By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 3, 2008
Rockville Pike drivers, beware: Traffic slowdowns in North Bethesda and southern Rockville are about to get worse.
State highway officials are starting to build an interchange at Rockville Pike (Route 355) and Randolph Road, turning one of Montgomery County's busiest intersections into a major construction zone. Preliminary work on the $47.3 million project began this week. Officials said the project will take about 2 1/2 years.
By Thanksgiving, a new six-lane detour will carry two-way traffic diverted off Rockville Pike around the intersection, state officials said. It will be built east of Rockville Pike between Mid-Pike Plaza and Montrose Crossing Shopping Center.
Highway officials said that the detour is expected to reduce delays during the morning and evening rush, but that lane closures are likely during non-peak times -- from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 10 p.m. to 5 a.m.
"We do appreciate people's patience," said Charlie Gischlar, a spokesman for the Maryland State Highway Administration.
Project manager Walt Miller said motorists should slow down and allow extra travel time to get through the area. However, he said, they probably won't notice much beyond some lane shifts.
"People will see construction, and at off-peak times, they may have lane closures here and there," Miller said. "But driving during the rest of the time won't be much different than what's there today."
But some are bracing for major backups. Lon Anderson, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, said they are unavoidable during construction in high-traffic areas.
"No one is going to be smiling when they drive through that area, now or during construction," said Anderson, who lives in Silver Spring. "It's going to be a no-smile zone there for a while."
State and local transportation officials said the pain will pay off. The interchange will put Randolph Road and Montrose Parkway beneath Rockville Pike, loosening some of the traffic knots that occur at busy intersections. The project also includes building sidewalks that will better serve people with disabilities and make walking safer from the nearby White Flint Metro station, local businesses and White Flint mall, officials said.
Randolph Road will run about 200 feet south of its current location and will tie in with Montrose Parkway west of Rockville Pike. County officials said they plan to extend the parkway east to Veirs Mill Road, which would allow motorists to travel through North Bethesda and Rockville with fewer stops.
The interchange construction is getting underway just as thousands of drivers in the area were starting to feel some relief. Work on nearby Montrose Road is wrapping up after 2 1/2 years of construction-related backups as the four-lane Montrose Parkway was built close by. The parkway is scheduled to be completed in September, county officials said. Local traffic will continue to use Montrose Road.
At $70 million, the parkway is the most expensive road project undertaken by Montgomery, county spokeswoman Esther Bowring said.
State highway officials said they are building the interchange at the county's request to help better handle the area's rapid growth and improve east-west traffic flow. About 60,000 vehicles travel through the Randolph Road and Rockville Pike intersection daily, according to state figures. The traffic volume is expected to soar to nearly 100,000 daily by 2030.
High-rise condominium and apartment buildings have popped up nearby in recent years, county officials said, and North Bethesda contains about 40 percent of Montgomery's employers. They include two major shopping centers, where consumers seeking big-box stores such as Toys R Us and Barnes & Noble fill parking lots.
"For Montgomery County, Rockville Pike is already our Tysons Corner," Anderson said. "Traffic on a good day already barely moves. Unfortunately, construction is a necessary evil" to improve travel times in the long term.
Ira Ludwick, who owns Progressions Salon on nearby Nebel Street, said his customers have learned to work around the Montrose construction delays, but he wondered how well a detour around Rockville Pike would work.
"That's a potential nightmare because of the sheer volumes," he said. "Where do you put the cars?"
Ludwick said he is more concerned that neither the parkway nor an interchange will fix what he sees as the area's biggest problem: the railroad crossing on Randolph Road east of Rockville Pike that often brings traffic to a halt for several minutes while trains pass. State highway officials said they plan to construct a bridge over the tracks when the county builds the eastern portion of Montrose Parkway.
Even fully opening the parkway's western section should help, county officials said. Traffic volumes on Montrose Road are expected to drop by nearly half once the parkway is completed, they said.