Monday, April 13, 2009

Old Enemies Square Off on Georgia at Norbeck (Updated)

At the District 4 Debate in Wheaton sponsored by Action Committee for Transit, Ben Kramer and Cary Lamari had a testy exchange about one of the key transportation issues in the area: the fate of the Georgia Avenue-Norbeck Road intersection. We investigated their allegations and offer this report to our readers.

Georgia at Norbeck is by all accounts a failed intersection. On 9/11/03, it recorded critical lane volumes (CLVs) of 1896 in the morning and 1774 in the evening. On 6/1/06, it recorded CLVs of 1703 in the morning and 1567 in the evening. The allowable threshold in its policy area (Aspen Hill) was 1500 in 2003 and 1475 in 2006, meaning that the intersection’s traffic flow has ranged from 6% to 26% over its capacity. Longtime readers will remember our skepticism of critical lane volumes. Perhaps more relevant is the fact that Georgia-Norbeck is located between two of the county’s slowest corridors: Georgia between Arcola and Randolph and Georgia between Prince Phillip and Olney-Sandy Spring. The Georgia-Norbeck intersection’s very location between Olney and Silver Spring and Rockville and East County dooms it to some of Montgomery’s worst congestion.

For a long time, ICC opponents had proposed a series of intersection improvements along Norbeck Road and Spencerville Road as an alternative to the ICC. In 1999, former Governor Parris Glendening announced the “death” of the ICC, prodding the state to seriously consider alternative improvements. One of the intersections targeted for improvement was Georgia-Norbeck. By 2002, the State Highway Administration (SHA) had developed several options for Georgia-Norbeck, including a grade separation.

Ben Kramer owns part of a small shopping center near the northwest corner of the intersection and opposed the grade separation. Access to that shopping center would have been hindered by the state’s separation plan.

According to a Gazette article from January 2003:

Ben Kramer, owner of the western section of the Norbeck Shopping Center on the northwest corner of the intersection, said he opposes the divided grade plan.

“Los Angeles-looking freeway intersections are excessive, grandiose and certainly inappropriate as the ‘gateway’ to the Olney community,” he said.

Now that a newly elected County Council has joined the county executive's drive to build an Intercounty Connector, Kramer said it is time to wait and re-evaluate if the changes are still necessary.

He said it would not be “financially prudent” to make the changes with the state's current budget deficit.
During the District 4 Wheaton debate, Cary Lamari raised the issue of the intersection redesign, claiming, “The only people who opposed it were the owners of the shopping center.” The two owners were Kramer and John DiSalvatore, who owned the eastern side of the center. Kramer said the allegation was untrue and traded charges with Lamari until the crowd demanded that they move on. So who’s right?

The Gazette article says this:

Dan Hardy, transportation supervisor for Montgomery County Park and Planning, said 18 people spoke at the public meeting. Although there was no formal consensus, about half favored the idea of building Norbeck Road (Route 28) under Georgia Avenue (Route 97), he said.
Notes taken by SHA at the hearing reveal that more people opposed the grade separation than supported it. According to SHA, of the individuals who submitted oral or written comment, 11 supported Alternative 7 (the separation), 13 opposed the project and 11 had no improvement preference or raised other issues.

Noting this material, Kramer told me, “Cary Lamari will not allow the facts to get in his way.” Kramer admitted opposing the interchange because of access issues but said it would hurt the “small minority businesses” who were his tenants. Kramer said he supported a cheaper at-grade improvement plan that would have cost half ($40-50 million) of the separation option ($80-100 million).

Current Montgomery County Civic Federation President (and Lamari supporter) Arnold Gordon put the dispute in slightly different terms from Lamari. He wrote to me:

There is no question in our (most civic leaders here in southwest Olney) minds that Kramer was the key impediment in getting a grade separated interchange built at this “F” graded intersection. He knew or should have known that traffic off of the ICC at Georgia Avenue (especially after Stage A of the ICC was opened) would only make that intersection worse. He has had a definite conflict of interest in this matter for a long time since the grade separation would have traffic bypass the entry to his Shopping Center which is most heavily dependent on the heavy flow westbound on 28 in rush hours and other hours as well.
So what will happen to the intersection? SHA has budgeted $2.8 million in planning and engineering for the interchange project. But SHA admits that it needs an additional $1.3 million for engineering and has not scheduled any construction money. And now that the ICC is underway, the state may very well put Georgia-Norbeck on the backburner.

Ben Kramer certainly opposes this project. But Lamari’s statements that Kramer and the other shopping center owner were the only opponents are not supported by the record. The voters will have to decide how the candidates’ positions on the intersection match their own, and how the relative veracity of Ben Kramer and Cary Lamari will factor into their voting decision.

Update: As he states in the comment section, Cary Lamari did send us renderings of six different proposals for the intersection. Below is Alternative 7, the grade-separated design that Lamari supports and Kramer opposes. Kramer’s property is the small plaza just below the “MD 28” caption. Part of Leisure World can be seen in the upper left corner.