Posts about Germantown
Montgomery County is expected to gain 232,000 new residents over the next 30 years. Currently, Montgomery's traffic tests measures whether development leads to people driving faster rather than whether development leads to more people driving. Reforming this practice could help discourage sprawl.
Under the current system, development like this one in Silver Spring, where it's easy to walk around, doesn't get credit for reducing how often and how far people drive. Photo by Dan Reed on Flickr.
Montgomery County is currently updating its four year "growth plan", known formally as the Subdivision Staging Policy (SSP). The SSP governs everything from school infrastructure needs to the amount of taxes developers pay for new projects.
While any number of those issues have a huge impact on guiding growth, it's hard to say any are more important than revising how Montgomery tests the way new developments impact traffic.
Here's how Montgomery currently tests traffic
The test Montgomery County uses measures just car speed at intersections. Incoming development, whether located in dense areas or not, is projected to generate X amount of car trips, and therefore create Y amount of car delay at intersections.
The test does not take into account the number of people walking, biking or busing-- it assumes that a project a block from a Metro station will produce the same amount of car traffic as a project in Clarksburg. If a project is found to create an "unreasonable" amount of traffic, developers have to pay to mitigate the impact----even in an area where many folks may not drive.
Currently, a single occupant car is valued the same as a bus carrying 80 passengers. Even though a dedicated bus lane could carry vastly more people than a lane of single occupant vehicles, that bus lane would fail current traffic tests because it hurts the speed at which single occupant vehicles can drive.
In real terms, this often means a developer paying to widen a road in order to pass a traffic test-- an outcome that's inherently contradictory to Montgomery's transit and environmental goals. We're rewarding sprawl and making infill development more difficult.
Evaluating car delay ensures we aren't looking at all the possibilities for moving the most people-- we're just looking at how to move single-occupancy vehicles the fastest. These tests prize car speed over increased mobility options, rewarding development that is far from urban centers. Why build a new grocery store in Downtown Silver Spring, which would require a traffic mitigation payment for a failing intersection, when you can build one five miles away near the highway and pass your traffic test with flying colors?
In fact, the type of traffic tests Montgomery uses has been called the "Transportation Planning Rule Every City Should Reform". Focusing solely on automobile congestion has the strange effect of making transit improvements like bike and bus lanes look bad but road widening look good.
The county is considering another way of doing things
The good news is that the Montgomery County Planning Department is
VMT takes the total amount of vehicles being driven on a daily or annual basis and divides it by the total number of miles being driven. For example, 10,000 vehicles each travelling an average of 15 miles per day, would result in 150,000 vehicle miles travelled per day.
By attacking traffic tests from this angle, we can set goals to decrease the amount of car trips residents take. Montgomery could set a goal of reducing VMT by 10% over ten years, and evaluate how future development fits in with that vision.
Building near transit and retail can mean people won't need cars at all, but that doesn't show up with Montgomery's current testing system. Photo by Dan Reed on Flickr.
To appreciate the difference, imagine CVS plans to build two new pharmacies in the county, one in Downtown Silver Spring and the other in Germantown. Under the current system, both projects would be projected to generate the same amount of new trips using a standard formula.
Because Silver Spring is already more densely developed, those new trips would be added to roads that are likely already failing from a car delay perspective, forcing the developer to fund costly "mitigation" efforts. In less developed Germantown, those same trips are unlikely to cause any intersections to "fail" the car delay test, so no mitigation is required.
VMT ends the incentive to build in less dense areas, many of which are far from transit. It provides a holistic look at mobility options in an area.
This is about equity for residents, too
The current test is inherently unequal, giving priority to single occupancy vehicles and completely overlooking those who are transit reliant (by choice or by necessity). This is especially important, as study after study shows transit access is a huge indicator of someone's odds of being socially mobile.
This issue is even more important when we consider that Montgomery saw the most significant increase in poverty of any jurisdiction in the DC region. Inequality of mobility leads to inequality of opportunity.
If we want an equal county, measuring traffic in a way that encourages inclusive growth, not just destinations that can be reached exclusively by car, is certainly an important step.
Can you get involved? Yes!
You can help be a part of the change. The Montgomery County Planning department is currently producing their staff draft of the growth policy. Send the planning board emails, write them letters, make your voice heard.
Tell them: "I am a transit reliant Montgomery County resident. Every day, I am confronted with both the positives and negatives of our transit infrastructure. Far too often in planning meetings, or County Council hearings, the voices of people who actually need transit are not in the room. We need better approaches to how we grow."
If we want a county that is more walkable, and inclusive we need to make our voices are heard. The fight to change our traffic tests should be a rallying cry for environmentalists, progressives and transit advocates. This is a critical opportunity for Montgomery to fufill its reputation as a bastion of progressivism.
Service on the MARC Brunswick Line only runs one way at a time: toward DC in the morning and away from DC in the afternoon and evening, on weekdays only. Some MARC riders think there is a simple way to make service between DC and Brunswick run both ways in the early and mid-afternoon.
Currently, the Brunswick-bound train that leaves Union Station at 1:30 pm (P871) runs only on Fridays. And when the train returns from Brunswick to Union Station in mid-afternoon (as P884), it does so without picking up passengers. Running P871 every day and having P884 pick up passengers would provide meaningful two-way Brunswick Line service.
CSX constrains MARC's ability to add service
Since 2007, the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) has had the goal of all-day, two-way, and weekend Brunswick Line service. However, CSX, the freight railroad company that owns the tracks the Brunswick Line runs on, has said that MARC may not add trains on the Brunswick Line until Maryland begins to build a third track, which the state has not yet done.
At last week's MARC Riders Advisory Council meeting, riders (disclosure: I was one of them) talked to MTA officials about a way to get two-way service without adding trains to the schedule. The early-afternoon train to Brunswick (P871) and mid-afternoon return train to DC (P884) already exist; they just don't run every day. MARC need only restore daily service to one and passenger service to the other, and voilà: the first step toward full two-way service.
The Friday-only early-afternoon train could run every day
The early-afternoon train (P871) currently leaves Union Station on Fridays at 1:30 pm and arrives in Brunswick by 3:04. Before the MARC service cuts in 2009, this train ran every weekday. If you needed to come home early, that was the train you took. The number of riders on the train each day was low, but the proportion of MARC riders who used the train on occasion was high.
Almost seven years after the service cuts, the early-afternoon train is still running only on Fridays. Riders at the advisory council meeting wanted to know why. MTA has restored other service that was cut in 2009, like service on Columbus Day and Veterans Day. Also, because MTA kept the Friday service, the train already has a train slot, trainset (engine and passenger cars), and crew.
There could be passenger service toward DC in the afternoon
There was also talk at the advisory council meeting of service towards DC in the afternoons. The trainset and crew for the early-afternoon train to Brunswick return to DC as train P884, but P884 doesn't pick up passengers.
In the mid-1990s, there was a mid-afternoon train towards DC that picked up passengers. That train left Brunswick at 4:30 pm, with a scheduled arrival at Union Station at 5:30 pm, and flag stops along the way. Could MTA could restore this service as well?
One potential problem might be a delay in the return to Union Station. MARC uses the same trainset and crew for an evening train to Martinsburg, so a delay in P884's return would lead to a further delay for an outbound train. However, MTA could solve that problem by stopping the train only at Point of Rocks, Germantown, Rockville, and Silver Spring. This would add only a few minutes to the trip.
Discuss the Brunswick Line further at a meeting
There will be a public meeting about MARC Brunswick Line service and other transportation topics in the I-270 corridor, sponsored by state delegates from Montgomery and Frederick Counties, on Wednesday, September 9, at 7 pm, at the Upcounty Regional Services Center in Germantown. People from the Maryland Department of Transportation, including MTA, will be there.
Boyds, a rural town in Montgomery County's Agricultural Reserve with a MARC station, is a commuting destination for the residents of Clarksburg, a rapidly growing town just north. To handle increasing traffic and make transit more accessible, Boyds residents want to move both a central road and the MARC station.
Boyds, Maryland today. Note that the MARC station's location is off; it's actually one block west of the Clarksburg/Clopper intersection. Base image from Google Maps.
Clarksburg is transit-oriented development without transit. 1994 plans included comprehensive regional and local bus and rail networks. Today, Clarksburg residents only have two weekday-only bus routes and a circuitous trial shuttle to the Germantown MARC station.
Increasing numbers of people are driving through Boyds from homes in Clarksburg and Frederick County to jobs in Germantown and the I-270 corridor. This leads to traffic back-ups at the bottleneck in Boyds where Clarksburg Road meets MD 117 (Barnesville and Clopper Roads) in a double intersection separated by an underpass.
Soon, Clarksburg's Cabin Branch section will have 2,386 housing units, an outlet mall, and an outdoor amphitheater. The adjacent Ten Mile Creek will have 500 houses. The Boyds MARC station would be reachable with a short trip south on Clarksburg Road.
But there are no buses to the Boyds MARC station, and its 15-space parking lot is often full.
The Montgomery County Department of Transportation (MCDOT) is currently studying a bus turnaround and some 40 additional parking spaces for the Boyds MARC station. Their favored site for both may be the future Boyds Local Park, which sits south of the intersection of Clopper Road and Clarksburg Road and a block downhill from the train station. But would the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC), who owns the park, agree to that? The M-NCPPC wants to put cricket fields in the park.
Also, the Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA) is studying traffic signals and/or roundabouts to speed car travel through the intersection-underpass-intersection bottleneck in Boyds. The results of the study may be ready in late spring.
While the Boyds community has asked MCDOT for improvements to the MARC station for years, residents are wary of the suburbanizing effects of MCDOT's and SHA's ideas on an area whose master plans designate it as rural and historic.
Boyds residents propose their own possible solution
The first part is to relocate part of Clopper Road either over or under the railroad tracks. This would form a single, modern, more efficient intersection between Clopper, Clarksburg Road, and Barnesville Road. It would also keep traffic away from the Boyds Historic District and out of Boyds Local Park.
The proposed new locations for the MARC station and Clopper Road. The intersection could have a roundabout or traffic signals. Image from the author.
The second part is to move the MARC station from its current location in the Boyds Historic District to a three-acre industrial storage lot just to the east on Clopper Road next to the proposed new bridge or underpass.
The new station would be much larger, with space for 300 cars and for buses that would run between Clarksburg, Boyds, and Germantown. The additional parking would also delay the need for a parking garage at Germantown, the next station to the east on the Brunswick Line.
SHA's traffic study and MCDOT's park-and-ride study are short-term plans. In contrast, the Boyds Civic Association's long-term, comprehensive idea, if feasible, would both remove the traffic bottleneck in Boyds and greatly expand car and bus access to the Boyds MARC train station. Boyds residents hope that their idea is a vision for the area that everyone can share.
According to a US Census report, the District of Columbia's daytime population, including commuters, swells to over 1,000,000. The difference between DC's day and night populations is second greatest in the US.
The report dates from 2010 so the numbers are surely a bit different today. With DC's (then) nighttime residential population of 584,400, its 1,046,036 daytime population represents a 79% increase. Among US counties, only New York County (Manhattan) has a larger percentage increase.
Arlington looks much the same. Its 26% increase in daytime population is 13th largest nationally. That's higher than San Francisco on the list.
At the other end of the spectrum, two DC suburbs top the list of places with decreased daytime population. Dale City and Centreville in Northern Virginia both drop by over 40%, making them America's ultimate bedroom communities.
Montgomery County's Germantown is Maryland's top entrant on that list; it clocks in at #20, with a decrease of 31%.
Part of the explanation for this is simply where boundaries are drawn. For example, even though Houston has a large downtown with many commuters, it doesn't appear on the increased daytime population list because the City of Houston annexed so many of its suburbs that more of its commuters still technically live within the city limits. Likewise, Houston's Harris County is gigantic and more or less envelopes the entire metropolis, so there's little difference at the county level either.
Geographically smaller jurisdictions in large metropolitan areas are disproportionately more likely to show up in this data. So it's not a great comparison of commuting patterns across different metropolitan regions. But it's nonetheless interesting to know.
Cross-posted at BeyondDC.
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—
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