New facilities at Prince George’s Plaza Metro. Photo by Iwantamonkey on Flickr.

Traffic mounts up on Prince George’s County highways. Transit stations experience neglect and underuse. Pedestrian injuries and fatalities rank among the highest the region. Amid these growing needs and problems, county planners have released their Preliminary Countywide Master Plan of Transportation. This plan takes some major steps toward improving notoriously bad conditions for pedestrians and bicycles, and toward better transit. However, it also perpetuates the county’s focus on development and new roads at the greenfield edge of the county over infill sites inside the Beltway.

Prince George’s County houses a wide range of people and facilities with an utterly unique set of demographics. For example, it the most populous and wealthiest majority African-American county in America. Residents commute not only to DC, but also Baltimore and Annapolis. Four interstate highways, three Metro lines, two MARC lines, and AMTRAK serve the county, as well as state, county, and regional bus lines. Nonetheless, traffic is notoriously brutal and walking along major corridors often involves risking life and limb. When cars hit pedestrians, pedestrian dies one out of every 16 times in Prince George’s County, the highest rate in the region. In contrast, only one out of every 48 crashes is fatal in DC. Virtually all of Prince George’s mass-transit stations are car-oriented and hostile to pedestrians.

The plan’s goals give the impression that planners have gotten far more serious about walking and biking as modes of transportation, not just leisure activities enjoyed on sunny weekends. It identifies 190 pedestrian and bicycle facilities for construction or improvement. And the very first policy of the plan is to incorporate pedestrian-oriented facilities and TOD in new development. However, the plan segregates pedestrian improvements into their own section. Critics charge that this may place walkers and bikers on the back burner to cars unless there is strong advocacy. They recommend a “complete streets” policy forcing new roads to accommodate all modes, rather than independent pedestrian facilities on some roads.

The plan includes many new roads and highways, especially new arterials around Konterra and the very suburban southern and eastern parts of the county. Konterra includes two new interchanges at I-95, but apparently these interchanges will not be constructed as the land-efficient SPUI. I’m generally comfortable with the roads planned there so long as efficient development, pedestrian and bicycle facilities are constructed along with them. I’m not terribly optimistic though.

In a major improvement over previous iterations of the plan, the county has deleted the ICC Extended route. That would have continued the costly freeway beyond its currently planned terminus at US-1 in Beltsville. But instead, the plan proposes new lanes on MD-197 between Laurel and Bowie (blue in the map below) and “freeway facility implementations” on Crain Highway (green). This just continues the “outer Beltway” concept in another form, though by adding grade-separated interchanges on existing roads instead of entirely new construction. Currently, no plans exist to connect the ICC terminus (blue marker) and MD-197, but there is a right-of-way along the PEPCO lines (red) that would make it rather easy to connect the two between Route 1 and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway:

The freeway “improvements” to Crain Highway (green) span the entire length of the road in the County, from the Patuxent River to Brandywine. There is even a corridor being studied to extend the freeway southeast from Brandywine (red), furthering the “Outer Beltway” effect. A Potomac crossing in Charles County could connect to the Fairfax County Parkway, and then the only major leg missing from such a Beltway would be the Techway from Loudon County to western Montgomery County, which Virginia still hasn’t deleted from the books. It’s discouraging to see proposals to turn roads into highways, especially on Crain Highway, which runs through areas of particularly low density.

The county has started to addres issues with its Adequate Public Facilities (APF) law. That requires developers to build “adequate” transportation infrastructure when planning new development, but the current standards only require “adequate” road capacity, not pedestrian, bicycle or transit infrastructure. Though well intended, the law has encouraged sprawl by constructing high-capacity suburban-style thoroughfares, assuring any subsequent development will be car-oriented in nature.

Chapter VII

introduces a concept used in Florida of “conceptual mobility enhancement alternatives” (CMEAs) that limit additional traffic lanes on roads and consider transit alternatives and HOV only facilites. The policy also monitors the percentage of land devoted for transportation relative to the development, levying hefty taxes for inefficient road construction.

Like other aspects of County policy, the plan focuses on development in the Developing Tier. Many of the new facilities are greenfield developments on the fringes outside the Beltway. Konterra, Westphalia, Largo, Seabrook, Bowie, and Brandywine receive too much attention compared to possible infill sites such as Forest Heights, Bladensburg, District Heights, Morningside, Forestville, and Chillum. Instead of suburbanizing the rural fringes of Prince George’s and potentially affecting the fragile Patuxent and Potomac watersheds, the County should maximize the potential of the inner areas. Otherwise, sprawl mitigation verbage in the plan is just lip service.

This study treats roads, pedestrian paths, and bike lanes as individual facilities, rather than thinking about the road network as a whole. It doesn’t specifically address overall street connectivity. And it puts far too much focus on exurban communities while not proposing enough infill projects inside the Beltway. But overall, Prince George’s County appears to be evolving in its approach to transportation and recognizing the merits of improving pedestrian safety and transit access in addition to automobility. The county’s potential as the keystone gateway between Washington, Baltimore, and Annapolis depends on quality transportation. If the County succeeds, the entire region will benefit greatly.

Coming up in part two: the Master Plan of Transportation’s plans for transit in Prince George’s.