Montgomery County leaders and residents have worked for years to re-plan White Flint as a pedestrian-friendly urban place. Now that redevelopment is finally beginning, county traffic engineers insist on suburban-style road designs rather than complete streets. In this letter to the editor, County Councilmember Roger Berliner demands the Department of Transportation honor the community’s urban plans.

Our county is at a crossroads.  Literally and metaphorically. There has been a long-running battle over how many lanes of traffic should be built on the portion of Old Georgetown Road that runs in front of the new Pike & Rose development just west of 355 and one block from Metro.

On a certain level, you kind of shrug and say, really, is this so terribly important?  And the answer is a most definitive YES.

Old Georgetown Road and Pike + Rose. Photo by Dan Malouff.

Indeed, for many of us, this fight over the number of lanes is about the future direction of our county.  It is about honoring the hard work our Planning Board and County Council put into transforming a classic suburban strip mall into the new White Flint, a huge boon to our residents.  It is about old school transportation thinking versus new school.

It is about making multimodal transportation options — walking, biking, transit and driving — attractive, rather than just maximizing the throughput of cars. It is about placemaking, about being “context sensitive,” about supporting the experience of consumers enjoying the amenities of one of the hottest new developments in the region.

It is a fight that has been going on for years, most of the time under the surface, and occasionally, as now, boiling over into the public domain — where it belongs.

And here is what it isn’t about.  It isn’t about the developer, Federal Realty, who had the confidence from the beginning to be the first real mover in White Flint, investing hundreds of millions of dollars, and producing what everyone acknowledges to be a top-of-the-line mixed-use project, and who most definitely has skin in the game.  And it isn’t about the Friends of White Flint, who have been vigilant and valiant guardians of the vision our planners and Council have held for White Flint.

Our vision of this portion of White Flint is unambiguous.  It is to reflect the best of transit-oriented development and the new urbanism.  Bike lanes and shared use paths were part of the plan.  And the plans being developed by the Executive Branch would eliminate them in order to facilitate eight lanes of traffic.  That is not the plan or the vision we worked so hard to adopt.

So why is the vision at risk?  The threat of worse traffic.  Using old-school and debunked methodologies, assumptions at odds with reality, and not reflecting the use of the new street grid, these engineers maintain that intersections will fail.  And if you use the new methodologies, more realistic assumptions, and disperse cars throughout the new grid that is to be created, the intersections don’t fail.

Our planners and council understood the traffic implications of this plan.  And that is why our council insisted on advancing the construction of Hoya Street, the four lane street that will connect southbound 355 with Old Georgetown at Executive Blvd.  It is a much better route for those traveling north or south via Old Georgetown.  With that option available and the new grid of streets we are creating, we don’t need to sacrifice bike lanes, pedestrian facilities or the new urbanism experience we are trying to create.

County officials say our hands are tied by the state who will insist on eight lanes on their state road.  State officials, as recently as last week, told me that they are following the county’s lead.  And so our county must lead.  Strongly.  And regrettably, none of the people who have been involved in this struggle from the beginning believe we have fulfilled that fundamental responsibility.

The County Executive, in response to the hundreds of community members who have written expressing their alarm over the threat to our vision of White Flint, framed the issue as “not if, but when” we are able to realize our vision.  The traffic engineers of course argue for eight lanes for now and reduce it later if conditions permit.  The rest of us want that scenario reversed — get it right the first time.

We can always add more lanes at a later date, but if we don’t build the bike lanes and shared use paths at the onset, we will undermine both our ability to meet our own non-auto mode-share goals in this area and our vision of White Flint.

I have been in the midst of this struggle from the beginning as the district council&why;member, chair of our transportation committee, and active member during our consideration and passage of the White Flint Sector Plan.  I, for one, am not about to go quietly into the night on this fight.  It is way too important.  And make no mistake about it — a lot is riding on whether we realize our collective vision of the future of White Flint and our county.

Author’s note:  In the interest of full disclosure, several weeks ago I put down a deposit on one of the apartments in the Pike & Rose development.