narrow, low-speed street designs in urban areas like Silver Spring and Bethesda.

Despite Montgomery's vision for a walkable, urban White Flint, Gonzalez fought the plan every step of the way, pushing an extension of Montrose Parkway through the area, and resisting calls from residents to make Old Georgetown Road less of a traffic sewer.

A change in leadership is an opportunity to bring the county's transportation policy in line with its planning and economic development policies, which promote walkable neighborhoods around transit hubs.

At a time when the county's fastest growing areas are near Metro stations and driving rates have plateaued, that only makes sense. New leadership is a signal to anyone who supports sidewalks, bike lanes, and transit that MCDOT is ready to work with them.

Has MCDOT turned over a new leaf?

To be fair, the department has made some big strides in recent years. Last fall, Montgomery County got its first protected bikeway, on Woodglen Drive in White Flint, and the DOT decided to allow the narrower, slower-speed design for Old Georgetown Road than the county's plans originally called for. After a years-long fight with parents at Wilson Wims Elementary School in Clarksburg, MCDOT agreed to install a crosswalk across a busy road.

New director Al Roshdieh has expressed an interest in focusing on pedestrian and bike infrastructure and wants to reexamine all of the county's policies. He wants to combat the perception (though rightly earned) that the agency is "pro-car."

But there are signs that elements of the old, highway-focused culture remains. Roshdieh insists that the county's proposed bus rapid transit line on Route 29 won't work without building highway interchanges. And though Roshdieh said there isn't room for new roads, the department recently recommended building the most environmentally-destructive route for Midcounty Highway.

Change might not come all at once, but neither are merely small changes (or just words and no changes) enough. Roshdieh is evidently angling to become permanent director, and he'll need to take bold action to fix an agency deeply out of touch with a county that's changed significantly since the 1990s.

Meanwhile, it seems a little ironic that Gonzalez, who spent much of his career pushing for transportation and land use patterns which force people to drive, now is in charge of liquor. Car dependence all but forces people to drive home from restaurants and bars where they want to drink, while people who can walk or take transit home need not worry about driving drunk. Gonzalez will now be in charge of mitigating a problem he himself exacerbated in the past.

Pedestrians


A safer route to school is coming for Clarksburg kids and parents

In a win for parents, an intersection adjacent to a northern Montgomery County elementary school is getting a traffic signal and marked crosswalks.


Intersection of Snowden Farm Parkway and Grand Elm Street. Image from Google Streetview.

Today, Snowden Farm Parkway in Clarksburg is four lanes wide and has a speed limit of 40 mph. Kids who need to get to Wilson Wims Elementary School from the other side of Snowden Farm have two options for getting to school: take a circuitous bus route, or make a dangerous crossing on foot. Thankfully, that's about to change.

In a recent letter, acting Montgomery County transportation director Al Roshdieh said his agency will install the signal, along with marked crosswalks, audible pedestrian warnings, and countdown timers, by the start of next school year.

When MCDOT resisted their first request, parents kept pushing

Families living on one side of Snowden Farm Parkway in Clarksburg have been working for two years to win a safer way for their children to walk across Snowden Farm to Wilson Wims. They put in a request for crosswalks and a signal two years ago, at which time the Montgomery County Department of Transportation said no.

Parents then launched an advocacy campaign, and last October teamed with the Coalition for Smarter Growth to circulate a petition that promoted a safer crossing. MCDOT reversed its initial decision earlier this month.

"We're glad to see that persistence and dedication can succeed in making an intersection safe before bad something happens," said Seenu Suvarna, a Wilson Wims parent and a leader in the effort.


An aerial shot of the Snowden Farm Parkway and Grand Elm Street. Image from Google Maps.

MCDOT should also monitor the area and consider further steps, like lowering the school zone's high speed limit. Traffic is actually pretty low in this area, so it may also make sense to cut Snowden Farm Parkway from four lanes to two, with a turn lane in the middle.

Similar changes should happen near other area schools

Clarksburg's original master plan called for a pedestrian and transit-oriented community. Making the crossing at Wilson Wims safer is a step in the right direction. Hopefully, it leads to safer crossings at other schools.

Families at Clarksburg Elementary School face an issue similar to the one at Wilson Wims. Kids and parents in Gateway Commons, across Stringtown Road at Observation Drive, do not have a direct crossing. But so far, MCDOT officials have said that other signals are too close to that location, and that perhaps they'll add one when Observation Drive is complete.


The intersection of Stringtown Road and Observation Drive. There's no crosswalk or signal for getting to Clarksburg Elementary, which is on the north side of the street. Image from Google Maps.

But kids' safety is at stake. Combine that with how good walking to school is for individual health, the community, and the environment, and there's an obvious question: why wait?

Roads


Sprawl-inducing M-83 highway gets thumbs down from Montgomery County Executive

Last Thursday, Montgomery County transportation director Art Holmes told the County Council that County Executive Ike Leggett does not favor building the M-83 "Mid-County Highway Extended" highway project.


Photo from Google Maps.

This could be an important signal that the outdated project, which would take hundreds of millions of dollars from transit projects and incentivize more sprawl development in the northern tier of Montgomery, is falling out of favor with more and more county leaders.

At an April 23 meeting of the Transportation and Environment Committee, Holmes said:

I want to make sure that there's no misunderstanding. ... The County Executive is not in favor of going forward with M-83 into construction. He's put nothing in his CIP for design or engineering or construction, and the staff is not in favor of that. What we were talking about and which might have given people some indication was the [environmental] study and what the study is about. The study is not a recommendation for construction.

M-83 appeared to be moving forward earlier this year when Leggett first released his proposed capital budget in January. That budget funded facility planning for the M-83 highway.

The controversial highway has been under environmental review for the past 11 years because of the potential impacts on wetlands and stream valleys.


Alternative routes being studied for Midcounty Highway. Image from MCDOT.

After significant community protest, Leggett said in March that M-83 wouldn't receive future planning funding. Now, it appears he has decided to take an even more decisive stance on the project.

A consensus is beginning to emerge amongst county leaders to focus on viable, high quality transit alternatives serving Clarksburg before building more highways. With Frederick County continuing to grow to the north, many recognize that new roads will only fill up with traffic in a matter of time, and that the investment of $350 million (at minimum) of county funds would hardly bring any benefit.


Eugene EmX BRT. Photo used with permission from Lane Transit District.

Instead, supporting Clarksburg's original vision as a walkable, transit-oriented community could do much more to improve the quality of life for upcounty residents. Based on comparable speeds from other BRT systems, a trip on BRT on MD-355 from Clarksburg to the Shady Grove Metro would take about 25 minutes, which is similar to the driving time.

Completing the town square combined with an array of transit investments could provide residents real alternatives to sitting in traffic to reach the grocery store, Metro, or work.

Until now, the county's Department of Transportation has resisted developing and modeling a robust transit alternative to M-83, but that could change with the transportation director's recent comments. Given the enormous fiscal and environmental cost of M-83 to the county, it would be in all residents' best interest to examine all possible transit alternatives first.

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 Vicki’s 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.

Roads


Will Montgomery fund a new sprawl highway?

Montgomery County residents say the proposed Midcounty Highway between Gaithersburg and Clarksburg costs too much, cuts through sensitive park and agricultural land, and won't solve the area's traffic challenges. But will the county decide to build it anyway?


TAME members at last night's public hearing at Seneca Valley High School in Germantown.

Midcounty Highway Extended, or M83, first showed up in area master plans in the 1960s. If built as planned, it would be a 6-lane controlled-access highway parallel to Route 355 on the east side of I-270. Montgomery County would pay for the project completely, presumably to avoid complying with stringent federal environmental regulations.

Former County Executive Doug Duncan revived the project several years ago, and the Montgomery County Department of Transportation (MCDOT) continues to push the highway forward today. MCDOT just completed an Environmental Effects Review earlier this year and will seek support from the County Council and County Executive Ike Leggett later this year to include the project in next year's budget.

Last night, the Maryland Department of the Environment and the Army Corps of Engineers held a public hearing at Seneca Valley High School in Germantown regarding whether they should grant a joint permit to impact wetlands and streams in the highway's path. Dozens of highway opponents from the Transit Alternatives to the Midcounty Highway Extended (TAME) Coalition, many of whom have fought the project for years, turned out in force to testify against the project. There were other voices in the crowd as well, in particular a contingent opposing the alternative through their neighborhood, but supporting the highway if it went through someone else's backyard.


Alternative routes being studied for Midcounty Highway. Image from MCDOT.

MCDOT originally evaluated 11 alternatives, and has since narrowed the field down to just 6, including a no-build option. Alternatives 4, 8, and 9 are the most controversial and involve the most new pavement and right-of-way through environmentally sensitive areas and existing neighborhoods. They also happen to be MCDOT's preferred alternatives. MCDOT estimates that Alternative 9 would cost $350 million to build, though local activists say it could be double that.

Alternative 2, the cheapest option, would make improvements to Route 355 and use transportation demand management (TDM) to give travelers other ways to get around, while alternative 5 involves widening it. MCDOT did not look at any transit alternatives. Their report contains a footnote saying that the community requested a transit alternative, but says that the county's Bus Rapid Transit plan is still too nascent to be considered.

MCDOT contends that new construction would impact only 0.9 acres of wetlands because they propose building bridges over and through wetland areas. Yet it is clear that the construction process to build those bridges will require filling in parts of the wetland areas and compacting their soils, which are key for filtration and other ecosystem functions. Over the long term, more pavement over wetlands means more polluted stormwater runoff into waterways already under threat from other development, such as Ten Mile Creek.


Impacts of each proposed M83 alignment. MCDOT's favored alignments are in dark grey. TAME prefers alignments 2, 5 and the no-build option. Data from MCDOT's executive study and traffic projections.

In addition to water quality impacts, opponents pointed out a litany of other impacts from Alternatives 4, 8, and 9, including additional carbon emissions from induced traffic, impacts to the county's prized Agricultural Reserve, the loss of parkland, the division of neighborhoods, the taking of homes and local businesses, and more.

Local activists also questioned whether M83, if built, would even provide the traffic relief that transportation officials say it would provide. Indeed, MCDOT's own projections show more traffic-jammed intersections if it builds any of M83's more costly alignments.

For the $350 million it costs to build M83, Montgomery County could build Alternative 2 and 20-45 miles of the proposed bus rapid transit plan, if you use the federal average cost per mile to build BRT. This would enable a high quality transit connection and a viable alternative to driving between Clarksburg, Gaithersburg, and points south. But this alternative has never been evaluated.

Looking at the chart above, it's easy to do the math. The county's favored alignments destroy the most acreage of parkland, farmland, and wetlands, take the most property from local businesses and residences, cost the most, and still have more failing intersections than the cheapest, lowest impact alternatives.

Later this year, the issue will go before the County Council, and then to the County Executive, who will both have a chance to weigh in on whether to include funds to continue the project in next year's budget. It remains to be seen whether the County leaders will continue their progressive planning tradition by investing scarce local dollars in transit and smart growth, or whether they sink hundreds of millions into a 1960's-era sprawl highway. If they check their math, the choice should be simple.

The Maryland Department of the Environment and Army Corps of Engineers will accept written comments until August 21. If you'd like to see Montgomery County consider real alternatives to Midcounty Highway, you can contact them using this form.

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