Upper Montgomery development awaits transit project funding


Johns Hopkins University plans to develop the Belward farm property, pictured here in Septemeber 2009. Plans call for building a life sciences center. (Jonathan Ernst/For The Washington Post)
December 17, 2011

Developers and Montgomery County officials who seek to transform west Gaithersburg’s sprawling office parks and remaining farmland into a densely populated “Science City” are investigating new ways to pay for construction of an upcounty transitway required before most of the building can go forward.

The push to secure local funding for a 15-mile Corridor Cities Transitway (CCT) stems from the growing realization that chances of building the line anytime soon with traditional funding sources — primarily state and federal money — have become increasingly dim.

While state transit officials have said they intend to seek federal funding for a CCT, two other large Maryland transit projects — a $1.93 billion light-rail Purple Line between Bethesda and New Carrollton and a $2.2 billion light-rail Red Line in Baltimore have pulled ahead in a federal funding competition that typically takes six to 12 years. Meanwhile, the sluggish economy has done little to replenish depleted — and highly sought after — federal and state transportation funds.

Developers are so intent on building in upper Montgomery — and county officials say the area is critical to absorbing growth and spurring economic development — that the county and commercial property owners are eyeing ways to pay for a transitway without significant federal or state help. State transit planners have estimated that the most feasible transitway option — a busway with dedicated lanes — would cost $491 million to build. A more expensive light-rail line, which is estimated to cost $772 million, would take an additional 10 to 12 years to secure funding, planners have said.

The Montgomery Council made most of the area’s development contingent upon a transitway’s funding in 2010 to prevent new workers, shoppers and residents from swamping local roads that are already jammed.

A group of commercial property owners is paying $77,500 for a private engineering firm to analyze how a transitway could be built quickly and “in a cost-effective manner,” said David McDonough, who oversees real estate development for Johns Hopkins University. The Baltimore-based university owns 150 acres in the area. McDonough stressed that the transitway would need to have premium “rapid transit vehicles” that would function more like trains on rubber tires than traditional buses.

“Property owners absolutely, positively want to move forward with a CCT as soon as possible,” McDonough said.

McDonough said commercial property owners need better cost estimates before deciding whether they will help pay for a transitway’s construction. In Northern Virginia, businesses agreed to special taxes to contribute toward the cost of a Metrorail extension to Loudoun County, although most of the funding is coming from Dulles Toll Road revenue.

Developers and Montgomery officials are also waiting on findings of a task force, appointed by Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D), that is studying ways to finance construction of a 150-mile system of dedicated bus lanes across the county. That plan is estimated to cost $2.5 billion in today’s dollars, excluding land acquisition costs, and supporters have said they expect to rely mostly on local funding. While a CCT’s costs aren’t included in that $2.5 billion plan, supporters say it would be an essential part of any countywide network.

The biotech footprint

County officials say a transitway is key to boosting the county’s biotechnology corridor into an internationally competitive center for bioscience research, which would create jobs, increase tax revenues and spur the local economy. Attracting more bioscience companies, they say, requires catering to scientists who want to live, eat and shop close to work. That means clustering new homes, restaurants and stores in an area now dominated by nondescript office parks and vast parking lots four miles from a Metrorail station. The I-270 corridor is home to most of the 320 biotech firms in Montgomery.

“The old model of the suburban office park isn’t where the workforce wants to be,” said Steven Silverman, Montgomery’s director of economic development. “No one wants to work ‘out there’ somewhere and have to drive from home or to restaurants or shopping.”

Once a CCT is funded, development plans approved for the area would allow up to 17.5 million square feet of commercial space, 9,000 residential units and retail space covering 900 acres. A CCT would connect the Shady Grove Metrorail station in Rockville with parts of Gaithersburg, Germantown and an area south of Clarksburg.

“We need to accommodate development without creating gridlock,” said Steve Findley, lead planner on Montgomery’s Great Seneca Science Corridor master plan.

County officials have counted on the area west of Interstate 270 near Shady Grove Road to be one of the most rapidly growing parts of Montgomery, second only to the redevelopment of the White Flint area along Rockville Pike in North Bethesda. Located at the western terminus of the newly opened Intercounty Connector, west Gaithersburg has some of the last large swaths of former farmland in a county that has become largely built out.

Even developers whose building plans have been approved said they see the need for better transit.

Bulldozers are already at work on the 182-acre former Crown Farm at Fields Road, Sam Eig Highway and Key West Avenue, where the developer hopes to begin construction on homes and a grocery store this summer. In the next eight to 10 years, the open fields will become three major neighborhoods of apartments, single-family homes, townhouses and stores. Plans also include a new high school and public park. The developer, Florida-based SunBrook Partners, is required as part of its approved traffic mitigation plan to provide shuttle bus service to the Shady Grove Metrorail station for 25 years or until a CCT is operating.

“If we were asked to write a check [to help build a CCT], that would be tough,” said SunBrook vice president Robert Zeiller. “But we’re interested in exploring ways to expedite it.”

More gridlock?

Some local residents concerned about worsening traffic said they will work to ensure that the county stands by its promise to cap most of the building until a CCT is funded.

“You always worry they might find a loophole,” said Lynne Rose, a resident who serves on an advisory committee overseeing implementation of the county’s master plan for the area. “We all moved here because we liked the suburban feel, and we wanted to be out away from congestion. Now we’ll be smack in the middle of it.”

Donna Baron, coordinator for a residents’ group that opposes most of the proposed Hopkins development, said she thinks plans for a transitway are merely “an excuse to justify massive amounts of density.” She pointed to planners’ estimates that 70 percent of the additional 32,000 workers expected in the Science City area would drive alone to work.

Even with a transitway, Baron said, “it will be complete gridlock.”

Katherine Shaver is a transportation and development reporter. She joined The Washington Post in 1997 and has covered crime, courts, education and local government but most prefers writing about how people get — or don’t get — around the Washington region.
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