Friday, July 24, 2015
Montrose Parkway extension would reduce congestion, increase Pike access in Pike District (Photos)
Like the already-completed segment of the Montrose Parkway, the extension would again utilize the Rockville Facility right-of-way. That highway facility dates back to the 1960s, when it was planned as part of the never-built Outer Beltway. By the 1970s, that road site moved northward to the present Sam Eig Highway/Interstate 370/ICC in Gaithersburg. The Rockville Facility was then expected to be used for the 6-lane Rockville Freeway, which would stretch between Falls Road in Potomac and the ICC east of Layhill Road. The Rockville Freeway was ultimately canceled by County Executive Sid Kramer in the 1980s, which remains one of the biggest blunders in county transportation history.
Needing more road capacity for then-percolating redevelopment plans for White Flint, planners and politicians then resurrected a portion of the Rockville Facility between Montrose Road and Veirs Mill Road. This time, they planned a 4-lane parkway, named the Montrose Parkway. Phase 1 has already been built between Montrose and Randolph Roads, included a grade-separated interchange at Rockville Pike. Completion of that project produced tangible results, cutting travel times between Bethesda and Rockville by up to 5 minutes.
With that success in mind, two more eastward segments are in the works. The one discussed last night will run from Randolph Road, cross over the CSX railroad tracks and Parklawn Drive as an elevated highway, and connect to Phase 3, the final leg to Veirs Mill.
The parkway will allow east-west through traffic to pass through the Pike District without causing congestion on the Pike District's urban street grid. At the same time, it will provide additional connectivity between residential developments around it and the Pike, engineers said. Residents of the Bethesda Park condos, for example, could walk from Parklawn Drive to the 10 foot shared-use path along the Montrose Parkway, and end up at Rockville Pike, they said.
Speeds on the new parkway segment would be 40 MPH, and forest conservation and environmental improvements would be part of the project, Johnston said.
Unfortunately, a developer-backed effort continues to try to foil the grade-separated section of Phase 2, and make it just a local street with more traffic lights and slower speeds. That is because such a street would facilitate higher-density development around it.
That effort was foiled temporarily when the Montgomery County Planning Board voted 4-1 to approve the grade-separated interchange.
Why is the grade-separated interchange so critical?
Because the Montrose Parkway design will have countywide traffic impacts now, and for decades to come. Most of the area around the Rockville Facility is now planned to experience a massive increase in population and vehicle traffic over the next 20 years. The White Flint Sector Plan is already on the books and building out steadily. Coming soon are the City of Rockville's Rockville Pike Plan, White Flint 2 Sector Plan, and Aspen Hill Sector Plan, to name a few.
Two consecutive Planning Board Chairs have expressed support publicly for an urbanization of Aspen Hill, which would involve demolition of existing affordable housing, and construction of thousands of new luxury apartments and condos there. Neighboring Glenmont will be growing even larger. In short, nearly every stretch of the Rockville Facility is scheduled for a building boom, but without any new major roads to support that growth.
This means that eventually the Montrose Parkway will have to be extended from Veirs Mill to Connecticut Avenue, Georgia Avenue, Layhill Road and the ICC. Such a connection would have positive benefits for economic development between White Flint and the I-95 corridor, as well as boosting small businesses in places like Aspen Hill, which would be more accessible.
That's why the big picture has to be remembered when discussing this one tiny portion of the Montrose Parkway around Parklawn. If you gum up the Parkway there as an urban street, it will cause backups countywide years later.
If you want an idea of how big of an impact the Rockville Facility has on areas that aren't even adjacent to it, examine old planning documents. In the 1970s, county planners told the County Council that they couldn't tell them how many housing units they could approve in the Kensington Sector Plan, unless the Council told planners whether or not they were going to build the Rockville Freeway (they never did build it, of course, which is one reason traffic is bumper to bumper through Kensington every rush hour).
There were also transportation compromises in the Pike District that made the Montrose Parkway the linchpin of the White Flint Sector Plan. An emphasis on transit, biking and walkability meant no future streets in the Pike District's urban grid are designed for maximum vehicle flow during rush hour. And more recently, a "road diet" was approved for Old Georgetown Road between Executive Boulevard and Rockville Pike. That decision was facilitated by directing a large portion of that existing traffic to take the Montrose Parkway to access the Pike. So reducing speeds and increasing congestion on the Parkway would have a disastrous impact on Old Georgetown Road and Rockville Pike traffic.
It doesn't make sense to try to develop around Parklawn by sabotaging the transportation needs of the County as a whole, when there is the possibility of decking over the parkway's interchange with the Pike, and creating a large development site there. A similar decking was done to create the Wisconsin Avenue "air rights" development between Elm Street and Bethesda Avenue in downtown Bethesda. Federal Realty, for example, could connect Pike & Rose with its future potential redevelopment of Montrose Crossing, as one way to make a seamless connection between White Flint 1 and 2.
Aside from development interests opposing the grade-separation over Parklawn, nearby residents have concerns about noise. Out of 8 total speakers last night, several mentioned the need for sound walls along the parkway extension.
A Franklin Park resident also brought up a good point about the existing parkway traffic signals. While travel time has been reduced on Rockville Pike over the parkway, the traffic signals along Montrose Parkway tend to turn red too often, and stay red too long. I notice this particularly when trying to make the left turn under the MD 355 bridge to reach the Pike. That will have to be adjusted as greater vehicle loads use the road.
One Bethesda Park resident brought up a fallacy regarding the potential to extend Montrose Parkway eastward past Veirs Mill Road. This is a common misperception that even planning staff and the Planning Board were not aware of until I testified at the hearing where they ultimately switched their votes to approve the grade-separated parkway segment for Parklawn. The misperception is that the rest of the Rockville Facility has been permanently designated as Matthew Henson State Park, and cannot be used as a transportation facility in the future.
That's not true.
The truth is that the misguided state legislation that was used to help kill the Rockville Freeway contains a loophole, that allows the state legislature to revert Matthew Henson State Park to a highway facility at any time in the future.
Again, this is why we have to keep the big picture, and the greater good in mind. Certainly, it would be important to have sound walls where needed. But it's important to remember that the Rockville Facility/Montrose Parkway isn't a new idea dropped on the area like the Westbard or Chevy Chase Lake urbanization plans. As far back as the 1960s, residents knew that some kind of major road was coming through there. In fact, the prior roads were going to be far noisier and higher-speed than the current parkway proposal.
This is one of several unbuilt highway projects critical to the future of Montgomery County.