Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Rockville Mayor and Council vote to ask state to study burying MD 355 through town center

Rockville's Mayor and Council voted unanimously to ask the state of Maryland to study the potential of burying Rockville Pike (MD 355), where it passes by downtown Rockville and the Rockville Metro station, during a worksesson on the topic last night. It would be the most expensive of 3 options designed to improve traffic flow, accommodate the proposed 355 and Veirs Mill Road Bus Rapid Transit systems, and create new economic development opportunities for the City.

The concept was first proposed during the 1990s, and Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton has been a strong proponent of the idea since. A preliminary proposal by a trio of consulting firms hired by the City would have 355 running as a four-lane highway underground from Dodge Street to a point north of Beall Avenue. On the new "surface" level created above that would be four lanes of local traffic, and two dedicated BRT lanes. The consultants were recommending 10' lane widths to discourage higher vehicle speeds. Newton said she was skeptical that would work, particularly with the popularity of wide, large SUVs and the heavy truck traffic on the Pike. Consultants said the underground option could be sold to the state as a way to make up for past design mistakes by Maryland in Rockville, and solve issues like the mixing bowl at 355 and Veirs Milll, while allowing Veterans Park to grow in size.

Utility relocations above and below ground would be a major cost factor in the tunnel option. The underground 355 would also mean acquiring 12,500 SF of right-of-way from 15 landowners along the route, which isn't that much in the grand scheme of land deals.

The total estimated cost of the tunnel facility would be $214 million, the study predicts. Development opportunities created by the plan would include redevelopment of 255 Rockville Pike, and two sites alongside the Rockville Metro station that currently serve as bus bays.

However, there would be potential for even more air rights development than the plan shows.

Newton asked if the tunnel could be shortened to reduce the cost. The consultants said a 1.3 mile tunnel would be the "sweet spot" for the project. The Mayor also pressed for one of her priorities in the concept, the creation of a large village green that could serve as not only public space, but also to host events such as the large scale Hometown Holidays concerts currently not possible since the E. Middle Lane parking lot was redeveloped.

While the consultants recommended against getting too detailed at this early stage, it would seem that an at-grade road/BRT alignment over the tunnel that wasn't so wedded to the current route of the Pike could be adjusted toward the tracks, for example. That would open up more space for development and a villlage green that wouldn't be possible if it had to be split down the center by a road.

Air rights over much of the tunnel could bring significant private investment into the project. Councilmember Mark Pierzchala and Planning Commissioner Don Hadley both agreed that buildings of perhaps 12 stories would be needed to make the project viable. Hadley noted that the cost should be put into the long-term context of the benefits of burying the Pike. He compared it to the cost of tuition to a fine university that would pay off later in life.

I think that's clearly the case. Separating through traffic and local traffic would not only restore the 33% capacity that BRT will steal in any Pike segment where it gets dedicated lanes taken from cars, but could also create more of a human environment above ground, and be a significant advancement toward the Vision Zero concept in the town center area. The concept aims to eliminate all deaths from traffic accidents by 2024.
Don Hadley
In other news last night, a majority of councilmembers from the Team Rockville slate declined to support the reappointment of Hadley to another term on the Planning Commission.  Councilmember Virginia Onley said she would like more diversity, and to limit the number of terms served by volunteers. Onley has voted to reappoint others to successive terms on commissions, however. Hadley is a highly-respected land use attorney who has won praise from residents for his deliberative and thoughtful approach.

But don't expect to see Hadley disappear into the good night just yet - unless he wishes to do so. One of the powers a Rockville mayor has is the ability to simply not make a new appointment, when he or she faces opposition to a candidate from a majority on the Council. Newton and her predecessor, former Mayor Phyllis Marcuccio, made wise use of this authority, and ended up ultimately winning majority support for replacement commissioners who represented their priorities on land use decisions. You'll find few citizens in Rockville who think the consultant's Euro-style Rockville Pike plan was better than the one the Planning Commission is wrapping up now.

At the end of the meeting, the Mayor and Council also voted unanimously to support a state Senate bill (SB 271) sponsored by Sen. Nancy King, which would provide more school construction money to Montgomery County.

Photo courtesy City of Rockville

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