Transit Activists Criticize Rockville Pike Underpass Plans

By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 8, 2009

Plans to build a Rockville Pike underpass to carry pedestrians and cyclists between the Medical Center Metro station and the expanding National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda are drawing criticism from some transit activists who say it would be inconvenient and feel unsafe.

The $40 million project is central to Montgomery County officials' plans to handle an influx of 2,500 employees and 500,000 additional annual visitors expected at the medical campus as of September 2011. By then, employees and patients from Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Northwest Washington are scheduled to have moved to the Bethesda facility under the military's base realignment plans.

Rockville Pike, one of the most congested roads in Montgomery, is critical in that area because it serves the National Institutes of Health campus, which has 17,500 employees. It also carries traffic between the Capital Beltway, downtown Bethesda and the District.

Montgomery County officials have applied for $20 million in federal stimulus money to build the underpass, saying it would be safer for pedestrians than trying to cross the six-lane street to reach the hospital from the Metro station. The other $20 million would be funded by the U.S. Department of Defense, county officials said.

Edgar Gonzalez, Montgomery's deputy director of transportation policy, said the underpass could be built by September 2011 if it receives funding. By then, an estimated 6,700 people are expected to cross Rockville Pike in that area daily, he said.

Without pedestrians trying to cross Rockville Pike, Gonzalez said, vehicles would get more green time on traffic lights. Under current plans, he said, the underpass would be wide enough to allow vehicles to move between NIH and the medical center, in case patients or employees needed to be moved from one facility to another in an emergency. It would not be open to regular traffic.

Unlike a tunnel, Gonzalez said, the 100-foot-long underpass would open to the sky on both ends, where walkers and cyclists would emerge aboveground.

But some transit activists say the drawings they've seen show a zigzag design that would take pedestrians out of their way. Ben Ross, president of Montgomery-based Action Committee for Transit, said an underpass would feel unsafe at night and put vehicles that use it too close to people.

The county's plans, he said, "would turn Rockville Pike into a high-speed highway as opposed to a pedestrian boulevard."

He said his group favors building direct access to the Metro station via new elevators on the east side of Rockville Pike, near the medical center's entrance.

Jennifer Hughes, special assistant to Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D), said Ross's concerns about the underpass are not widespread. "We've had positive feedback from the rest of the community," Hughes said.

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