MCDOT is Sabotaging the Western Workaround

Friends, we’ve got a problem…  (stay tuned to the end of the post where you can click to take action – or you can click right here).

When the White Flint Sector Plan was adopted in 2010 after years of collaboration between residents, property owners, county officials and civic leaders, it was hailed as a triumph of responsible, sustainable development. Now, however, the Montgomery County Department of Transportation (MCDOT) is poised to undo years of work by pushing through a design for the western workaround that does not include any of the elements promised to the community by the Sector Plan.

This is what we’ve feared since a public meeting we told you about in this blog post last summer.  There, transportation planners shared a vision of Old Georgetown Road, between Rockville Pike and Hoya Street, that looked vastly different than what’s outlined in the sector plan.  When we voiced concern, we were told that we’d have to go to the Governor to get what we were promised.  Even Councilmember Roger Berliner weighed in with a letter to MCDOT because the design did not meet expectations.

ogr2

The area around Old Georgetown Road has changed a lot
since this Google Maps image was taken in 2012

Since then, when we’ve checked in on the subject, we’ve been assured our concerns are being considered but that design of this stretch is on the back burner while other western workaround details are dealt with. Turns out that wasn’t exactly accurate…

 

Promises Made Should be Promises Kept
Transforming White Flint into a vibrant, walkable area requires balancing new development, which brings growth and amenities, with the pressure to move traffic. Part of that solution is a multi-modal transportation network that diffuses traffic across a new street grid, known as the western workaround. The goal is to relieve traffic on Rockville Pike while providing safe and attractive ways to get around on foot, bike or transit.

Because these elements are crucial to success, the sector plan prescribes specific details including speed limits, the numbers of lanes, and the location and character of bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. For Old Georgetown Road, between Executive Boulevard and Rockville Pike, the Plan is unequivocal: it should have four lanes (two in each direction), on-street bike lanes in both directions, sidewalks and a broad shared-use path, which forms part of the Sector-wide Recreation Loop.

In spite of the clear guidance of the sector plan – passed by the County Planning Board and County Council and overwhelmingly supported by the community – MCDOT’s design has no bike lanes, no shared-use path, and it widens the road to include two turn lanes in each direction, creating a road that is, effectively, eight lanes wide.  

messed up ogr1ogr1

You can click on this to make it larger. The top image is what MCDOT’s design will look like, the bottom is what’s called for in the sector plan. FYI – Towne Road will be the new name for Hoya Street once it’s complete.

This leaves us with an Old Georgetown Road that is even less safe for cyclists and pedestrians than it is today and with a gaping hole in one of the area’s signature planned amenities, the Recreation Loop. Even more frustrating, MCDOT has proposed redesigning Old Georgetown Road twice: once now to maximize auto traffic, and again, sometime in the future, to incorporate the elements promised in the Sector Plan, as long as conditions warrant and funding is available.  What an inefficient use of our tax dollars!

 

MCDOT’s Backwards Logic
Sadly, MCDOT’s actions are not surprising given the agency’s well documented history of prioritizing traffic flow over bicycle and pedestrian safety. The consequences of this “car is king” mentality are stark: 454 pedestrians were struck by cars in the county last year; 13 were killed. Just this summer, a pedestrian was killed while crossing the Pike down by North Bethesda Market and I frequently receive emails from Friends concerned for their safety on and along Old Georgetown Road.

In defense of their design, MCDOT argues that this is a four-lane road.  According to them, the design technically contains only two travel lanes in each direction; the additional lanes, which extend nearly the entire length of the roadway, are “merely turning lanes.”

This obfuscation may hold water for traffic engineers, but for anyone unlucky enough to bike or walk along the road, that distinction provides little comfort. Under the MCDOT proposal, a pedestrian must traverse eight lanes of traffic to get across Old Georgetown Road. For cyclists, the lack of dedicated lanes means they must take their chances staying safe among four lanes of traffic.

In reality, the effect of this design will be even more wide-reaching. By prioritizing driving over everything else, MCDOT will fulfill its own skewed vision for mobility in the county: fewer people will walk, bike or take transit.  Even if we want to, we just won’t feel safe. Instead, we’ll choose to drive for every single trip, adding to congestion and undermining the entire premise of the White Flint Sector Plan redevelopment.

bike sector plan

The bike infrastructure we expect under the sector plan…

bike mcdot

The bike infrastructure we’ll get with MCDOT’s design

Our Community is Being Ignored
Safe bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure and a Recreation Loop were key elements that helped the plan gain the support of the community. And, since the Plan’s passage, White Flint residents have consistently voiced their support for safer bike/pedestrian accommodations. For this reason, Friends of White Flint was shocked to learn that MCDOT has nearly advanced to the 70% design threshold for their version of the project, disregarding years of community involvement and input.

Not only is MCDOT’s approach an affront to the residents and stakeholders who spent years building consensus around the Sector Plan, but their defiance betrays the trust on which the White Flint Sector Plan relies and jeopardizes the entire process. The Western Workaround is the first of many planned transportation and infrastructure improvements within the White Flint Sector. If MCDOT is willing to push through a design for this project in direct defiance of the sector plan, how can the public trust they will implement the balance of the plan faithfully?

 

Tell the County: Enough is Enough
The residents and stakeholders of White Flint deserve better; now it’s time to demand it. Please join Friends of White Flint and our friends at Coalition for Smarter Growth in calling on County Executive Ike Leggett to uphold the promises made to our community and to hold his Department of Transportation accountable. Time is of the essence as this design marches forward – we must show them that we ARE paying attention,  we ARE excited about the new White Flint and we ARE expecting our county to do its part in making this place great.

Click the link below to send our county government a message and demand that they keep their promise to make White Flint a place where you don’t need to use your car for every single trip. A place where pedestrians and bicyclists have the same value as drivers. A place where we think about moving people, not just cars. You’ll find suggested language already populated but, if you can, take a moment to customize your subject line and message to maximize its impact. Thank you for your attention and advocacy!

Click Here to Take Action

** Updated 10/14/14 — the email blast that accompanied this blog post mistakenly said that the road’s design was unveiled as 70% complete.  The correct status of the project is as stated above – MCDOT is advancing to the 70% design threshold.  

 

Indianapolis Cultural Trail shows way for White Flint

Separate foot (on the left) and bike (on the right) paths on the Indianapolis Cultural Trail. Photo by Eric Fischer on Flickr.

Getting around White Flint by foot or bike today is difficult. Despite plans to create a new pedestrian and bicycle network in the area, how do you coax people onto the streets that were primarily built for driving? A new trail network in Indianapolis gives us a path to follow.

Last year, the city opened the Indianapolis Cultural Trail, an 8-mile network of foot and bike paths that loops around downtown with spurs to nearby destinations like universities, cultural venues and shopping streets. The trail “was about changing the way people thought about walking and running and jogging,” says Brian Payne of the Central Indiana Community Foundation (CICF), which spearheaded the project, in a video from Streetfilms. “We couldn’t just do a bike lane and change behavior. We had to do a new street.”

The Indianapolis Cultural Trail: The Next-Gen in U.S. Protected Bike Lanes from Streetfilms on Vimeo.
The trail is designed for a variety of users, including commuters, recreational cyclists and runners, and tourists. Unlike traditional bike lanes, which are street level, the Cultural Trail gives bicyclists and pedestrians separate paths at the curb level. This helps people who may be afraid to bike feel more comfortable because they’re not mixing with car traffic.

Small design choices make the trail easier and safer to use. Frequent, well-placed signage helps pedestrians, bicyclists and drivers understand how to interact with the trail and other users. At intersections with small streets, the crosswalk comes up to the trail, making it level. At big intersections, special pavers help trail users see where it goes while letting drivers know to expect lots of foot and bike traffic.

Special markings at intersections help trail users and drivers alike. Photo by Graeme Sharpe on Flickr.

The idea to create a trail system first appeared in 2001, and CICF reached out to community leaders to build support for the $63 million project. However, the city didn’t have to pay for any of it.

$15 million came from a private donor, while the federal government provided a $20.5 million TIGER grant. The rest came from individual donations, ranging from thousands of dollars to much smaller gifts. It’s an illustration of just how much people in the community cared about this project.

Trail supporters emphasize its multiple benefits to the community. Not only does it encourages people to get more exercise, but it introduces them to new ways of getting around, and even supports the local economy. Local businesses say the trail has resulted in higher sales, while developers are building new residential and commercial buildings along the route.

“We didn’t talk about this as an infrastructure project,” says Payne. “We talked about it as a quality of life and economic development [project].”

A map of White Flint's future Recreation Loop.

A map of White Flint’s future Recreation Loop.

The Indianapolis Cultural Trail sounds a lot like the White Flint Recreation Loop, a 1-mile trail network connecting several local destinations, including Wall Park, the Bethesda North Conference Center, the future Civic Green, and future housing and commercial developments. Like in Indianapolis, streets in the loop will have both sidewalks and curb-level bike lanes, though in White Flint they’ll actually be “shared use paths” for bicyclists and pedestrians.

But unlike Indianapolis, which has created a 75-mile bike network entirely from scratch in 7 years, it’s unclear how much additional bike infrastructure we’ll get in White Flint. County transportation officials have been reluctant to even provide sidewalks and bike paths on Old Georgetown Road, which is an important part of the Recreation Loop.

That said, it took 12 years for Indianapolis to build the Cultural Trail, and they couldn’t do it without extensive community support, pressure from local leaders, and creative funding sources. Hopefully, the White Flint Recreation Loop won’t take that long, but it suggests that we still have a lot of work to do.