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Proposed Road Standards Raise Safety Concerns

By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 16, 2008

An advisory panel proposed new standards yesterday that would determine how fast traffic could go and how close to roads trees could grow in Montgomery County, but some safety advocates criticized the plans, saying they were too dangerous for pedestrians and cyclists.

The proposal would mark the first significant revision of the county's "Road Code" in decades. Details of such design standards might make some eyes glaze over, but they will govern everything from road safety to how rain runoff from streets is treated before reaching streams.

The proposed regulations would apply to new roads and any of the existing 4,800 lane miles of county roads that get rebuilt. They would not pertain to state roads, which have route numbers, such as Rockville Pike (Route 355).

The panel recommended that roads in urban areas be designed for speed limits of 30 to 40 mph, saying anything slower would be unrealistic and difficult for police to enforce. The panel also said trees should be planted farther from curbs on roads with 40 mph speed limits because of the danger they pose to motorists who hit them.

"We want our pedestrians to be safe, our drivers to be safe and for our firefighters and school buses to be able to get where they need," said Diane Schwartz Jones, the county's assistant chief administrative officer. "We're trying to weigh all these needs."

Jones said the advisory panel's proposals reflected compromises worked out between groups traditionally at odds over how to best use limited road space. The 24-member group included transportation planners as well as advocates for pedestrians, cyclists, motorists, school bus drivers, trucking companies, firefighters and police.

Lon Anderson, a spokesman for Mid-Atlantic AAA and an advisory group member, said pedestrian fatalities he reviewed in Montgomery weren't caused by speeding motorists but mostly by driver or pedestrian error.

"You have to find a balance," Anderson said. "We're a very, very congested county in one of the most congested regions in the country. You don't want speed limits so artificially low that they hinder mobility."

But the critics didn't like the speed or tree proposals. They contend that speed limits should be as low as 25 mph in crowded areas to reduce danger to pedestrians and cyclists. Trees near the road, they said, provide shade for people walking to and waiting at bus stops and a comfortable buffer between sidewalks and vehicles whizzing past.

"We need to lower speeds to reduce the number of accidents and, where we do have accidents, reduce the severity of them," said Larry Cole, highway coordinator for the Montgomery planning department. Cole, a member of the advisory group, said he was one of four panel members to vote against the recommendations.

The dispute is likely to pit County Executive Isiah Leggett (D), who appointed the panel that devised the proposals, against the County Council, which is sympathetic to the walkers' and bikers' concerns. A majority of the council has written Leggett to urge him to include more protections for pedestrians and cyclists, as recommended by the Montgomery planning board.

The council, which would have to approve the standards, is set to begin reviewing them Oct. 27.

Council member Nancy Floreen (D-At Large), chairman of the council's transportation committee, said the council probably will reject the standards without such protections. "We'll try to work with them," she said. "We want to get this completed."

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