Friday, February 24, 2017

route 198 could be safer, but only if the community asks for it

This is a guest post from our friend Sebastian Smoot, who's president of the Good Hope Estates Civic Association and has an awesome new blog called Growing East County about (you know) East County.

A debate over how to fix a dangerous road in Burtonsville has been going on for nearly 20 years. But the state of Maryland is ready to move a plan forward, and if residents seize the moment, they can push for sidewalks, traffic lights, turn lanes, crosswalks, bike trails, and a grid of local streets.

Image by Maryland SHA.

An unincorporated town with approximately 13,000 people, Burtonsville is the easternmost town in Montgomery County. Over the past few decades, Burtonsville has been and continues to be developed as an auto-centric town. It lacks walkability and suffers from a lack of public gathering spaces or a defined community center.

Despite these challenges, Burtonsville has an opportunity to re-define itself as a thriving village with regional appeal. Three years ago, GGWash senior editor Dan Reed suggested Burtonsville could become the "next Mosaic District".

For many locals, the key to Burtonsville's revitalization is making it's roads safer for drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians. One idea is to transform MD 198 from a dangerous, chaotic, and high-speed thoroughfare into an attractive and walkable "Main Street.”

MD 198 in Burtonsville is notoriously unsafe

The half-mile stretch of four-lane highway in Burtonsville's commercial district, between Old Columbia Pike and Route US 29, carries approximately 30,000 vehicles per day and is notoriously stressful and dangerous to navigate.

This segment of MD 198 has no sidewalks and only two crosswalks (which are 1,500 feet apart), so people either risk their lives walking or are forced to get in their car to go from one shop to another. In place of sidewalks, several properties have parking spaces immediately adjacent to MD 198's travel lanes.

Locals complain that car crashes on this segment of MD 198 occur frequently, which is acknowledged in SHA's own reports. The higher-than-average crash rates are partly because there are too many driveways and not enough turn lanes.

Without turning lanes, vehicles must stop in the travel lane and obstruct traffic until the oncoming traffic clear in order to enter the parking lots of businesses. In an effort to not block traffic behind them, some drivers even choose to cross the double yellow line and wait in the lanes of oncoming traffic.

In August of last year, a driver was killed in head-on collision at this very spot. The subsequent discussion on the Burtonsville Facebook group included dozens of anecdotes about other drivers having near misses in Burtonsville under similar circumstances, and many people questioning why the County and SHA have done little to address these issues.

The state has two imperfect options to fix MD 198

The Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA), which owns and manages MD 198, is well-aware of these safety issues and is currently evaluating ways to make the road easier to navigate for drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians.

SHA is currently proposing two alternatives for Burtonsville's commercial district (referred to as "Segment D" in the study). Alternative A provides a two-way center turn lane (TWCTL), which would allow drivers to wait in the middle of the road to turn into or out of businesses:

Image by Maryland SHA.

Alternative B provides a full-length median, in which drivers would have to make a U-turn to access businesses on the other side of the median:

Image by Maryland SHA.

Of the two alternatives, SHA appears to favor the TWCTL, as do the business owners, who fear that customers will not patronize their shops if a median forces drivers to make a U-turn, despite multiple studies that debunk this myth.

While the TWCTL would be safer than the status quo, it would not resolve the turning conflicts in places where vehicles have to compete for space to make left-turns in an already congested area.

SHA also noted that a TWCTL would not be as safe as the median alternative. Project manager Jeremy Beck acknowledged, "It is safer for vehicles and pedestrians to have raised medians and exclusive turn lanes if the volumes exceed 20,000 vpd [vehicles per day]," referring to a report published by the Transportation Research Board.

Locals have long proposed another way

Fortunately there is another design alternative that could provide the safety and aesthetic benefits of a median without limiting access for businesses, one which has been promoted by local residents and county planners for two decades, but is not currently being proposed by SHA.

This alternative concept for MD 198 is presented in the Burtonsville Crossroads Neighborhood Plan (BCNP), which incorporates several elements from the earlier 1997 Fairland Master Plan. The BCNP was developed by the Montgomery County Planning Department with input from local residents and unanimously approved by the County Council in 2012.

A major component of the BCNP is transforming MD 198 into an attractive and walkable "Main Street". To accomplish this, the plan envisions several elements that are missing from SHA's design alternatives, such as a landscaped median with multiple breaks to establish a grid of local streets and crosswalks.

A page from the Burtonsville Crossroads Neighborhood Plan illustrating the "main street" concept.  Image by Montgomery County Planning Department.

These ideas would require taking away some parking to make MD 198 wider, but the plan mitigates the impacts by proposing a new access road and parking lots behind the existing stores. Although businesses raise concerns about the cost of rearranging their storefronts and parking lots, it's worth noting that the county provided financial assistance grants to Burtonsville property owners for similar renovations in 2010 and 2011, so it is possible that the property owners would not have to bear all of the cost.

Conceptual layout from Burtonsville Crossroads Neighborhood Plan. The proposed Burtonsville Access Road is in blue. The grid of local streets are the thin brown lines. Image by Montgomery County Planning Department.

Another potential solution to make MD 198 safer not included in SHA's study is to install a traffic light, crosswalks, and re-align business entrances at Burtonsville Town Square, so that vehicles could access local businesses safely in a controlled manner.

SHA is hesitant to install a traffic light at this location because there is another signal 500 feet away; however, they installed one in similar circumstances at a shopping center on River Road (MD 190) in Bethesda, after well-connected residents complained about it.

Illustration of potential intersection improvement at Burtonsville Town Square. Image by the author.

In response to SHA's reluctance to comply with the intent of the BCNP, Burtonsville residents at a recent community meeting supported the idea of forming an advocacy group to lobby the SHA and county to prioritize and implement meaningful safety improvements for MD 198.

In order to persuade SHA, the community must come to consensus

In the coming weeks, the community has a chance to advocate for the "Main Street" concept at SHA's public hearing, which is currently planned for May or June 2017.

To capitalize on this opportunity, residents launched a group called the Coalition to Fix MD 198.
Considering how Burtonsville's lack of a cohesive voice has thwarted progress over the past decade, the Coalition believes strongly in using consensus-based decision-making to reach a locally-preferred alternative that is acceptable to as many stakeholders as possible.

The Coalition's next event will take place on Monday, February 27, 6:30 PM at the Marilyn J. Praisner Library (14910 Old Columbia Pike, Burtonsville, MD 20866). People can RSVP on Facebook, but registration is not required.

Interested individuals can visit, follow @fix198now on Facebook, or email to learn more. The Coalition welcomes communities along the entire study corridor, from Norbeck to Laurel, to get involved.

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