Sunday, September 06, 2009

Transportation Leads the List

By Sharon Dooley.

Many residents of the county will state that transportation woes lead their lists of daily concerns, and as travel distances increase and commuting times become longer, frustrations grow larger for many. So it is fitting as children return to school and most of us return to our usual routines after summer vacations, that thoughts turn to transportation. The County Council will soon address significant and important issues that shall shape our county’s future. Today’s remarks look at the transportation quandary.

What directions should the Annual Growth Policy (AGP) take? How does a county that has decreasing revenues fund necessary improvements? Will our roads evolve into near permanent gridlock or will our planners advise effective and adequate transportation solutions? Now that the Purple Line seems to be passing all hurdles, will the county soon see the predicted benefits? Is the chosen route still subject to change? Does it make sense to not bring it up to the Medical Center area that will soon be impacted by BRAC? Does this increase or harm the chances of the Corridor Cities Transit way (CCT) being fast tracked for the beleaguered upper county areas? (Could the CCT be paired with a Baltimore area project to increase the chances of approval by the state?)

Development of the Johns Hopkins Life Sciences Centers and the Science City proposed in the Gaithersburg West Master Plans will also consider the CCT and planners have proposed significant re-routing of the long planned route to facilitate the transit ideas that have evolved in this plan. In fact, it is suggested that approximately 30% of the residents in the new residential areas may not need cars, nor have places to park them in the long term. Extensive public education will be necessary if public behaviors are expected to change successfully. However, development is not staged in such a way that Stage One will not proceed, if the CCT is not in place. It may well be that there needs to be an Express component on this line to bring those from the upcounty to the Shady Grove Metro and a more local stop option to address the Gaithersburg West development, as the time people can spend in any commute must be considered. This long awaited and major commercial, mixed use and residential plan is also predicated on the economy being strong enough to support these plans. Montgomery County would enhance its’ reputation as a major player in the Life and Bio-sciences development areas when this project is a reality, so each stage should be carefully developed, to ensure that success is a given. The eventual business and residential growth here, as proposed would take place over 25-35 years and should allow enough time for proposed infrastructure to be in place as each stage progresses. The major question is – will this happen? The council must ensure that adequate infrastructure and required public facilities are also staged in conjunction with the development. This county has a history of placing projects in a queue, yet not providing funding. Other projects, such as the Montrose Parkway, were fast-tracked with county money when we had more options. Communities such as Germantown and Clarksburg have been described as Transit dependant, yet they still await the CCT, which has been long promised. Olney has long awaited a bus way down Georgia Avenue that would facilitate Metro access; perhaps the Bus Rapid transit (BRT) along the bus way could be an answer to that proposal.

Several transportation projects have been considered as major necessary improvements for many years but have not happened. Among the unfunded ones are major modifications of several intersections: Randolph Road at Georgia Avenue, Route 28 and Georgia Avenue, Viers Mill Road at First Street, Brookeville By-pass, just to mention a few long standing areas of bottle necks in the mostly mid county area. Other long stalled projects are common to all areas. The County Council sends lists of prioritized projects to the County delegation each year, yet other priorities intercede as budget demands change. Concerns about both the Purple line and the CCT include costs; if BRT is cheaper, why not mandate that? However if Federal finds are in place for light rail, why not take advantage of ‘free money’, so to speak? These are all hard choices and decisions that should be well considered and not hastily made.

What will happen with plans for 270 improvements; will the county just keep on adding lanes without adequate planning and input from those who live nearby? Just how big should a highway be? Obviously lanes need to be added to decrease the bottlenecks seen daily from Frederick South; but what form should they take? The state planners envisioned that in 50 years or so that the CCT will go up along 270 in some manner all the way to Frederick. We must be careful to plan any expansion so that this could still occur. Some have suggested adding two outside High Occupancy Toll Lanes (HOT) alongside current routes in each direction, while others have suggested placing the HOT lanes in the middle and making them reversible to fit the rush hours, mush as is done on the Bay Bridge. Will other planned or suggested highways be considered or stalled such as the M-83 or the Tech road? Will they be kept on the books as viable opportunities for the future or will the county finally turn to reasonable alternative measures and stop deforestation of parkland, destruction of watershed, the ag reserve and other large areas of the county? The county needs to think long term here in looking at solutions; too often we settle for the short-term fix and later have to address unforeseen complications, such as environmental damages.

Will BRT be in the County’s future? This seems to be a responsible, cost effective alternative to reducing traffic flow, but public buy in is a necessary component. Recent hearings at the County Planning Board indicated displeasure from both residential neighborhoods and development attorneys in aspects of growth decisions based upon PAMR (policy area mobility review) and local traffic studies, neither of which have validation by national transportation authorities and seem to be a home grown remedy that has failed as a long term therapy for gridlock. With continued slow downs on Metro and the inability to increase car lengths beyond 8 cars is it realistic to try to force more commuters onto Metro in the short term? Where is Metros long term future; is it based in longer routes or do we need to pause and realistically decide that perhaps spending some real funds on maintenance and upgrades is in our best interests? If that is the decision made, perhaps BRT could fill the gaps.

In conclusion, it appears that the County Council has a major agenda concern with transportation alone; the annual growth policy, the budget and other topics cannot be disregarded nor will they disappear and further options shall be discussed in future posts.

Council hearings will be held on the Gaithersburg West Master Plan on Tuesday, September 15th and the Annual Growth Policy on September 22nd at 7:00pm in the third floor Council Hearing Room of the County Council building. The public is invited; usually hearings are also televised on county cable TV.