For decades, eastern Montgomery County has lacked the jobs and amenities the more affluent west side has long enjoyed. But plans to finally deliver those things, along with the transit to support them, could get hung up on concerns about car traffic.
The White Oak Science Gateway plan would transform sprawling office parks and strip malls around the Food & Drug Administration campus near Route 29 and New Hampshire Avenue into a town center and biotech hub. County officials say they’ve already heard from international pharmaceutical companies who want to be nearby.
With 8,500 new homes and over 40,000 new jobs, the plan would double what’s on the ground today, and many are concerned about the traffic it might bring. County planners say that not doing anything won’t get rid of White Oak’s congestion, and that the real solution is to improve transit and bring people’s daily needs closer to home. The County Council will hold a public hearing on the plan tomorrow night.
Traffic concerns stop development in East County
Once the inspiration for the idyllic family sitcom The Wonder Years, White Oak has long suffered from disinvestment, lagging the rest of the county in everything from shopping options to public school quality.
A promised rapid transit line on Route 29 was never built, and for decades, the area was under a development moratorium because of traffic on 29. Instead, growth and investment simply went further out to Howard County or west to Rockville and the I-270 corridor, meaning that people simply had to drive farther to get what they needed.
Anxious for change, residents have generally expressed support for the plan. County Executive Ike Leggett has made a proposed research park called LifeSci Village, to be built in partnership with local developer Percontee, a priority for his administration, and is already shopping the project around to Chinese business executives who want to be near the FDA.
However, the County Council rejected an earlier draft of the plan last fall because it didn’t meet the county’s “subdivision staging policy,” which requires local roads to meet a certain congestion level, usually by widening them or building new ones, before development can go forward.
Planners say there’s really no way to fix congestion in the area. There isn’t room for new highways and much of the traffic on major roads like Route 29 comes from Prince George’s and Howard counties, which Montgomery County has no control over.
The Planning Board decided that reducing the density wasn’t an option, because it would take away the incentive for the development people want while forcing people to travel long distances for work or shopping. Instead, it proposed creating a new standard for measuring traffic, midway between that of suburban areas that are totally reliant on cars and urban downtowns like Bethesda where there is Metro service.
Plan relies on transit, but will it get funded?
The Board also tried to encourage the creation of more alternatives to driving. They also propose creating a Transportation Management District, which would help residents and workers find ways to get around without a car. There’s a similar one in existence in North Bethesda. The goal is to have 25 to 30% of all trips made without a car by 2040, which is a little higher than the rate today.
To do so, the Science Gateway plan already proposes a new grid of streets with sidewalks and bike lanes. It also requires a more compact, urban form of development, with a mix of housing and commercial uses.
Planners also added language about the county’s Bus Rapid Transit plan, which would serve White Oak with lines on Randolph Road, New Hampshire Avenue, and on Route 29, calling it “essential to achieve the vision of this Master Plan.” They propose that any impact taxes or fees the county collects from developers to go straight to BRT to ensure it gets built.
But the board also removed a requirement that the full amount of development not go forward if the BRT lines aren’t funded or under construction. It’s likely due to pressure from Leggett’s administration, who are worried that the high cost of building transit and delays in development approvals could discourage investment.
Economic development shouldn’t mean lower standards
White Oak’s suburban built form, coupled with decades of leapfrog development to more distant communities, force its residents to travel long distances by car or transit. The area has become less desirable than other parts of Montgomery County, and without easy access to jobs, shopping, or other amenities, that will only get worse.
Traffic tests that tie new development to new highways won’t work for White Oak, but residents still need some promise that there will be adequate infrastructure to support the growth they want to happen. Instead of eliminating staging requirements, county officials need to ensure that there’s enough funding for transit.
Planners estimate that a BRT line on Route 29 would cost about $350 million, the same as three highway interchanges on the same corridor. While the interchanges would simply make it easier to drive to Howard County, transit would better support the creation of the town center everyone wants.
White Oak has waited decades to catch up with the rest of Montgomery County. While folks may be impatient for economic development, it’s important we get this right.