As part of the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process at the National Naval Medical Center (NNMC) in Bethesda, the County is working on a Multimodal Crossing Study of MD-355 (aka Rockville Pike). Originally, the purpose was to make it easier for the pedestrians leaving the Medical Center Metro to cross the Pike and access NNMC. It then had the expanded goal of also providing a better crossing for cyclists and emergency vehicles. The project has been controversial, with accusations of "secret plans" and concerns that the project that best serves Metro users is being ignored. WABA is concerned that the project will suck up a lot of money for a project that is done in cyclists' name, but that won't actually serve cyclists.
In May of 2009, the Defense Department budget proposed by President Obama included $20 million for a new entrance to the Medical Center Metro station on the east side of Rockville Pike. This would only address cyclists' needs if they were riding Metro, but they could still cross at grade at the signalized intersection (either in the crosswalk like a pedestrian or in the road like a car).
Alperson said the $20 million line item is "a huge deal" because of the county's efforts to promote the use of mass transit and bike and pedestrian pathways, instead of new car trips, for the roads around the future Walter Reed facility.
Then, in September, the county proposed that the east side metro access project consist of a bicycle/pedestrian underpass (pictured). The underpass might serve cyclists who use the existing west side or planned east side path and who need to cross Rockville Pike but don't want to do it at-grade. There might not be many cyclists like that, and they may not gain much with the underpass. In fact, once the underpass is built, it appears the signalized intersection at South/Wood Drive will be removed, so that could be a net loss for cyclists.
At the same time as they issued the new proposal, the county submitted a $20 million TIGER grant for the underpass (in addition to the $20 million they already had). The project immediately became controversial as the underpass probably won't serve Metrorail users as well, will be multi-modal - allowing for cars to use it - and the designs submitted were confidential.
Some transit activists say the drawings they've seen show a zigzag design that would take pedestrians out of their way. Ben Ross, president of Montgomery-based Action Committee for Transit, said an underpass would feel unsafe at night and put vehicles that use it too close to people.
The county's plans, he said, "would turn Rockville Pike into a high-speed highway as opposed to a pedestrian boulevard."
He said his group favors building direct access to the Metro station via new elevators on the east side of Rockville Pike, near the medical center's entrance.
There is also concern, that the underpass will be used as part of an exit off of the Beltway, which would probably undo any benefit for cyclists. Greater Greater Washington has covered this story thoroughly.
Medical Center "secret plan" revealed (10/6/09)
Edgar Gonzalez, Montgomery's deputy director of transportation policy argued that the underpass would be needed to make crossing the Pike safer and
Without pedestrians trying to cross Rockville Pike, Gonzalez said, vehicles would get more green time on traffic lights. Under current plans, he said, the underpass would be wide enough to allow vehicles to move between NIH and the medical center, in case patients or employees needed to be moved from one facility to another in an emergency. It would not be open to regular traffic.
In December, Montgomery and Fairfax Counties were assigned $300 million in federal money to help adjust to BRAC traffic and this may make the TIGER funding request moot, meaning the extra $20 million for the underpass has to come out of the $300 million or county money.
The January BRAC Implementation Committee meeting brought more news about the underpass. They continue to insist that they have not settled on the underpass, but David Alpert is less than convinced. At the meeting they listed possibilities that omitted the elevators on the east side and presented a draft Purpose and Need statement which defines a need the elevators can't possibly meet. The National Environmental Policy Act study is expected to be completed in June and will identify a variety of options, which could include a tunnel, bridge, underpass or an improved at-grade crossing.
As Esther Bowring of Montgomery County points out, the five designs to address pedestrian access between the Naval Medical Center and the Metro station that WMATA produced last July "excluded consideration for bicyclists and integration of the needs of the surrounding communities."
But the underpass may actually exclude consideration for transit users, as it will force transit users to walk farther so that the underpass connects to the streets on both sides of the Pike. One proposal to deal with this is to run a shuttle bus through the underpass to give transit users station to door service, but no one knows if this will actually increase transit use.
Since the elevators are being scrubbed, and the reason given is, in part, to include cyclists, it's worth asking the question, is the underpass something anyone will bike through, or would cyclists just rather see an improved at-grade crossing? The east-side elevators cost about $20 million less than the underpass. The money saved could be used to improve the at-grade crossing and add secure bike parking, channelized stairs and other bike friendly amenities to the station. It might even leave enough to improve the Bethesda Trolley Trail. These are things that WABA and MoBike would rather see. They'd like to see a Purpose and Needs that is aimed at encouraging safe and convenient access by modes besides single-occupancy motor vehicles. If the county wants to build this underpass, they shouldn't say they're doing it for cyclists, because WABA would rather see the money spent elsewhere.
Photo from GreaterGreaterWashington