County Council looks at White Flint projects

As the Montgomery County Council makes its way through the proposed Capital Improvement Programs budget, two White Flint-related projects have recently been discussed.

First, as reported in The Gazette, the White Flint fire station project is a “go.”  The 5-bay station slated for Randolph Road, near the new Chapman Avenue Extended, will include about 200 units of affordable housing for seniors. As approved, land acquisition will begin in 2015 with planning and design the following year.  The full project is expected to cost about $27.8M and the station will replace the existing facility on Rollins Avenue.  Read more here.

Second, the Transportation, Infrastructure, Energy & Environment (T&E) Committee met on Monday to discuss White Flint road projects.  Committee Chair Roger Berliner, along with Councilmembers Nancy Floreen and Hans Riemer, concurred with the County Executive’s funding request for the Western Workaround(!), White Flint East and White Flint West – all of which work to enhance our street grid and make for a more pleasant traveling experience regardless of your transportation mode.

The exciting surprise was that the committee also recommended that money be found to complete Hoya Street.  Situated to the west of Mid-Pike Plaza/Pike & Rose and expected to run from Montrose Road to Old Georgetown Road, a shard of the street has been sitting unfinished for years.  Councilmember Berliner shared this news with excitement at our event on Monday evening.  This is an important spoke in the wheel of White Flint and we hope the full Council will get behind the completion of this project.

Safe Streets Act of 2014

On February 7th, Senators Mark Begich (D-AK) and Brian Schatz (D-HI) introduced the Safe Streets Act of 2014 (S. 2004) to the U.S. Senate, “which would require all new federally-funded transportation projects use a Complete Streets approach to planning, designing and building roads,” says Craig Chester.

The bill will create standards for federally funded streets and roads to ensure stronger road/traffic safety and more accessibility for all types of transportation, whether that be a car, bus, bike, or foot. A similar bill was first introduced to the United States House of Representatives in June 2013. Both of these bills “will ensure consistency in policies and funding needed to support these local efforts to ensure safe streets,” notes Chester. If these bills are passed, we hope that state and regional level governments will adopt more Complete Streets policies.  Already, we can see 610 jurisdictions in 48 states, as well as D.C taking action towards creating Complete Streets.

This concept has found its way here in Montgomery County too. Some of our County Councilmembers are taking action towards incorporating Complete Streets policies in our county with the introduction of the Bill 33-13: Urban Road Code Standards and Pedestrian Safety Improvements. Our roads, standards, and policies in the county need to encourage complete streets in order for any development project such as the White Flint Sector Plan to be successful in creating walkable and sustainable communities. This updated urban road code under the Bill 33-13 will be one step closer to creating streets and roads we really want and need throughout the county. The bill hopes to strengthen ADA, pedestrian, and bike language surrounding the county streets. As we mentioned last week, this bill might be adjusted by a multi-disciplinary workgroup that has convened to hash out some of its details. We’ll learn more this summer when it returns to the Council for approval.

Both the House and Senate bills are great steps for our nation to take. It is one step closer to  ensuring national infrastructure and support for walkable neighborhoods and communities to develop across the nation.  With these bills, we can see that our nation is moving forward in encouraging healthy and sustainable living in many different aspects our lives, including transportation. We hope that within Montgomery County and specifically, the White Flint district, that we can encourage and promote complete streets through the urban design and standards we will enforce as well.

Update from White Flint Sector Plan Implementation Advisory Committee February Meeting

The February 10th meeting began with the mention of no new development taking place throughout the White Flint sector currently. The Pike and Rose development is continuing nicely with their first Phase.

Then the meeting turned to the White Flint Downtown Advisory Committee update. The committee is in support of the county’s proposed Bill 33-13: Urban Road Code Standards and Pedestrian Safety Improvements.  On January 24th, Planning Board Chair Carrier sent a letter to the President of the County Council supporting the Bill.   In the letter, the planning board agreed with the goals of the bill and acknowledged the need to change the 2007 urban road codes in order to have complete streets. They recommended that the bill include language that provides more details on issues such as accessibility, curb extensions, and shared use path.

Cindy Gibson, Chief of Staff to Councilmember Roger Berliner (who introduced the bill), attended the meeting as well. She provided the committee with an opportunity to learn more about the Urban Road Code bill. The bill will allow for urban areas throughout Montgomery County to have complete streets and will allow for more places like Bethesda and the future White Flint to exist. Since the urban road code was last updated in 2007, many new master plans and sector plans have popped up in hopes to create new and exciting areas across the county. Now that we have these plans, our roads, standards, and policies need to encourage what these plans were designed for: complete streets. This updated urban road code will be one step closer to creating streets and roads we really want and need. The bill will strengthen ADA, pedestrian, and bike language surrounding the county streets as well. Cindy also highlighted the public hearing, where Friends of White Flint testified, and that the County Executive’s support of the bill has been great.  (** We have since learned that Bill 33-13 is being tabled pending the results of a multi-disciplinary workgroup).

The meeting then moved toward the Implementation Coordinator report from Dee Metz. The county executive sent the CIP budget for approval on January 15th. As we have discussed in past posts, there are many proposed projects for White Flint in the CIP budget. These include the Western Workaround, District East (planning and construction), District West, Chapman Extended, and the North Bethesda Recreation Center. Questions from the public focused on the Western Workaround, one of the most important projects for White Flint. One question focused on the construction of the relocation of Executive Blvd in front of the North Bethesda Conference Center. The construction is funded in the CIP but the purchase of the land is not funded under the CIP budget. One of the funding sources is the White Flint Special Taxing District tax revenues but it may not be enough funding. The revenue will increase as the redevelopment moves forward, but it cannot move forward without the existence of roads. The county is working with the private landowner to secure the land that will be part of this project. In addition, we learned that the County Executive has discussed borrowing either $45 million or $77 million in revenue bonds.  If the county decides to borrow this money, they will not be able to pay it back until 2037. With the revenue bonds, the county needs to show a stream of income in order to secure the bond, which possess another problem.

There were two main sentiments that came out of the committee meeting that are important to remember throughout this redevelopment process that I will highlight. The first is that the county needs to make Rockville Pike, part of the District West project, their priority for redevelopment in order to bring in other funding sources, such as the state government or even the federal government. If the county does not place the Rockville Pike redevelopment as a priority, then how will the state or the federal government? One of challenges we are faced with the prioritizing the Rockville Pike project is the BRT. The Rockville Pike design cannot be complete without the BRT design. We cannot accelerate one of these projects over the other since the projects go hand in hand. In order to show that the Pike is important, the county can use methods such as a issuing a priority letter focused on the Pike or using the CIP budget to reflect the importance of the Pike.  On a related note, the committee is looking into completing an update Streetscape plan/study for Rockville Pike.

The second highlight or sentiment is that once the Western Workaround project is completed, then other projects may be pushed forward. The Western Workaround was referred to as the “spine” of the Sector plan, so we need to push this project along. Other WF projects have been pushed back for funding to be used for the Western Workaround, so it is evident that this project should continue on. Construction is slotted to begin in 2016 so we look forward to this project and all the White Flint projects to begin.

White Flint Implementation Committee February Meeting Next Week

The next White Flint Sector Plan Implementation Advisory Committee meeting will take place on Monday, February 10, 2014, 7 p.m., at Wall Local Park/ Kennedy Shriver Aquatic Center. The White Flint Sector Plan Implementation Advisory Committee is an overview committee appointed by the Planning Board in 2010.  It’s comprised of property owners, resident groups and representatives from the county’s Executive Branch.

The agenda for this meeting includes development updates, as well as an update from the White Flint Downtown Advisory Committee. Importantly, White Flint-related projects proposed for funding in the County Executive’s Capital Improvement Programs (CIP) budget will be discussed. These projects are Chapman Extended, White Flint Fire Station #3, White Flint Redevelopment Program, White Flint District East, White Flint District West, and White Flint West Workaround.  In addition, the Council Bill 33-13– Urban Road Code Standards and Pedestrian Safety Improvements which will be discussed.

Stay tuned for updates after the meeting on Monday.

Is the Montgomery County CIP Budget Really Helping Pedestrians?

Recently, we have been discussing the County’s proposed Capital Improvement Program budget for 2015-2020. We know that the County has been emphasizing the need to invest in transit to bring redevelopment and growth here and we are thrilled by the robust inclusion of White Flint projects in the current version of the budget. Investing more in transportation is an important step in ensuring walkable and sustainable communities in White Flint and throughout the county, our mission here at Friends of White Flint.

If we want to maintain a pedestrian/cyclist-friendly approach to transportation throughout  Montgomery County with a focus on sustainable and walkable communities, we must ensure that our transit projects adhere to this approach too. If you read this blog often, you will recognize that this idea of creating streets that not only focus on cars but also the people that use them falls under the model of complete streets. We want to urge the County to invest in projects that include complete streets such as building a better and connected transit system that will also allow pedestrians and cyclists to travel safely and securely. Road projects are necessary for the county but we must remember that these projects need to include elements that will help pedestrians and cyclists too.

Portions of this new proposed budget, however, may not fully represent this attitude or even some of the transit needs of the county that many residents find important, such as pedestrian and cycling issues.  Some of the categorizing may not accurately reflect the projects contained within, as noted by Ben Ross in his recent Greater Greater Washington piece.  For example, some projects listed in the “pedestrian improvements” category include “road widenings around new schools”, which was “previously classified as road projects.” Widening roads around schools and highways may not be beneficial for pedestrians or cyclists, groups of people we cannot ignore when it comes to transportation. Instead of spending county funds on projects like these, the Council should focus on a “better transit and a street network that works well for pedestrians and cyclists, not just for drivers,” – like the ones proposed to improve White Flint’s street grid and infrastructures.

How can you urge the County to focus more attention on pedestrians and cyclists? There are lots of ways. Sign up to testify before the County Council at one of their hearings on February 5th (1:30pm or 7:00pm) or February 6th (7:00pm) by calling 240-777-7803. Or email your thoughts to the Council at County.Council@montgomerycountymd.gov. Finally, members can email us to have your thoughts incorporated into our testimony on February 5th.

Why Do We Care About the Chris Christie Scandal So Much? Transportation!

In light of Chris Christie’s George Washington Bridge scandal, we’ve learned one thing: transportation can make or break an elected official. Emily Badger, a writer for The Atlantic Cities, focuses on the idea that “[h]ow we get around has an enormous influence on our quality of life, and so it’s central to what we expect from our elected officials.” Transportation may be the most influential aspect on our daily lives because without the ability to travel, we cannot do much of anything.

Transportation is an important issue for many Americans because it involves so many elements such as “parking policy, street design, traffic management and mass transit planning.” This makes it a hard subject for any elected official to ignore. So, if the scandal was surrounding a different topic such as a development project, it may have not been so widely circulated across the US.  But, as it is, the entire country is focused on the importance of transportation issues at the political level.

It’s Time for Montgomery County to have “Complete Streets”

If you read this blog with any frequency, you’re familiar with the term Complete Streets.  This is the planning and design model focused on moving people, not just cars.  Complete streets are those that consider all users, regardless of their mode of transportation, age or ability.  In other words, it’s the opposite of Rockville Pike.

Our posts have shared the benefits, for physical and public health as well as public policy, of adopting these practices.  And, as White Flint is on the cusp of becoming  a more walkable area, we need these planning strategies in play. Highways cutting through our downtown areas act as barriers separating east and west and prevent us from having a cohesive district.  If we want people to feel safe and comfortable leaving their cars behind, then we have to help them feel safe and comfortable as pedestrians along our streets.  Help may be on its way at the county level!

 

County Bill 33-13: Streets and Roads – Urban Road Code Standards and Pedestrian Safety Improvements

Councilmember Roger Berliner (D-1, which includes White Flint) has introduced legislation to update the urban road code standards and integrate better pedestrian safety improvements.  It does things like reduce the width of travel lanes, which naturally controls driving speed, and limits turning radii, which creates a more compact intersection for pedestrians to cross.  The bill also proposes 6-foot pedestrian refuges to ease road crossings and sets target speeds for urban roads.  Councilmember Hans Riemer has joined as a co-sponsor of the bill.  These amendments to the current code would force our transportation engineers to consider all of a road’s users during the design process, rather than just focus on how to move as many cars as fast as possible.

These proposals would have exciting impacts on the roads in the White Flint area.  At the moment, you can drive nearly twice as fast along Rockville Pike in White Flint as you can through downtown Bethesda.  Attempts to cross our local roads are often met with more pavement to walk than time to walk it in.  “The overarching goal of this bill is to expand and enhance the county’s complete street policy and to facilitate the implementation of pedestrian friendly, bike friendly, walkable, livable urban areas as envisioned in several of the county’s approved master plans,” wrote Councilmember Berliner in a memo to his colleagues introducing the legislation.  It’s exactly what we need!

 

Concerns Raised by the Legislation

Not everyone is as excited about the proposed legislation and there have been some specific concerns raised about the Bill.  Some are concerned that the legislation is a blanket requirement for all “urban areas” in the county.  A “one-size fits all” solution is not appealing to folks who want control over the details of every plan that comes their way.  Also, the recommended travel lane widths are, on average, a narrow ten feet, which will cause drivers to naturally slow so they stay within the lines.  But, there are some buses and other large vehicles that are wider, side window to side window, than that.

Finally, the turning radii would be shortened which could lead to a few difficulties.  First, when a fire truck responding to an emergency wants to take a corner at a high rate of speed, they won’t be able to when that corner is a tight one.   Second, a long truck (like a tractor trailer) might have trouble negotiating these turns, resulting in them popping up on the curb and sidewalk and posing a risk to the very pedestrians the legislation is trying to protect.

It’s also worth noting that this legislation would apply only to county roads, while roads like Rockville Pike and Old Georgetown Road are controlled by the state.  It’s everyone’s hope that the State will follow suit when designing roads within these areas so that they remain true to the vision of the surrounds.

 

Can These Concerns Be Mitigated?

Jurisdictions all over the country and all over the world have implemented planning principles like the ones proposed by Councilmembers Berliner and Riemer, so there must be creative solutions to the concerns that have been raised.  For instance, couldn’t the legislation integrate a method for awarding exceptions to the standards under certain circumstances?  This would alleviate the concerns about a “blanket approach.”  Also, White Flint will be getting its own fire station near Rockville Pike and Randolph Road.  Perhaps that equipment can be designed to navigate our urban roads more efficiently.

Transforming roads from places that prioritize moving cars into places that prioritize moving people (see the difference?) is the crux of this legislation, and at the heart of what we’re creating here in White Flint.  But, as I mentioned, we’re not the only jurisdiction making these changes.  Is it possible that these barriers being thrown up are really just opportunities for us to flex our creative muscles?  If we’re designing an area for the future, we need to be bold and brave and willing to tackle these challenges without throwing our hands up at the first wrinkle.

New York City has been undergoing a similar transition.  In case you missed it, check out this Ted Talk presented by New York City’s transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan.  Bold moves can have great rewards:



 

Want to be Heard?

There are a couple of ways you can be part of the process with this legislation.  Start by reading the proposal here and the accompanying memo here.  The Council is holding a public hearing on the evening of Thursday, January 23rd.  Sign up to testify yourself by calling 240-777-7803.  Or, if you prefer, contribute toward Friends of White Flint’s testimony.  Either post here or email us with your thoughts on this exciting bit of local legislation!

 

Apply for the National Transportation Planning Board’s 2014 Citizens Advisory Committee!

Are you a leader in your community or an interested citizen?

Are you interested in regional transportation issues?

Are environmental, business, or civic interests in transportation important to you?

Then apply for membership on the 2014 Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC) to the National Transportation Planning Board (TPB) under the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG).

The CAC is:

“a group of 15 people who represent diverse viewpoints on regional transportation issues. The TPB is the body that coordinates transportation planning for the metropolitan Washington region, and includes elected local officials, representatives from transportation agencies, and other key officials.”

“The mission of the CAC is to promote public involvement in transportation planning for the region, and provide independent, region-oriented citizen advice to the TPB.”

To apply, complete their online application by noon on December 23rd.

For more information, check out CAC’s website or contact:
John Swanson, Department of Transportation Planning
Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments
777 N. Capitol St., NE
Washington, DC 20002
(202) 962-3295
jswanson@mwcog.org

“Hard Truths About Transit”

 

Eric Jaffe, writer for The Atlantic Cities, in his article 4 Hard Truths About Transit examined a panel report created by The Transit Investment Strategy Advisory Panel of the Government of Ontario. The panel report provides six hard truths about transit that are designed to spur informed debate on the subject.  As Jaffe mentions, two of the hard truths are focused on issues local to Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA) of Ontario, while the other four describe common traits of transit systems globally, which apply to White Flint’s discussion on transit, especially the Bus Rapid Transit system (BRT).

The first hard truth Jaffe discusses is that “subways are not the only good form of transit.” Fixed-rail systems, like Metro, are able to transport thousands of people a day, allowing them to get to various locations throughout the Washington-area. Fixed-rail systems, however, are expensive to build and can be subject to reliability problems. Jaffe notes that in order to have a successful transit system, the system must match its services and programming with “circumstances” and the area’s environment e.g. residential and employment densities, ridership level, and the road systems. Taking the advice of the Ontario panel and Jaffe, it seems that BRT’s cost and flexibility make it an effective tool to address the transportation needs of the White Flint area. BRT would allow residents to move around Montgomery County for work, errands, and any other activity they want to pursue.

On the other hand, the next hard truth is that “the cost of transit is more than construction.” There are costs beyond the construction of the transit line, such as operating costs, that must be considered.

One more hard truth is that “transit does not automatically drive development.” Transit is often seen as a way to increase local economy by attracting development to areas accessible by the transit systems. One cannot build a transit system anywhere and assume that development will follow suit. That is why decisions surrounding transit must include “land use planning, local job growth potential and other business plans” states Jaffe.  That’s what we’re building in White Flint. The BRT can be successful in bringing economic growth to the region when elements such as the BRT station locations (land use planning) and businesses (job growth potential), elements the panel report focuses, are considered.  He also says, “Perhaps even more cost-efficient is bus rapid-transit, which can rival light rail when done right and has proven equally (if not more) attractive in terms of economic development.”

The final hard truth Jaffe discusses is that “transit users aren’t the only ones who benefit from transit.” Some believe that only those actually using transit benefit from the systems, so why should they have to pay for something they do not use?  But, transit systems like BRT or fixed-rail encourage local economic growth that will benefit everyone. Jaffe states “transit brings workers closer to jobs…and attract[s] retail and business revenue that can be reinvested into the city,” while calming traffic problems. These mirror the benefits the White Flint region hopes to have in the future.

Read Jaffe’s full piece here.

MCDOT wants Saul Centers to scale their project back

Yesterday, BethesdaNow.com reported that the Maryland State Highway Administration and the County Department of Transportation have expressed concern about Saul Center’s proposed project on Rockville Pike.  The redevelopment of the Metro-Pike Plaza would offer three mixed-use buildings on the west side of Rockville Pike, between Nicholson Lane and Marinelli Drive.  Woodglen Drive is slated to extend north, between the Saul Property and The Grand apartment building to connect with Marinelli.

The concern stems from three streets that would run east-west from the extended Woodglen Drive to Rockville Pike – transportation officials are balking at building out these additional intersections when only one was designated in the White Flint Sector Plan.  Both county and state agencies are involved because Rockville Pike, or MD355, is a state road while the others are governed by the county.  Read the full piece on BethesdaNow.com here and see our history and information on the proposed project here.

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So, we want to know what you think.  The added access between Woodglen and Executive could come at a hefty price tag – millions of dollars per intersection.  Is it worth it?  Let us know.