One vote away from construction phase, MGM casino still faces traffic questions


A rendering of the aerial perspective of the MGM National Harbor. (Courtesy of MGM Resorts International )

(Update: MGM gets Prince George’s council backing for casino construction at National Harbor)

By mid-2016, the empty plot of land on a steep bank facing the Potomac River in Oxon Hill will be a bustling entertainment hub with gambling, fine dining, shops and shows.

The planned MGM National Harbor casino resort expects to draw 8,000 to 10,000 visitors daily, who along with 4,000 employees, will add an enormous amount of traffic to the roads in this booming area of southern Prince George’s County.

County officials and representatives of MGM Resorts International say the current infrastructure can handle the additional traffic, but some residents, civic leaders and elected leaders dispute their assertions, saying the project, which is one vote away from beginning construction, will exacerbate problems.

“No one seems to be talking about how we are going to move around in this part of the county,” said Prince George’s County Council member Obie Patterson (D-Fort Washington), who represents the area. “It is almost irresponsible for MGM to say, ‘We are working on a transportation plan.’ We should know what that plan is before we give them authority to move forward.”

Patterson, the council’s biggest critic of MGM’s transportation plan, knows that’s unlikely to happen. The council is slated to take a critical vote Monday that will allow the Nevada-based gambling giant to move toward construction. All signs point to approval — the county has expedited MGM’s application process, touting the $925 million project as an economic development boon for Prince George’s. And there’s a lot at stake, including an estimated $40 million to $45 million in annual tax revenue for the county.

Officials say a comprehensive transportation plan is in the works and will touch on traffic management, transit and infrastructure, from how pedestrians will get around the area to road capacity.

The Maryland State Highway Administration is reviewing a traffic impact study that will outline how MGM plans to mitigate casino traffic. The agency also could require road improvements as part of its permitting process this year.

But few details about the comprehensive plan have been made public, and residents fear that the casino traffic will worsen their commutes and that poor planning will result in no investments being made in road improvements and public transit.

MGM has committed $3.67 million in improvements around the site, located about a mile north of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge and southwest of the intersection of Interstate 495 and Indian Head Highway. The investment covers converting National and Harborview avenues, which run parallel, into one-way roads with traffic flowing in opposite directions , creating a sort of loop around the casino site. Plans also call for MGM to build a new road connecting Harborview Avenue north to National Avenue as an alternate to using Oxon Hill Road.

Prince George’s officials say a portion of the county’s share of the gambling revenue has to be spent on improvements to Indian Head Highway, a major commuter route that suffers from heavy traffic congestion. Initial estimates suggest that amount could be $6 million to $7 million a year, they say.

The area around the site, which is part of the National Harbor development owned by Peterson Cos., underwent several improvements in 2006 and was engineered to handle the anticipated casino traffic, officials said.

A traffic analysis by MGM projects the casino will generate about 452 trips during a typical weekday morning peak and 2,296 during the afternoon peak. The greatest casino traffic will be around 7:30 p.m., after the conclusion of the commuter rush hour. The evenings are expected to draw larger crowds not only for gambling activities, but also for shows at the 3,000-seat theater.

“I don’t think there’s a better site in North America,” Lorenzo Creighton, president and chief operating officer of MGM National Harbor, told the Maryland panel that awarded MGM the state’s sixth casino license last year. “Location, location, location.”

The easy access to and from the Capital Beltway and Interstate 295 means that the majority of casino traffic would come from the freeways and little by way of local roads, officials say. Saturday evenings are expected to be the casino’s busiest time.

But MGM’s math doesn’t quite add up, some residents, civic leaders and politicians say.

The intersection of Harborview Avenue and Oxon Hill Road is already a choke point with a mix of commuters, residents and visitors to the National Harbor area. Traffic on the interstate is heavy no matter whether it comes from Northern Virginia, Maryland or the District. In addition, residents say the MGM traffic analysis is unrealistic because it uses traffic counts from February 2013, before the Tanger outlet mall opened.

“This assumption that there is only a few people that go home that way is completely erroneous,” said William Nuckols, a National Harbor resident. “Anybody taking an afternoon trip out there on any weekday will be able to show that there is already an existing problem. . . . Traffic is a mess.”

Traffic is a touchy subject in this part of Prince George’s, where residents in the older neighborhoods have had to adjust to additional traffic stemming from new construction at National Harbor. The 350-acre waterfront development has become a small city with expensive homes, hotels, restaurants and entertainment venues since its 2008 opening. But with no Metrorail stop and limited transit service, it’s accessible mostly by car. Still, it’s become the county’s top entertainment district, drawing thousands of conventioneers and tourists. The opening of Tanger Outlets in November, just across from the casino site, created even more traffic.

By the time the casino opens, there probably will be other new development. National Harbor is building more housing, and at least one apartment building is set to open this fall. A hotel is being planned at the Tanger Outlets site, and a Wal-Mart also is proposed nearby.

MGM’s plan will add an upscale gambling facility with a 300-suite glass-tower hotel, 3,600 slot machines, 140 gambling tables, a concert theater, several restaurants, a spa and high-end stores in a 1 million-square-foot building.

For now, the county and MGM say their biggest hurdle is getting the County Council’s approval. If the council votes in favor of the project Monday, the official groundbreaking could be within weeks.

“It will get approved,” Patterson said last week, still unsure how he will vote. But he said he expects to offer some conditions to the plan to give residents greater assurance about a traffic management plan.

Gordon M. Absher, a spokesman for MGM Resorts International, said the company is committed to a plan that addresses transportation in and around the site and how it will handle special events that draw large numbers of visitors. Public transportation is also part of the equation, he said, noting that it will work to provide space for a bus stop on or directly across from the casino. But it’s too early to know what kind of transit enhancements will be made.

“We are a resort, and we expect to be subject to increased scrutiny,” Absher said. “The only thing unusual about this project is the expectation that all of these issues should be settled this far in advance.”

Luz Lazo writes about transportation and development. She has recently written about the challenges of bus commuting, Metro’s dark stations, and the impact of sequestration on air travel.
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