Posts about Germantown
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.
If you're a pedestrian who uses a state road in upper Montgomery County, don't expect much help from the State Highway Administration (SHA).
That's the message in highway planners' response to a letter from the Action Committee for Transit (ACT) about pedestrian safety in the upcounty. ACT's letter asked SHA to look at 4 problem areas for pedestrians on state roads designed to prioritize driving over everything else.
At one location, SHA agreed to conduct a pedestrian audit, but did not agree to actually use its audit's recommendations. At 2 others, SHA declined to mark a crosswalk because not enough people use the unmarked crosswalk. And at the fourth, SHA declined to mark a crosswalk because it would inconvenience people in cars.
The first problem area is Germantown Road (Route 118) between Wisteria Drive and the I-270 interchange in Germantown. This stretch of road has up to 9 lanes of high-speed commuter traffic. At least 5 pedestrians have died there in recent years, including a student at Seneca Valley High School.
ACT asked for a pedestrian road safety audit, and SHA agreed to conduct one. This is a good start. But will SHA then do what its own audit recommends? SHA says only that they will evaluate "which suggestions [from the SHA audit] are warranted and feasible".
The second problem area is the intersection of Great Seneca Highway and Dairymaid Drive in Germantown. People who live in the townhouses and apartments east of Great Seneca cross here and then follow a desire path to the Kingsview Village shopping center. ACT asked for signs, pavement markings, and engineering so that people can cross safely and conveniently.
SHA responded that too few people cross this intersection on foot to warrant a marked crosswalk. In addition, they explained that a marked crosswalk would be more dangerous, because people might then feel safe crossing there, even though crossing there is not safe. How could SHA make crossing there safe? SHA's letter does not say.
The third problem area is the intersection of Clopper Road (Route 117) and Mateny Road in Germantown. Both drivers and pedestrians have died along this stretch of road in recent years. ACT asked for walk signals and high-visibility pavement markings for all 4 legs of this intersection, as well as signs to alert drivers about people crossing the street on foot.
SHA responded that there are plans (it's not clear whose) for improving the intersection for pedestrians, including marking the crosswalks across Mateny north and south of Clopper. Thus, 3 of the 4 legs will have marked crosswalks, instead of just one. This is good news. However, the fourth leg will still not have a marked crosswalk. SHA explained that a marked crosswalk is unnecessary because not enough people cross there.
The last problem area is the intersection of Route 355 (Frederick Road) and Shady Grove Road, between Gaithersburg and Rockville. A pedestrian needs eight and a half minutes to cross the street here. ACT asked for high-visibility pavement markings, signs, signals, and appropriate walk intervals for all 4 legs of the intersection, in conformance with the Shady Grove Sector Plan.
SHA explained that they can't mark the crosswalk in the south leg of the intersection, for 2 reasons. First, if drivers turn from northbound Shady Grove onto southbound 355 using the combined right-turn/through lane, they cannot see people in the crosswalk well. Second, the amount of car traffic makes a separate pedestrian-only signal phase impractical.
7 of the 11 pedestrian deaths in Montgomery County in 2013 so far occurred on state roads. The Montgomery County government says that "crossing the street [should not be] a death defying act" and that engineers should design and operate roads so that people on foot can use them safely and conveniently. Wouldn't it be great if SHA learned this lesson too?
In 2007, the Maryland Transit Administration proposed adding a third track to the MARC Brunswick Line, which could make it possible to have all-day, two-way service. With a recent plan update proposing less third track, it's unlikely that this will ever happen.
The 2007 MARC Growth and Investment Plan proposed a third track from Georgetown Junction in Silver Spring, to Point of Rocks in Frederick County. It would have been built in three stages between now and 2035. In contrast, the 2013 draft update proposes one small portion of third track in Montgomery County and at unspecified locations elsewhere.
This reduces the chance that there will ever be all-day, two-way service. CSX owns the tracks that MARC trains use, and the agency will not allow MARC to run more service if there isn't a third track. If MARC doesn't say where they plan to put a third track, Montgomery County can't reserve the right-of-way for it, making it harder to build the third track later.
Current service on the Brunswick Line consists of 18 daily trains, peak-service headways of 40-75 minutes, one off-peak train on Fridays only, no reverse-peak service, and no weekend service. The Maryland Transit Administration's original plan for MARC called for bringing all-day, two-way service to the Brunswick Line in three stages.
In 2015, there were to be at least 6 additional peak-service trains, or 3 round trips. By 2020, there were to be shorter peak-service headways, plus some reverse-peak and off-peak service. And in 2035, there were to be reverse-commute and weekend service, as well as service to L'Enfant Plaza and Northern Virginia.
As for the third track, first, MTA would build near Rockville and along the Frederick branch of the Old Main Line. In 2020, there would be a third track on Barnesville Hill, roughly between the Monocacy River, west of Dickerson, and the Bucklodge interlocking, west of Boyds. In the long term, MTA would build the remaining sections of track between Georgetown Junction and Point of Rocks.
In comparison, the 3-stage expansion in the 2013 draft update builds up to only marginally more service. There would be no additional trains in the short term. During the 2020s, MARC would add 3 additional trains, including one reverse-peak train.
Between 2030 and 2050, there would be 6 additional peak-service trains (3 round trips), plus some off-peak service and some more reverse-peak service. The draft update only proposes building a short section of third track on Barnesville Hill in the 2020s, with "additional triple tracking" at unspecified locations in the long term.
Why is MTA's 2013 draft update so much less ambitious than its 2007 plan? Perhaps MTA is trying to hold down the costs of the plan. But unlike the 2007 plan, the 2013 draft update does not provide cost estimates for the long-term plans. So reducing the scope of the long-term plans does not affect the total cost in the 2013 draft update.
Or maybe MTA now believes that there will be insufficient demand for all-day, two-way service and weekend service on the Brunswick Line in the future. But this seems inconsistent with MTA's explicit recognition of transit-oriented development (TOD) in the 2013 draft update, including the creation of high-density, mixed-use TOD on existing surface parking lots within walking distance of MARC stations.
In Montgomery County, there are plans for MARC-related TOD at Kensington and White Flint, and construction is already underway at Gaithersburg, Germantown, and Metropolitan Grove. But will there be enough transit to support TOD at these stations, if even MARC's own Growth and Expansion Plan does not call for eventual all-day, two-way service?
And will these plans leave room for an eventual third track, if MARC's Growth and Expansion Plan does not call for one? Montgomery County's draft Countywide Transit Corridors Functional Master Plan, which proposes a countywide Bus Rapid Transit network, also covers right-of-way for MARC. But it only includes a third track northwest of Metropolitan Grove.
All of these projects should maintain a reserved right-of-way for the third track that will make it easier to provide all-day, two-way service on the Brunswick Line. And for this to happen, MTA's final update of the Growth and Investment Plan must restore both all-day, two-way service and a third track between Georgetown Junction and Point of Rocks as long-term plans.
If you support all-day, two-way service on the Brunswick Line, please e-mail MTA at MGIP@mta.maryland.gov. MTA will accept public comments on the draft update through mid-November.
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.
"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.
Whether you care about parking, bicycling, walking, or all three, in DC, Maryland, or Virginia, there are some important events coming up, from a parking meeting tonight in Georgetown to a forum on upcounty Montgomery pedestrian safety to a bike rally in Richmond.
Talk parking in Georgetown: Tonight (Wednesday, January 16) is a Georgetown community meeting about parking. Topher Mathews reports Georgetown is likely to get some form of performance parking, but before it does, leaders want to hear from residents about their parking needs and desires. The meeting starts at 6:30 at Hardy Middle School.
Make walkable neighborhoods for everyone: Many DC neighborhoods like H Street are becoming desirable, walkable places, but also increasingly unaffordable for many. How can we ensure these places serve everyone, including long-time residents, rather than one small segment of the population?
The Coalition for Smarter Growth, the most influential smart growth group in the Washington region, organized a panel with Chris Leinberger of Brookings, David Bowers from Enterprise Community Partners, and the DC Fiscal Policy Institute's Ed Lazere. It's Tuesday, January 22, 6:30-8:30 (with some refreshments beginning at 6) at NCPC, 401 9th St NW, suite 500 North. RSVP here.
Talk pedestrians in upcounty: After a spate of pedestrian injuries and deaths in upcounty Montgomery, the Action Committee for Transit put together a forum on pedestrian safety at the Germantown Public Library, 2-4 pm on Saturday, January 26. Barbara McCann from the National Complete Streets Coalition will talk about the area's pedestrian safety problems and possible solutions.
Support biking in DC, Maryland: WABA is inviting folks to its offices on Wednesday, January 23 to talk about bicycle planning in DC and Maryland. The MoveDC initiative and a transportation planning process in Maryland will be collecting a lot of public input.
Stop by WABA's offices in Adams Morgan, 2599 Ontario Road NW, between 5:30 and 9:30 to talk with WABA staff and fellow cycling advocates about how to best weigh in during these processes and what to say when you do.
Support biking in Virginia: In the Commonwealth, the biggest bicycling issues are in the state legislature, where advocates are pushing for 6 specific bills that will make roads safer for cyclists. They are organizing a Bicycling Action Day in Richmond on Tuesday, January 29, starting at 10:30 at the "compass" plaza at Virginia Commonwealth University, followed by a bicycle ride to the state capitol for a rally.
Zoning update! And don't forget the Ward 4 zoning update information session, 6:30 tonight (again, Wednesday
MARC is proposing changes to the schedule on its Brunswick Line which significantly improves service to Montgomery County stations. The changes reflect new, recently-released boarding statistics for the line's 19 stations, statistics which can help them better serve commuters.
The data show, among other things, that Montgomery County stations account for roughly half of the line's eastbound riders; Germantown is one of MARC's big stations; riders go to destinations other than Rockville, Silver Spring, and Union Station; and Frederick branch ridership is not meeting projections, probably due to its infrequent service.
In addition, the Brunswick Line is a significant part of MARC's service; Brunswick and Point of Rocks ridership is big but smaller than Montgomery County's; and West Virginia has hundreds of people who ride the train despite infrequent service, long travel times, and ticket surcharges due to lack of state funding.
The Brunswick Line is arguably the most complicated of MARC's 3 lines. It's certainly the longest, running for 73 miles northwest through Montgomery and Frederick Counties and on to Martinsburg, West Virginia, with a 13.5-mile branch line to Frederick.
In addition, like MARC's Camden Line, it runs on tracks owned and controlled by freight carrier CSX. And it is constrained, despite growing ridership, because CSX refuses to allow MARC to add trains until the State of Maryland funds and builds a third track.
On weekday mornings, Brunswick Line trains bring people from Maryland, West Virginia, and Virginia to jobs in Montgomery County, the District, and Alexandria and Arlington. On weekday afternoons and evenings, Brunswick Line trains take them home.
Meanwhile, there are big plans for the future along the line. Montgomery County is encouraging transit-oriented development on its part of the Brunswick Line. Frederick County is doing the same in and near Frederick. Even West Virginia is getting in on the act.
But good policy requires good data. So, where do the ridership data come from, and what do they show?
MARC's counting method
The data come from counts conducted on Wednesday, February 8, and Wednesday, March 14. MTA passed out the data at the monthly MARC Riders Advisory Council meeting on April 19.
On count days, conductors are supposed to count everybody who gets on and off their train at each station. The total number of people getting on and off each train is supposed to be equal.
The boarding numbers are misleadingly precise. That is, a count of 123 eastbound boardings on Frederick on March 14 does not mean that exactly 123 people got on. However, the numbers are still useful, as they are probably generally accurate, and anyway, they are the only numbers available.
The Brunswick Line overall
The Brunswick Line accounted for roughly 1/5 of total MARC boardings, while the Penn Line accounted for roughly 2/3, and the Camden Line accounted for the rest. Here is a comparison of Brunswick Line boardings to MARC's other two lines:
|MARC Line||Direction/Total||February 8||March 14|
|Brunswick Line||Eastbound (am)||3,898||4,102|
|Brunswick Line||Westbound (pm)||3,562||3,844|
On both days, there were more eastbound than westbound boardings on the Brunswick Line. This may be a precision error, or there may actually have been 300-some people each day who went to work on MARC and home a different way.
Montgomery County has 11 stations: Silver Spring, Kensington, Garrett Park, Rockville, Washington Grove, Gaithersburg, Metropolitan Grove, Germantown, Boyds, Barnesville, and Dickerson. Rockville and Silver Spring are major destination stations as well as origin stations.
9 daily trains in each direction currently make stops in Montgomery County. 2 eastbound and 4 westbound daily trains currently stop at all of the county stations.
Here are the boardings for Montgomery County:
|Direction/Total||Station/Total||February 8||March 14|
The data show three notable facts:
- Germantown is a big station, by MARC standards. It's the biggest station in Montgomery County and on the Brunswick Line overall, and it's bigger, in terms of one-way boardings, than all Camden Line stations and all but 4 Penn Line stations (Odenton, Halethorpe, BWI, and Penn Station). (This comparison excludes Union Station.)
- Rockville and Silver Spring are not the only destination stations in the county. People also ride MARC to jobs in Germantown, Metropolitan Grove, Gaithersburg, Garrett Park, and Kensington.
- On the March 14 count day, there were more eastbound boardings at Montgomery County stations than at all other stations on the Brunswick Line combined.
The Frederick branch has 2 stations: Monocacy and Frederick. The trains run on a 13.5-mile line that branches off just east of (and not connecting to) the Point of Rocks station. The State of Maryland built and owns most of the track. Currently, 3 eastbound trains leave from Frederick between 5:12 and 7:10 am, and 3 trains bound west for Frederick leave Union Station between 3:50 and 6:30 pm.
Here are the boarding numbers (all eastbound) on the Frederick Line:
|Station||February 8||March 14|
The Frederick branch opened in 2001 with 3 eastbound and 3 westbound trains. Projected ridership was 1,600 by 2005, with double the number of trains. Obviously, Frederick ridership is still much less; on the other hand, the number of trains is still the same as in 2001. That more frequent trains would increase ridership is a reasonable assumption.
Brunswick and Point of Rocks
There are also 2 stations in Frederick County that are not on the Frederick branch: Point of Rocks and Brunswick. Currently, 6 eastbound trains leave Brunswick between 5:00 and 7:40 am, and 6 daily westbound trains stopping at Brunswick and Point of Rocks leave Union Station between 3:35 and 7:15 pm.
Here are the boarding numbers at Point of Rocks and Brunswick:
|Direction/Total||Station/Total||February 8||March 14|
|Point of Rocks||448||485|
|Point of Rocks||1||2|
Brunswick is the second-biggest origin station on the Brunswick Line, and Point of Rocks is roughly tied for third with Gaithersburg.
The eastbound boarders include residents of Virginia and West Virginia as well as Maryland. However, there do not seem to be any data on how many.
Some of the westbound boardings may represent West Virginia residents who work in Kensington, Gaithersburg, Metropolitan Grove, or Germantown, and transfer from a Brunswick-bound train to the West Virginia super-express that leaves Union Station at 4:55 pm. In Montgomery County, the super-express stops only in Silver Spring and Rockville.
West Virginia has 3 stations: Harpers Ferry, Duffields, and Martinsburg. Currently, 2 eastbound trains leave Martinsburg at 5:25 and 6:30 am, and 3 trains bound west for Martinsburg leave Union Station between 4:55 and 7:15 pm.
Here are the boarding numbers (all eastbound) at the West Virginia stations:
|Station||February 8||March 14|
West Virginia no longer contributes to MARC funding. Eastern Panhandle legislators are trying to do something about this. Meanwhile, since 2009, West Virginia riders have paid a surcharge of $2 per one-way ticket, $20 per weekly ticket, and $80 per monthly ticket.
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.
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