Who Has a Say at Issue in Montgomery, Md., Speed Hump Debate

By Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The rounded piles of asphalt envisioned for Cromwell Drive in Bethesda would be a mere 12 feet wide and 3 inches high. But the potential installation of the three speed humps has stoked a broad debate about democracy in Montgomery County: Who should have a say when your neighbors propose new humps for a community?

Montgomery residents who live along the street in question are the primary decision makers, under current practice. Others who travel the road or live nearby usually do not get a vote. But some residents of Cromwell Drive's side streets say the practice is unfair and contrary to the county's written guidelines.

A County Council committee yesterday briefly waded into the issue of whether to expand the vote to include more people in an affected neighborhood, but the panel quickly decided not to call for a public hearing on notoriously controversial speed humps, which are hailed by those who want to slow down traffic and abhorred by those concerned about delaying emergency vehicles and rattling cars.

There is little doubt that Montgomery is one of the region's speed hump leaders. The county has nearly 1,200, compared, for example, with 200 in Fairfax County. The District is gaining ground, having added more than 500 in the past two years, according to a city official.

After a period of rapid installation in the mid-1990s, there was a public backlash against speed humps in Montgomery. The council in 1997 imposed a year-long moratorium to study the issue; a ballot measure backed by speed hump opponents was blocked in court by proponents in 1998.

As a result of the controversy, county officials tightened regulations to establish a higher threshold for speed hump construction, and they designed a gentler, less jolting hump. Installation -- and public complaints -- slowed considerably.

But the debate has flared again on Cromwell Drive. A sloping stretch of Cromwell is a popular commuter cut-through from River Road to Massachusetts Avenue in Bethesda and a busy place for parents dropping off and picking up schoolchildren. Drivers gain speed as they reach the bottom of the hill, home to at least a dozen young children. Residents say the traffic makes it difficult to safely cross the street and back out of driveways.

To qualify for speed humps, a community association has to make a formal request to the county for a specific street. Transportation engineers then monitor traffic to determine whether the problem meets the county's criteria for speed and volume. If the association, in this case the Springfield Civic Association, gets the go-ahead and decides to proceed, it requests ballots from the county. Eighty percent of households on the affected street must vote for the plan, with each household casting one vote.

At issue on Cromwell Drive is whether side-street residents should have a say. As written, the county's guidelines require support from 50 percent of households on cul-de-sacs or side streets in a neighborhood where residents' "only access to their homes is via the streets being considered for speed humps."

In practice, however, the county's policy has been to allow a vote by side-street households only if they are essentially "landlocked" by speed humps, with no other way out. If there is another way, those households don't get a vote, even if the alternative is less direct.

Some side-street residents are pressing the county to apply the guidelines as written and to delay the vote. They have expressed concern that the proposal would delay fire and rescue vehicles and force residents to take circuitous routes to and from their homes to avoid the humps. It is undemocratic, they say, to allow 38 households to decide an issue that will affect hundreds.

In a letter to the council, Lamar Road resident Martin L. Stern said the county's interpretation has "ensured that side-street residents that are clearly and directly impacted by proposed speed humps have systematically been disenfranchised from voting on them."

Tracy Wroe, the county traffic engineer who oversees the program, said the "poor choice of verbiage" in the written guidelines "does not convey what was intended." But, he said, the county has consistently applied the policy without exception.

"What they are asking for would be a deviation," Wroe said.

Speed hump proponents say side-street residents are trying to derail months of painstaking research by the association's 20-person traffic committee on a technicality.

To longtime Cromwell Drive resident Bruce Duncombe, no vote should be necessary as long as the street passes the county's tests for speed and volume. The humps, he said, are akin to preventive medicine and a minor inconvenience to those who will have to look for a new route if they insist on speed hump-free travel.

"So what? It's a public safety matter," said Duncombe, a retired State Department diplomat. "There are many things in life that are inconvenient, and obeying the law should not be one that you just ignore."

Council member Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda), who represents the affected area, said he will continue to seek a public hearing on the guidelines. But that won't affect the voting on Cromwell Drive, which is underway and is scheduled to conclude by late August.

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