The fate of a long-delayed road project in an area on the shortlist for the next Amazon.com headquarters has lawmakers and observers debating: What’s the best way to bring development to Montgomery County?
Some say the $142 million Montrose Parkway East project is needed to ferry thousands to the White Flint area of North Bethesda, easing congestion and paving the way to future development. Others say the project is outdated and unnecessary, paling before other pressing needs, such as new schools to address overcrowding.
The issue is set to come before the Montgomery County Council transportation committee on Thursday, when three lawmakers will decide whether to recommend moving it forward or shelving it.
The four-lane divided roadway with a bike path and sidewalk would connect two major arteries: Rockville Pike and Veirs Mill Road. It is included in two of the county’s master plans for the area and has been in the making for so long that it was part of the Outer Beltway proposed in the 1960s.
Council member Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda), who chairs the transportation committee, called Montrose Parkway East “sort of an old-school project” that never gained a following among the residents of White Flint — although civic leaders in that part of the county say sentiment is divided.
Berliner, council member Tom Hucker (D-Eastern County), who also sits on the transportation committee, and council President Hans Riemer (D-At Large) want the county to keep purchasing land for Montrose Parkway East but delay construction until 2024, freeing up $94.1 million that could be used for “higher priorities” such as schools, a pedestrian tunnel to the Forest Glen Metro station, planning and design for bus rapid transit, and a northern entrance to the White Flint Metro station — considered necessary to provide access for the developments north of the station,
“Obviously if we are successful in our efforts to land Amazon, that would change everything,” said Berliner, who is running for county executive. “But until then, this seems to be a more appropriate way to allocate our scarce resources.”
The state of Maryland has pledged $2 billion in transportation improvements if Amazon chooses White Flint for its second headquarters later this year — largesse that council member Marc Elrich (D-At Large) says should more than cover any road projects needed to lure the retail giant. (Amazon founder Jeffrey P. Bezos also owns The Washington Post.)
“Amazon made clear they’re not just looking for a road solution, they’re looking to make sure there is space in schools,” said Elrich, who is also running for county executive and wants the county to abandon Montrose Parkway East.
“If you’re serious about the bid, we demonstrate we’re serious about funding school capacity,” said Elrich, noting that the school district has requested nearly $90 million more in the capital budget to handle additional students it expects over the next six years.
But council member Nancy Floreen (D-At Large), the third member of the transportation committee, dismissed such opposition as “typical of my colleagues.”
“They seem to think Montgomery County residents only take the bus, and we don’t need road improvements,” Floreen said. “Every once in a while, we need to build a road.”
Ilaya Hopkins, vice president of government relations and communications for the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce, called the road project a “vital east-west connection” that will literally pave the way for projects planned closer to Metro stations.
Officials have struggled for years with how to best improve east-west travel options in Montgomery, Maryland’s most-populous jurisdiction, which originally was planned around north-south corridors that carry commuters into the District.
Delaying construction until 2024 would increase the cost of building Montrose Parkway East by 3 to 4 percent each year, according to a report prepared by the county. The project includes a bridge over the CSX railroad tracks at Randolph Road, which the report says is “ranked as the most unsafe grade crossing in Maryland,” and would absorb some of the traffic expected to be generated by projects already in the pipeline.
“It may not be needed today, but certainly in 2024 . . . I think we will have a problem if we don’t have the road in place,” county transportation director Al Roshdieh said.
Jennifer Russel, chair of the Suburban Maryland Transportation Alliance and a board member of the Greater Bethesda Chamber of Commerce, said delaying Montrose Parkway East could dissuade Amazon and other potential employers the state is trying to attract.
“I think this is a bad time to send that kind of message,” Russel said.
Friends of White Flint, a nonprofit made up of residents, businesses and others in the North Bethesda area, usually is united on issues like which projects to pursue, Executive Director Amy Ginsburg said.
But consensus hasn’t come so easily in this case, she said, in part because of concerns that the project would physically divide the Pike District from White Flint, which is slightly south and east. Some in the area also have lingering distaste from Montrose Parkway West, which was built after years of community opposition.
“We’re torn,” Ginsburg said. “I think if we had to say something, we’re on the positive side of Montrose Parkway — but no one loves the road.”
The organization issued a statement last week calling Montrose Parkway East an “important” project for the area — but also suggesting other projects, such as the northern entrance to the White Flint Metro station, that could be built using the money the county has designated.
“I’m glad people are talking about it and discussing it instead of just letting it go,” Ginsburg said. “I think it’s good that people are examining it and saying, ‘Is this still the right fit for the Pike district?’ ”