Dr. Gridlock

Trying to shed light on a 'secret' Montgomery tunnel

Robert Thomson
Sunday, January 31, 2010; 3:39 PM

It was one sentence on the "worst" side of a 2009 best/worst list in my Jan. 17 column, but it reflected a continuing dispute between some transit advocates and Montgomery County government over what's in the plan to prepare for an influx of workers at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda.

The list was developed by Stewart Schwartz of the Coalition for Smarter Growth and David Alpert of Greater Greater Washington, an online forum for discussion of transportation issues. Here's the line: "Mont8gomery County officials suddenly switched plans for a new entrance to Medical Center Metro into a secret vehicular underpass, increasing walking distances."

This dispute is about one aspect of the enormous effort to accommodate the transfer of thousands of military jobs across the Washington region under the Base Realignment and Closure plan. It involves how to get the workers between the Medical Center Metro station, on the west side of Rockville Pike, and the medical center, on the east side.

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

To call this "secret" and a "vehicular tunnel" implies that the county was trying to pull a fast one over the community, and that just isn't true. The county has just started an environmental analysis, including developing and evaluating alternatives, in compliance with federal requirements. Public participation is being requested in the development of the alternatives to be considered.

There is a clear need to reduce and possibly eliminate the conflicts between cars and pedestrians, encourage increased transit use, and mitigate the increased traffic that could cause severe gridlock and compromise the ability of doctors and ambulances to get to the military medical center.

Metro produced a report in July 2009 that analyzed five designs to address pedestrian access between the Naval Medical Center and the Metro station. All plans excluded consideration for bicyclists and integration of the needs of the surrounding communities. After the Metro report was published, a local builder [Clark Construction Group] submitted an unsolicited proposal that was far superior to any of the Metro designs. The builder's concept would serve every rider arriving at the station -- rail, bus, car/vanpool and cyclists. The concept took into account concerns from the community.

This proposal was presented to the county in early August, but conceptual engineering renderings weren't provided until early September. In the meantime, a crucial funding opportunity materialized: The U.S. Department of Transportation was authorized to allocate $1.5 billion in "TIGER" grants to transportation projects that had national or regional significance. Montgomery County submitted a "multi-modal" application that featured the concept described above. There was virtually no time before the TIGER grant application deadline to solicit additional community input.

Because the conceptual renderings are the company's proprietary intellectual property and cannot be made public at this time, rumors have been circulating that the TIGER grant application includes a separate proposal from the same firm to construct an interchange at the Metro station. This is false. That proposal wasn't included in the TIGER grant application. In fact, under the new process, the proprietary concept cannot be considered as part of the alternatives to be developed and evaluated.

Montgomery County Department of Transportation officials are ensuring that the process is transparent. Information on the project is on the county's BRAC Web site, www.montgomerycountymd.gov/BRAC. The county encourages and seeks public input as the project advances.

-- Esther Bowring,

Public information officer, Montgomery County

The Action Committee for Transit has been saying for months that it believes the county has a secret plan to build a tunnel for auto traffic. In the group's view, this would divert public funds intended for transit, pedestrians and cyclists to build a road instead.

Ben Ross, president of the committee, said of the county's statement: "How can they say there is no secret plan if there is a plan in their grant application that we can't see? How can they say this is not a vehicular tunnel if it will carry vehicles?"

I'll explore the issue further on the Get There blog and on a future Commuter page.

Dr. Gridlock also appears Thursday in Local Living. Comments and questions are welcome and may be used in a column, along with the writer's name and home community. Personal responses are not always possible.

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