Clarksburg strip mall. Photo by Mr. T in DC.

Only in Clarksburg would it cost $27 million to get a marked crosswalk so that children can walk to school safely and conveniently. That’s because the Montgomery County Department of Transportation refuses to install one until it spends $27 million on road construction.

Clarksburg, Montgomery County’s last master-planned development in the I-270 corridor, is an on-going planning headache. One reason is that the 1993 Master Plan envisoned Clarksburg as a “transit- and pedestrian-oriented town”, but there is little to walk to and almost no transit.

12 years after construction began in Clarksburg, the planned shops and supermarket at Clarksburg Town Center are still vacant land. There will be no library in Clarksburg until after fiscal year 2018, if then, according to Montgomery County’s Capital Improvement Plan .

While the residential part of Clarksburg’s Cabin Branch development is proceeding, the future of the associated 2.4 million square feet of commercial development is uncertain since the Maryland Health Commission ended Adventist HealthCare’s plans to open a hospital in Clarksburg.

Clarksburg’s transit still consists of 2 weekday-only buses and a tiny MARC station 4-5 miles away.

Although the County Council recently put the next phase of Clarksburg development on hold, this was not because the Clarksburg built to date falls so far short of the 1993 Master Plan’s promise. Instead, the County Council worried that construction would degrade the Ten Mile Creek watershed and further reduce  water quality in WSSC’s Little Seneca reservoir.

And earlier this year, the Montgomery County Department of Transportation (MCDOT) turned down a request from Clarksburg parents to mark a crosswalk at Stringtown Road and Observation Drive. Parents in the Gateway Commons development use the unmarked crosswalk to walk their children to the elementary school that is literally within sight of their homes.

The parents persisted, asking Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett to reverse MCDOT’s decision. But last week, Leggett instead supported MCDOT’s denial. Why?

Because, he explained in an e-mail, the county will not install a marked crosswalk at this intersection until the county has built a 2-mile, multi-lane, divided road (Observation Drive Extended) between Germantown and Clarksburg.

It’s bad enough that Stringtown Road did not include a marked crosswalk when the road opened in 2007. After all, the Montgomery County Planning Board approved the site plan for the Gateway Commons development in 2003, and the elementary school has been there since 1909.

Did nobody think that people living on the southeast side of the road might want to walk to the school on the northwest side of the road? Was the road’s $8.8 million budget too small to pay for a marked crosswalk?

But Leggett’s explanation actually makes it worse. The Stringtown Road construction project did include curb cuts and pedestrian refuges at the intersection with Observation Drive. The parents assumed, reasonably, that the county had included these pedestrian facilities so that pedestrians could use them.

But this assumption was incorrect, Leggett’s e-mail explained. Rather, the reason the Stringtown Road project included the pedestrian facilities was “to minimize the expense and operational impacts on the roadway when Observation Drive [Extended] is constructed”.

Observation Drive Extended is not on the county’s Capital Improvement Plan. But it is possible to get a rough estimate of its construction costs, if the county were to build the road today. The similar 1.2-mile extension of Father Hurley Boulevard in Germantown opened in 2011 and cost $10.9 million, or roughly $9 million per mile. So Observation Drive Extended might cost roughly $18 million.

$8.8 million for Stringtown Road plus $18 million for Observation Drive Extended adds up to $27 million that must be spent before parents and children, in a town planned as pedestrian-oriented, can cross at a marked crosswalk on their safe, convenient walk to school.

At that cost, it’s no wonder that, as Leggett’s e-mail said, “[t]he County simply does not have the resources to provide crossing guards or other control measures at every potential crossing location to make them as safe as possible for everyone who wishes to use them.”

Instead, these parents will have to continue to choose between crossing safely at an inconvenient, marked crosswalk and crossing conveniently at an unsafe, unmarked crosswalk.

As Leggett’s e-mail explains, “When in the judgment of our engineers and school transportation professionals it is better to compromise the convenience of a pedestrian…than to potentially compromise their safety, I will back that decision. Like them I believe that installing a marked crosswalk at this location may not improve the safety of those who wish to cross there.”

But why must there be this trade-off between pedestrian convenience and pedestrian safety? Surely MCDOT is capable of designing a marked crosswalk at this intersection that would allow pedestrians to cross both conveniently and safely. Such a crosswalk would, however, compromise the convenience of drivers.

The Clarksburg Master Plan says that it will “carefully guide the growth of Clarksburg from a rural settlement into a transit- and pedestrian-oriented town”. Ike Leggett says that he supports “mak[ing] our area more pedestrian-friendly”. MCDOT says that the county supports improvements to “the walkability of our communities”.

Why is it so hard to get Montgomery County to do what it says?