ROCKVILLE – Advocates of public transit have called out the latest draft of the 10-year Midcounty Corridor Study for not choosing the smartest option to provide a cohesive midcounty highway.
Out of six options listed in the study, the Montgomery County Department of Transportation recently chose alternative 9A, a 5.7-mile route from Snowden Farm Parkway to Montgomery Village Avenue, as the least environmentally damaging practicable alternative (LEDPA) to reduce congestion on the roads between Gaithersburg and Clarksburg.
The option, which is laid out in the Midcounty Highway Master Plan, would require construction of bridges and new intersections with a four-lane divided highway most of the way.
Though the chosen option is supposed to be the most effective, Kelly Blynn of the Coalition for Smarter Growth said 9A does not fit the bill.
“This represents a major choice for Montgomery County's future. Choosing to pursue a more sustainable, equitable option would be in line with the county's current environmental and transit goals. Choosing to build this expensive, destructive road would represent a major step backwards – not to mention an enormous investment that would take away resources from the county's higher stated priorities of the Purple Line and Bus Rapid Transit,” Blynn said.
Blynn said the coalition thinks alternative 5, a 6.6-mile corridor that would put service roads along MD 355 and widen existing roads to six lanes, paired with alternative 2, implementing traffic management techniques, would be a much better and less costly option. According to the study, alternative 5 has fewer intersections that meet congestion standards than alternative 9, but alternative 9 would also add eight intersections and so overall would have more failing intersections.
“Even more telling is that in the draft EER (Environmental Effects Report), you can see that with alternative 9, the same intersections in the southern (already built) portion of Midcounty Highway continue to fail. If you open up a new stretch of road that will attract more commuters heading north to south to the same failing intersections, what do you think is going to happen?” Blynn said.
According to the report, alternative 9 best fits the purpose and need of the study: to accommodate future growth, reduce congestion, enhance the efficiency of the roadway network, improve vehicular safety, provide bike and pedestrian connections, enhance homeland security and improve quality of life, all with attention to the environment. It also fits best with the highway master plan and the Planning Board recommended it in 2013, according to the report.
The report also finds no other alternative adequately fits the purpose and need except alternative 8, which the department said does not avoid environmental impacts enough compared to the transportation benefits and would create a bottleneck on part of MD 355.
“MCDOT has selected alternative 9A as the preferred alternative because of its ability to completely and most effectively achieve the purpose and need of the project while minimizing impacts to jurisdictional wetlands and waters to less than one acre. In addition, the alternative’s overall impacts are preferable compared to some of the other alternatives, such as alternative 4 modified, that have less natural resource impacts, but provides less transportation benefits and has substantially higher community impacts,” the report states.
But Bing Garthright, a member of the Coalition for Transit Alternatives to the Mid-County Highway Extended (TAME), said the group does not see evidence that MCDOT adequately responded to input from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), such as combining some of the study alternatives to see what the joint impact would be.
In EPA’s comment letter on the draft in August 2013, Associate Director of the Office of Environmental Programs Jeffery Lapp listed a number of concerns about the draft, including non-transparent screening criteria for ranking the alternatives as well as not studying combinations like 5 and 2 put together.
Instead, MCDOT arranged the study in a way that provided the outcome it wanted, Garthright said. He gave the example of alternative 4, which federal and state agencies suggested MCDOT study as an 80-foot wide road rather than the six-lane option that affects 242 residential properties.
“DOT just dismissed this narrower version as not meeting the purpose and need, even though they still analyzed alternative 2, which uses computers to adjust traffic lights. How does traffic light adjustment increase bicycle pathways?” Garthright said.
In response to the EPA’s comments in 2013, MCDOT said an earlier draft of the study explained the criteria for rankings when the criteria was qualitative, and MCDOT only used the rankings to determine what best fit the purpose and need but would then consider the rankings in conjunction with other factors. MCDOT also said they considered combining alternatives for the study but did not see any benefit. Specifically with alternatives 2 and 5, MCDOT said the improvements in traffic management essentially served as part of alternative 5 as well.
TAME has called on the federal agencies to reject the permit for the M-83 Highway and also wants the highway removed from the highway master plan altogether.
“The idea is that the county should turn its attention, stop wasting time with this dumb road and get on to smarter alternatives: careful things that are not too costly in the way of roads but also smart use of mass transit,” Garthright said.
The MCDOT study does not incorporate bus rapid transit, which the county has started to study for these same roads, including MD 355 to Clarksburg, according to Blynn.
Blynn also said the coalition is not sure alternative 9 would impact less than one acre of wetlands because of the bridges and retaining walls the county would use to stop the impact. Blynn said the coalition is currently researching other examples to see what the shade from bridges and construction impact might be.