On Monday, May 9, the Rockville Mayor and Council will continue its worksession on “Rockville’s Pike Neighborhood Plan.” Along with building heights and pedestrian crossings, traffic congestion is a major controversy and the conversation has become terribly confusing: widening or narrowing the road, keeping or eliminating the access roads, extending adjacent roads, increasing Metro service, and incorporating bus rapid transit (BRT). Some of these solutions are beyond the control of the City (such as Metro service), some benefit one group versus another (such as businesses or nearby residents), and others are so expensive or far in the future that their feasibility is unclear (such as the BRT). What’s become incredibly confusing are all the numbers that are tossed around (what is the width of the Pike?) as well as a clear understanding of the benefits and disadvantages for the various alternatives.
For example, the B. F. Saul Company owns several parcels on the Pike and is using its “Reimagine Twinbrook” campaign to encourage a narrower road width than proposed. Rather than 252 feet, they are seeking 216 feet to ensure, “plenty of right-of-way for traffic lanes, the future BRT, bike lanes, and large sidewalks, while providing more open space for the community. It also relieves taxpayers from the burden of buying land, constructing and maintaining unnecessary access lanes.” Their maps show a 216′ wide right-of-way (ROW), a 120′ wide State Highway ROW, and an 86′ wide Existing Rockville Pike. So how wide is the Pike?
The current Rockville Pike Plan (adopted in 1989) has a 270′ wide ROW (measured from building face to building face). That’s what has been followed up and down the Pike for new construction since 1989. The best place to see it in action is between the newest buildings near Halpine Road (the REI store on the west to the Safeway/Galvan apartments on the east). The Planning Commission recommended a narrower ROW width of 252′ (measured from building face to building face) by reworking the access roads. Instead of the current two-way configuration, they propose one-way local access roads with parking, adding a two-way bike lane, and widening and relocating the sidewalk along the front of the building and away traffic. Although the Planning Commission’s proposal is 18′ narrower than the current standard (for comparison, roadway widths are 10-12′ wide), it resolves the current mishmash of access roads, as well as improves traffic for all users of the Pike, from drivers to pedestrians, bicyclists to bus-riders. Pedestrians encounter several medians where they can safely wait while crossing the Pike—they’re not crossing 252′ at one time unprotected. At most, pedestrians will cross three lanes of traffic (34′) before encountering a wide median, which should accommodate the slowest walkers.
At the request of the Mayor and Council, staff recently prepared a 216′-wide alternative (measured from building face to building face) which maintains three traffic lanes in each direction, adds BRT and bike lanes, and eliminates the access roads—which is pretty much the same as the B. F. Saul proposal (when you try to incorporate a lot of items in the same road, there’s only so much you can do).
Twinbrook resident David Greene is concerned that the 216′-wide alternative will worsen an already bad traffic situation. He points out that, “the proposed 252-foot right-of-way is actually narrower than the current 270-foot right-of-way, and closing the existing access lanes [under the 216′-wide alternative] will increase traffic congestion according to city staff. Many intersections are already failing, and the Mayor and Council appear likely to change the definition of ‘failing’ by raising the standards or by calculating them differently.” He prepared a map showing some of the intersections that are currently failing (F) or almost failing (E). “If you drive on Twinbrook Parkway during evening rush hour, then you already know about these problems.”
My conclusion is that the Planning Commission’s proposal of a 252′-wide ROW is the right way to go. It thoughtfully accommodates many existing demands for transportation as well as what will be likely needed in the next 20-30 years. We’re not thinking bigger, but smarter. Narrowing down even further to a 216′ ROW eliminates the access roads (that’s two lanes for automobiles), which seems to be exactly the opposite of what needs to be done to address the current traffic woes. If you’re not sure, count the number of traffic lanes in each scenario. Secondly, B. F. Saul’s 216′-wide campaign is not a philanthropic endeavor. By narrowing the width of the Pike, they increase the size of their land. The 252′-wide proposal is already increasing their property values, do I really want to give them more in exchange for suffering with even worse traffic for decades to come?
Costs? Yes, it will cost millions to implement, but that’s true no matter which option is chosen. Secondly, it’s a plan that’s implemented over many years with contributions from the city, county, state, and developers (still to be determined, but that’s typical—no one commits unless there’s a plan). Finally, so much is still undecided (will BRT be implemented? will utilities be placed underground? will the state be willing to acquire the additional ROW?) that the cost estimates being tossed around are unreliable. What’s being proposed at a 252′ wide ROW is what you’d expect for a very busy highway next to a suburban neighborhood (sorry, there’s no way you can convince me that the Pike is a country road). This isn’t an outrageous vision with a price tag to match. We’re going to have traffic congestion, so let’s encourage it in commercial districts such as the Rockville Pike, not in residential areas. If someone claims that taxes will increase if this Plan is adopted, ask them “how much?” A dollar? Ten dollars? One hundred dollars? Then ask if the cheaper alternative is a better alternative. I’d happily see my taxes increase that much each year if it’ll make Rockville Pike function and look better than it does now. At least I’ll be able to see where my taxes dollars are going (and if you care about taxes, you should know that not one person has complained to the County Council about their recent effort to increase property taxes, which accounts for the bulk of our local tax payments).
Here’s what I know for sure: the current 1989 plan is woefully out of date and the Pike is a mess. We need to have a plan to get it fixed and the Planning Commission’s 252′-wide recommendation looks like the right one, not B. F. Saul’s 216′-wide version.