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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.
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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?
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.
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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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.
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"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?
Buster Keaton was being funny when he drove across the street to propose marriage in his 1924 movie The Navigator. But the Montgomery County Department of Transportation (MCDOT) was completely serious last month when they told children in Clarksburg to take a school bus 4 miles out of the way instead of walking across the street.
Many parents in the new Gateway Commons development in Clarksburg walk their children 5 or 6 minutes to Clarksburg Elementary School. They cross Stringtown Road at Observation Drive, the development's main street, and then use a pedestrian path that leads to the back of the school grounds.
The intersection at Observation Drive is the rational place for people from Gateway Commons to cross Stringtown Road on the way to or from school. Unfortunately, however, it is not a safe place. Yet MCDOT denied the parents' request for a crosswalk.
Why is the crossing unsafe?
First, many drivers go faster than the 35-mph speed limit. This is not surprising, given the design and purpose of this section of Stringtown Road. The county built the road, which opened in 2007, to move motor vehicles between Clarksburg and I-270. It's an arterial highway, four lanes wide plus turning lanes and a median, and designed for a posted speed of 40 mph.
Second, the two crosswalks across Stringtown Road at Observation Drive are completely unmarked. There are no signs, either on the side of the road or in the median, to alert drivers to the possibility of schoolchildren crossing. There isn't even paint on the pavement. And though the law requires drivers to stop for pedestrians in unmarked crosswalks, they don't, even when children are standing in the median obviously waiting to finish crossing.
Parents in Gateway Commons wanted the unsafe street crossing to be made safe. So they asked MCDOT at the beginning of this school year to install a pedestrian crosswalk across Stringtown Road at Observation Drive.
But MCDOT said no. They gave four reasons.
First, according to the MCDOT traffic engineer who first denied the request, the crossing at Observation Drive is in "close proximity" to the marked, signalized crosswalks at Frederick Road (MD 355), 550 feet to the northeast, and Gateway Center Drive, 650 feet to the southwest.
From a windshield perspective at 35+ mph, these crosswalks are indeed in close proximity. But they are not so close from the perspective of Gateway Commons parents and children walking to school. For them, crossing at these crosswalks instead of at Observation Drive means an extra ¼ of a mile out of their way and double the travel time.
Second, if MCDOT marked the crosswalk, then people might use it, and that would be unsafe. According to an e-mail from Emil Wolanin, chief of MCDOT's Division of Traffic Engineering and Operations, "inappropriate crosswalk installations" dangerously "encourage pedestrians to cross at a less than optimal location".
This is an odd reason, given that the request for the crosswalk came about specifically because pedestrians are already crossing there, and the crossing is already unsafe.
And for whom is the location less than optimal? Not for pedestrians, or else they wouldn't have asked MCDOT to mark the crosswalk there.
Third, not enough people cross at the crosswalk. MCDOT's study found "little or no pedestrian activity", according to an e-mail from an engineer at MCDOT. And, again according to Mr. Wolanin, "[i]nstalling marked crosswalks at locations with very low pedestrian volumes diminishes their overall effectiveness. When motorists cross [marked crosswalks] rarely if ever seeing a pedestrian they are "trained" to not expect someone to be using them."
The people who asked for the crosswalk installation are walking evidence that there are pedestrians at this crossing. And, by the logic of Mr. Wolanin's previous argument, a marked crosswalk might even increase their numbers.
In addition, it's not as though drivers were currently stopping at the unmarked crosswalks. Is it worse if a driver blows past pedestrians at a marked crosswalk, rather than an unmarked one?
Fourth, the safe way to get across Stringtown Road is to take the school bus that Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) provides to Gateway Commons because crossing Stringtown Road on foot is not safe.
The school bus stops on the south side of Frederick Road, at the entrance to Gateway Commons. It then goes 2 miles southeast on Frederick Road to pick up children from another development, turns around, and goes the same 2 miles back, plus another half a mile, before finally dropping the children off at school. The bus trip takes about 20 minutes. Walking takes about 5.
In short, MCDOT's message to Gateway Commons parents is clear and simple. If they want to get their children safely to a school many can see from their windows, they should either cross the street where it causes the least inconvenience to drivers, or put the children on the bus.
Using a motor vehicle to cross the street is as ridiculous today as it was in 1924. Isn't it time for Montgomery County to join the Complete Streets Coalition and tell MCDOT that streets are for everyone, not just people in cars?
In Clarksburg's Master Plan, the Montgomery County town is a transit-oriented community. But in reality, Clarksburg is a transit-lacking community, because the county government has not supported transit.
Construction has begun in Cabin Branch, Clarksburg's first development west of I-270. Cabin Branch is 535 acres approved for 1,886 houses, 500 senior units, and 2.4 million square feet of commercial space. And Cabin Branch is transit-oriented development.
Or, rather, "transit-oriented" development.
The transit that Cabin Branch is oriented around is the terminal station of the Corridor Cities Transitway at Comsat in Clarksburg, a planning consultant told the Boyds Civic Association last week. The station is located a mile or two east of Cabin Branch, on the other side of I-270. Residents will travel to this station via Newcut Road Extended, a 4-lane divided arterial highway with a separate bike path and an interchange with I-270.
However, the new residents of Cabin Branch may find it hard to actually use this transit, because there is no Corridor Cities Transitway station at Comsat. In fact, there is no Corridor Cities Transitway at all. And the Newcut Road crossing of I-270 does not exist either.
Nonetheless, despite the absence of transit, it is legitimate to refer to Cabin Branch as transit-oriented development. Why? Because the Clarksburg Master Plan says so.
Some background on Clarksburg: Clarksburg is the last corridor city along I-270 in Montgomery County's 1964 land use plan, called On Wedges and Corridors. Roughly 6 miles north of Germantown and 12 miles northwest of the Shady Grove Metro station, Clarksburg is both a historic small town and, since 2000, a neo-traditional new suburb. The 1994 Clarksburg Master Plan governs the town's development.
This Master Plan refers to the transit-orientedness of Clarksburg development at least 24 times. For example, "...the most critical function of this Plan is to establish a strong public commitment to the vision of Clarksburg as a transit- and pedestrian-oriented community...," the plan says on page 1. "Transit is an essential feature of this plan; without it, the Plan's vision cannot be realized," the plan says on page 22.
The plan envisions a transit system consisting of 3 parts:
- A "regional transitway," extending from Shady Grove to the City of Frederick, with a stop in Clarksburg Town Center;
- An additional "through-transit" system in the form of the existing MARC station at Boyds, 2 miles south of Cabin Branch; and
- A "comprehensive" network of local buses linking neighborhoods with the regional transitway and the Boyds MARC station.
But the Master Plan does not link these words to deeds. There is nothing in the Master Plan's staging requirements about the transit that, according to the plan, is "essential" for turning the vision of Clarksburg into reality. The staging requirements relate only to water quality reviews; provision of water and sewer service; amount of retail development; number of building permits; and the financing of public facilities. Note that, according to the county's Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance, public facilities include roads, but they do not include transit.
As a result, the transit-oriented development in Clarksburg has proceeded without transit.
In 1994, the Master Plan stated that "[a]t present, transit service consists of a limited number of buses on existing roadways and the commuter rail station in Boyds."
18 years and more than 12,000 new Clarksburg residents later, transit service still consists only of a limited number of buses (2) on roadways and the commuter rail station at Boyds.
Of the 2 buses, 1 runs every half hour on weekdays between the county jail in Clarksburg and the Germantown Transit Center. The other runs every half hour during weekday peak hours between Clarksburg and the Shady Grove Metro station, a 45-minute trip by the schedule.
So when people start moving next year into the "transit-oriented" Cabin Branch development in "transit-oriented" Clarksburg, they will have little choice but to drive. Montgomery County says all the right things about transit. But what Montgomery County actually acts on is cars.
Upper Montgomery County does not have enough regional transit. Improving access to the Brunswick Line MARC train station in Boyds is one way for the county government to fix this.
The upper county is growing. Between 2000 and 2010, Clarksburg added 11,932 residents, and Germantown added 30,976.
And this is just the beginning. The Montgomery County government is planning for more growth. Clarksburg is to have 43,000 residents and millions of square feet of new retail and office space. Germantown is to become "the center of business and community life in upper Montgomery County."
Yet the demand for regional transit in the area already exceeds the supply.
The parking lots are full at the Germantown Transit Center, where there is a RideOn shuttle bus to the Shady Grove Metro Station. There is also an express bus to Bethesda with a higher fare, at the nearby Milestone Shopping Center park-and-ride in Germantown.
At the Germantown MARC train station, the parking lots are also full, and expansion will probably require construction of a parking garage. The planned Corridor Cities Transitway is as yet purely notional and would not go all the way into Clarksburg, ostensibly a transit-oriented community.
In 2006, the Maryland Transit Administration tried to close the Boyds station, along with another station on the Brunswick Line and two stations on the Camden Line. But community protest and emergency legislation introduced by State Senator Rob Garagiola kept all of the stations open. Three eastbound and four westbound trains now stop at Boyds daily.
At the moment, the parking lot has room for only 19-20 cars and is often full. The nearest bus stop is over a mile away. And pedestrians and bicyclists face high-speed commuter traffic on dark, winding roads with no shoulders.
But the county government could fix these problems with a few relatively simple improvements to bicycle, transit, and car access.
Improvements for bicycle access could include:
- Installing a bike rack. (MARC only allows folding bicycles on the train.)
- Adding bike facilities to MD-117 between the Boyds train station and the Germantown Community Center, consistent with the County bicycle master plan.
- Extending the planned bike paths along MD-121 in Clarksburg south from West Old Baltimore Road to MD-117.
- Extending RideOn bus #71 or #78 from western Germantown to the train station. (Indeed, there are already Boyds MARC riders who live in the neighborhoods served by these buses.)
- Extending RideOn bus #75 from Clarksburg to the train station, when the planned commercial and office space at Cabin Branch is built. This would connect Clarksburg residents to the Boyds train station, as well as people who live further west along the Brunswick Line to jobs in Clarksburg.
- Leasing spaces in a church parking lot 500 feet south of the station. However, people would have to walk along a narrow, dark road on which a sidewalk is not allowed.
- Buying or leasing a vacant quarter-acre lot next to the station (once occupied by a house a freight train derailed on in 1986) and/or a vacant half-acre lot across the tracks (where the station was until the 1950s).
- Leasing land for parking on the future site of the Boyds Local Park, 500 feet east of the station. The lot would be integrated into the park, if the park were developed. In addition, putting in a bicycle/pedestrian crossing at the intersection of MD-117 and MD-121, as well as a sidewalk from the intersection to the station. This crossing would also improve the Hoyles Mill trail connection from South Germantown Recreation Park to Black Hill Regional Park, next to the future Clarksburg development at Cabin Branch.
Yes, there would probably be objections that Boyds would no longer be a "home in the country," that people should just drive 5 miles west to the Barnesville station or 3 miles east to the Germantown station, that stopping at Boyds makes the trip from Brunswick or Frederick longer, and that small stations are inefficient and take away from service to the big stations.
However, the current and planned future growth in Clarksburg and Germantown will inevitably make Boyds less rural, regardless of train station access. If people can get to the train more conveniently, more people will choose the train. Stopping at Boyds adds only a minute or two, which is not a meaningful difference for a 90-minute trip. And future expansion on the Brunswick Line will allow MARC to improve service to both big and small stations, by running more expresses and locals.
Of course, these small improvements by themselves cannot solve the big problem of insufficient regional transit in the upper county. But, together with lots of other small improvements, they would be a good start.
If the Maryland suburbs held a pageant, Clarksburg might win the contest for Miss Step. A recent decision by the Montgomery County Planning Board only enhances the community's claim to the title.
According to this decision, current Clarksburg residents may not get a day care facility they badly need because future residents will generate too much car traffic for existing roads.
The last planned development along I-270 in upper Montgomery County, Clarksburg has been a headache for the county government since before construction started in 2000. Clarksburg was supposed to be a transit-oriented community.
What transit? The MARC train station in Boyds, an as-yet purely notional Corridor Cities Transitway that will not even go all the way to Clarksburg, and RideOn bus #75, which operates every half hour on weekdays only.
Clarksburg Town Center still doesn't have its Town Center retail district, and there's a new working group to help figure out who will pay for the roads and parks in the parts of Clarksburg that have already been built.
Nonetheless, some 14,000 people now live in Clarksburg, and they need services nearby. Daycare is an obvious priority among these services, and so a planned day care center and after school program, at the intersection of MD 355 and West Old Baltimore Road, just north of Germantown, is welcome.
Unfortunately, it might not get built, due to the recent Planning Board decision which effectively prioritizes the needs of future Clarksburg residents for wider roads over the needs of current Clarksburg residents for nearby day care.
The reason for this backward logic is the Local Area Transportation Review (LATR) part of Montgomery County Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance (APFO). The LATR is based on "critical lane volume" (CLV), a measure of the number of vehicles moving through an intersection's through or left-turn lanes in an hour.
The logic of the Planning Board's decision goes like this:
- The Planning Board has already approved a lot of new housing in the area. (The Planning Board staff report does not name the approved developments, but they probably include Miller & Smith's "Gallery Park" and Winchester Homes's first development at Cabin Branch.)
- When this housing has been built and people move in, they will drive through the intersection next to the site of the proposed day care.
- When they drive through the intersection, it will become unacceptably congested.
- Therefore, if the day care wants to operate at capacity, it needs to "improve" (i.e., widen) the intersection to account for one and a half times the number of car trips the day care will generate. The widening is to consist of three turn lanes: a southbound right-turn lane on MD 355, a northbound left-turn lane on MD 355, and an eastbound right-turn lane on West Old Baltimore Road. And it may cost $360,000.
But the LATR guidelines say that "improvements" must be "permitted and bonded, under construction, or under contract for construction" before building permits can be issued. Therefore, the day care must pay the whole cost, now. Miller & Smith and Winchester Homes will pay their shares back to the day care later, when they begin building.
However, the day care cannot afford the whole $360,000, Flax has told the Gazette. And operating at half capacity, as would be allowed without the turn lanes, may not be economical. As a result, it is "likely" that he won't open the day care at all unless the Planning Board reconsiders the decision.
In short, the Planning Board first approved large housing developments, whose residents must drive everywhere. Then, they approved more large housing developments, whose future residents will also have to drive everywhere. And now they're requiring a day care, which is intended to serve the current residents, to pay for the wider roads all those extra cars will need.
Memo to the Planning Board: There must be a better plan.
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