Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Lacefield, Ross Spar Over BRAC Tunnel

Earlier today, Action Committee for Transit (ACT) alleged that the Montgomery County Department of Transportation (MCDOT) changed the scope of a pedestrian tunnel intended to facilitate Metro access to the Medical Center to a multi-modal tunnel allowing cars. Further, ACT alleged that MCDOT changed the project in secret. We called on the Leggett administration to release details on the project and County Executive spokesman Patrick Lacefield replied rapidly. ACT President Ben Ross then responded. We reprint both comments below.

Patrick Lacefield:

ACT’s assertion that the County Executive and the Department of Transportation are operating in secrecy on this issue is unfortunate and misinformed.

There is no secret tunnel or secret meeting as either of the two MSM reporters that were in attendance at yesterday’s meeting could attest to. The concept of a multimodal tunnel has been openly and publicly discussed both yesterday and three weeks ago at a BRAC Implementation Committee meeting attended by many members representing surrounding communities. The exact drawings depicted in Mr. Ross’s press release belong to Clark Construction and, unfortunately, the County is not at liberty to release them. However, it is important to understand that these drawings do not necessarily depict what will be constructed. The design and construction for any multi-modal tunnel would be bid through our careful and legal procurement process. All construction firms would have an equal opportunity to compete for the project.

There are no diverted funds. In fact, no funds have been allocated by any entity for any improved Metro access that we are aware of. Funds have been requested, including the TIGER grant request that we briefed the community on both yesterday and three weeks ago at a BRAC Implementation Committee meeting. But there are no existing funds to be diverted and the grant programs that may fund this proposal are not in any way, shape or form limited to transit programs or the proposal favored by ACT.

Indeed, the TIGER grant specifically favors multi-modal proposals, which the County Executive’s proposal clearly is. Had we submitted the proposal favored by ACT (a more expensive, single-mode proposal, with long-term operating costs), we would almost assuredly not receive any funding under the TIGER grant. The total dollar value of proposals submitted for the TIGER grants nationwide is $57 billion -- for a pot totaling only $1.5 billion. Given those odds, a multi-modal proposal is clearly our only shot.

How ACT can possibly interpret the proposal as “secret” when the concept has been publicly discussed on at least two separate occasions is perplexing. How ACT can assert that this concept is detrimental to transit riders when it provides clear pedestrian access to Metro riders, as well as bicyclists and potentially inter-campus vehicular traffic, is also perplexing. How ACT can oppose a concept that has a significantly better shot of being funded and therefore, a better shot at serving transit riders, than any of the previous proposals is even more perplexing. This concept also links more seamlessly to the more comprehensive network of sidewalks and bikeways that the County and State are funding as part of our efforts to reduce the influx of traffic. This is a goal that we believe ACT shares.

The County Executive is committed to working with the community, the State and the Federal Government to try to minimize the inevitable disruption from the move of Walter Reed to Bethesda. He has worked tirelessly getting input from the community and communicating our needs to the State and Federal Government, including the Navy. Clearly part of the effort to meet the community’s needs includes improving the ability of pedestrians and transit riders to reach both NIH and the Navy installation. The Executive’s proposal would accomplish this goal in a cost effective manner that maximizes the ability to receive very scarce Federal funding. ACT understandably has transit as their single issue. While Mr. Leggett agrees with the importance of transit as a mode of transportation, there are a variety of other factors that he must also consider.

Patrick Lacefield
Montgomery County Office of Public Information
We should note that the project's "multi-modal" nature was not secret, as the Gazette reported the following on 9/23/09:

In the future, the passageway could also be modified to allow emergency vehicles to pass quickly between NIH and Navy Med under the Pike, an idea that both facilities have discussed.
Ben Ross, President of ACT, responded:

If the secret drawings "do not necessarily depict what will be constructed," why did DOT include them in its grant application?

What is "multimodal" about this project? As best we can understand it from the information that has been released, it is a roadway with a sidewalk next to it. Yes, this accomodates several modes of transportation (walking, bicycling, and driving), but is it such an innovation that it will give us an advantage in seeking federal funding?

Other issues here would best be resolved by the county making all relevant documentation public, including a description of what it was that Clark Construction proposed to the county and how the drawings now under discussion fit in. In the meantime, I encourage readers to follow links in our press release for documentation of what we say.
Here's the problem: if Clark's designs are proprietary and not subject to release by the county, that prevents the public from providing informed input on the project. The designs will be available to any construction contractor once the project is put out for bid, but by then, public input will be too late to have any effect. MCDOT must take that into account before considering using any "proprietary" designs on this or any other project.