As part of the expansion of the National Naval Medical Center (NNMC) in Bethesda to include Walter Reed, Montgomery County and the Federal Government have been making plans to improve the transportation network in the area and to increase capacity. After some pushing from people in the community, that included more bicycle and pedestrian elements. What they have planned so far is good, but there is still more work to do.
The whole thing started back in 2005 during the last round of Base Realignment and Closures when the Defense Department decided to move the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center from DC and onto the site of the NNMC (map of the area). Naturally, this will lead to more trips in the Bethesda area and a committee has been formed, and money allocated to deal with that. As far back as 2007, the county was including "improving bicycle safety" as one of their goals - albeit with "wider sidewalks." But when the Transportation Management Plan came out, it didn't even mention bicycles. The Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA) plans ignored their own guidelines about adding enhanced bicycle and pedestrian facilities to any new transportation facility and, the plans would take so much right-of-way for road widening that it would make it almost impossible to add in Master Planned bike facilities in the future. They also did traffic counts that ignored cyclists. There was then a push back from the community to focus more on bicycle and pedestrian improvements, and since then, plans have gotten noticeably better.
In response to the neighborhood concerns about the lack of bike and pedestrian planning, a $750,000 study of pedestrian and bike paths in the area was commissioned in June 2009. It is to be concluded this spring.
The study would look at either expanding or building new paths along Cedar Lane, Rockville Pike and Jones Bridge Road, and new signage and safety improvements for bikers and walkers in neighborhoods directly south of Navy Med and the National Institutes of Health.
The announcement of this led one person to point out all of the deficiencies in the Bethesda Trolley Trail (aka the North Bethesda Trail) - it disappears between Charles and Lincoln and the trail south of there is too narrow, with sharp curves - in the hopes that they would be addressed.
At the July 14th Base Realignment and Closure Implementation Committee meeting they updated some plans, including
A 10-foot pervious bike and pedestrian path [WC: I assume 10 foot wide and not 10 foot long] would be added to the south side of West Cedar Lane and the east side of Old Georgetown Road.
but it still wasn't totally satisfactory to residents and officials.
Tension between residents and officials also continued about short-term improvements at the intersections versus a long-term vision that emphasized mass transit, pedestrians and bikes as well. In another presentation to the committee, John Carter of Park and Planning said planning models for the White Flint area in North Bethesda that encouraged walkers and bikers could also serve the area around Navy Med.
Good news came when, later that same month, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved $9.2 million (to be split evenly) for road improvements near the four Maryland bases that will see increases in personnel. This includes NNMC as well as Andrews AFB, Fort Meade and the Aberdeen Proving Grounds.
By the end of the summer the details for the Bethesda area BRAC bike projects started to emerge.
Preliminary design work is under way for a series of hiker-biker trails and bike lanes near the National Naval Medical Center and the National Institutes of Health on Wisconsin Boulevard in Bethesda.
The work will include:
-Cedar Lane: an off-road bike path between Old Georgetown Road and an existing path beyond Rockville Pike that connects to Beach Drive.
-Battery Lane and Glenbrook Parkway: sidewalk repairs, lighting and improved signage.
-Rockville Pike: a hiker-biker path to replace the existing sidewalk on the east side of the Pike between Cedar Lane and Jones Bridge Road.
-Jones Bridge Road: adding either bike lanes or an off-road bike path between Rockville Pike and the entrance to the Uniformed Services University of the Health Services.
As well as start dates and costs
Construction on the improvements could start in September 2010. The county has estimated that the cost of the biker and pedestrian upgrades will be about $5 million.
The trail along the east side of Old Georgetown Road mentioned in July was apparently dropped. That's unfortunate as connecting to the North Bethesda Trail seems like a good step.
With a $5 million price tag (in addition to all of the other transportation expansion needed), to be paid for with a quarter-share of $9.7 million, Maryland Lt. Governor Anthony Brown wrote a letter to the Gazette in October to explain that the state didn't have enough money to build out the multimodal plans without going to a tiered approach.
In December, Lt. Gov. Brown's concerns were somewhat addressed when Montgomery and Fairfax Counties were assigned $300 million in federal money to help adjust to BRAC traffic
In Bethesda, residents who have been working with local and state officials said they were adopting a wait-and-see attitude, as much will depend on how the money is allocated and who makes the decisions.
"The community pushed for this unprecedented level of cooperation," said Ilaya Rome Hopkins, who represents about 13,000 residents, businesses and schools near the medical center as chair of the Coalition of Military Medical Center Neighbors.
"We need to be at the table when they are making these decisions," she said. "We need to continue to think of solutions designed for the future, not the low-hanging fruit of widening roads without adding bikeways and walkways."
$5 million of that money would likely be assigned to cover the bike path and sidewalk upgrades defined above.
At the December BRAC implementation committee meeting, the SHA and County DOT announced that work might begin on the bike/bed improvements by the end of 2010 (though that isn't yet the plan). They would like to avoid overlapping the bicycle/ped improvements and the intersection improvements as much as possible, which means starting the bike/ped projects ASAP. Furthermore, the Cedar Lane project has been expanded as to include adding a bike lane to the portion of Cedar Lane under and outside the Beltway. This would connect the Elmhurst Parkway Trail with Beach Drive and the RCP trail. Presently they're only connected with a narrow sidewalk. To do this, and other bridge work, they'll need to close the bridge over Rock Creek for about three months.
On Cedar Lane south of Beach Drive, the county will re-stripe the road to create a new lane for bicyclists. The existing bike path that runs alongside Cedar Lane for a portion of the road will also be upgraded, so that the new bike lane and path will create a continuous route for cyclists.
For the other three projects the start and finish dates are heavily contingent on reaching agreement with the Navy. The new bike path on the south side of West Cedar Lane between Old Georgetown Road and Rockville Pike could start this fall if negotiations go quickly, but is scheduled for March of 2011, with completion in June 2011. The east-side Rockville Pike path upgrade could start this August and end this September with quick negotiations, but is scheduled for July 2011 with completion that September. And the bike path on the north side of Jones Bridge Road from Rockville Pike to Connecticut Avenue could start in March 2011 and end that August with quick negotiations, but is scheduled for May 2011 with completion in December 2011. There are also plans to add bicycle improvements in Battery Park and on Glenbrook Parkway from Wisconsin Avenue to Jones Bridge Road.
The four main BRAC bikeways projects are included in the county's FY11 funding, but since then, the Transportation Planning Division of the Montgomery County Planning Board recommended that the Cedar Lane Bridge Project be changed from simple bike lanes to a road diet that uses the extra space for a wider sidewalk on the east and continuing the mutli-use trail on the west side. I think that's a better idea than the bike lane that transitions to a trail.
The four improvements planned have things to like, but they all seem to end short of the best connection. Other improvements to consider include
- The Cedar Lane changes called for by the Planning Board.
- The Jones Bridge Road facilities should be continued on to Jones Mill Road (as a bike lane perhaps) where it could connect to the Capital Crescent Trail.
- Rockville Pike/Wisconsin Avenue actually gets less bike friendly south of Jones Bridge Road as the roadway is pretty much the same but the sidewalk now has numerous curb cuts and more pedestrians. Ideally, bike lanes or a cycletrack would added on Woodmont Avenue from Jones Bridge Road to the existing bike lanes on Woodmont at Edgemoor; or even on Wisconsin Avenue itself. This would give a second connection to the Capital Crescent Trail for cyclists heading south.
- Make Maryland Avenue/Pearl Street into a bicycle boulevard with good directional signage.
- Make improvements to the Bethesda Trolley Trail from Charles Street to Battery Park for the reasons stated above.
- Improve the path down the old trolley bed on Huntington Parkway
- A stream (Glenbrook?) passes through NNMC, under the Beltway and to Rock Creek. From Perimeter Road to the RC Trail is only about 1000 feet. Depending on how that stream passes under the Beltway they could run a trail along it. This may be infeasible for security reasons - there is not an entry gate on that side of the facility - or just not worth the money - Perimeter Road isn't even a real road and the bridge across the stream looks washed out. But it would make for a quick connection.