Photo by eddie.welker.

The Montgomery DOT is kicking off a NEPA study of the Medical Center Metro area, and at a meeting last week, officials insisted that all options are on the table, including underpasses, overpasses, elevators, pedestrian-only crossings, pedestrian and vehicle crossings, and more.

The end goal is to modify the Rockville Pike/MD 355 area between NIH and Navy Med (soon to be Walter Reed National Military Medical Center) to accommodate the influx of new workers from BRAC.

It’s good to see the County clearly focus on improving access for pedestrians, cyclists, and riders of all modes of transit. But despite officials’ insistence that they’re open to all options, they continue to sound attached to the idea of building a roadway underpass with a sidewalk, and the wording of the Purpose and Need statement seems to presume that conclusion.

Here’s a recap of the tortured saga: Metro conducted a study with Montgomery County’s blessing about improving access from Navy Med to the Medical Center Metro station across the street. The alternatives looked at a pedestrian underpass and/or a new elevator entrance on the Navy side. The idea was to use a TIGER grant, BRAC money, or other money to let the thousands of workers who take Metro to Navy Med exit on the Navy Med side instead of having to cross over Rockville Pike.

At the very last minute, once the TIGER application was almost complete, Montgomery County representatives to TPB suddenly changed the wording to “multimodal underpass,” which foreclosed the possibility of building elevators with TIGER money. They also included a proprietary design from Clark Construction, which ACT member Richard Hoye managed to obtain, which showed a 4-lane interchange-like set of roads with a sidewalk for pedestrians. ACT further discovered that Clark’s submission was part of a larger proposal to build Beltway off-ramps directly through the Navy property, a concept that the Navy didn’t like at all.

At a public meeting last week, Montgomery DOT head Arthur Holmes, deputy Edgar Gonzalez, and BRAC Coordinator Phil Alperson insisted that this was never the plan, and therefore it’s not a “secret plan” as we charged. The Clark proposal was unsolicited, they explained, and they just included it in the TIGER application to increase the chances of getting the grant. Specifically regarding the offramp portion of the proposal-not-plan, they say that the County has rejected this possibility and is not pursuing it.

That’s great to hear. However, officials still seem to have made up their minds to build an underpass rather than a direct entrance to the Metro station.

Any NEPA study starts with a Purpose and Need, and the way those are worded strongly influences the outcome. If the purpose of an intersection study is to “facilitate vehicle traffic,” you’re likely to end up with a different project than “facilitate pedestrian, bicycle, transit and single-passenger vehicle access” or something.

This study’s draft Purpose and Need does not focus on moving vehicles. That’s great, though it also spends a lot of time talking about how the pedestrians crossing the road slow down vehicles.

The draft Purpose and Need also builds in assumptions, such as that people need to cross MD-355. It reads:

The purpose of the MD 355/Rockville Pike Crossing project is to improve the movement of the traveling public between the west and east sides of MD 355/Rockville Pike at its intersection with South Wood Road and South Drive in Bethesda, Maryland. This transportation project is intended to: (1) enhance/improve access to mass transit facilities; and (2) improve the mobility and safety of pedestrians, bicyclists and emergency and transit vehicles crossing MD 355/Rockville Pike in Bethesda, Maryland.

There’s a lot that’s good about this Purpose and Need. It emphasizes access to transit, and the mobility and safety of pedestrians, bicyclists and transit vehicles.

However, it does assume that crossing the Pike is the objective. Why, necessarily, is that the objective? Let’s say that one option were a personal helicopter system that would bring workers from set launch pads near their homes right to Navy Med. Many of those workers come from east of Rockville Pike, meaning they never have to “cross” the road. This study, however, would not weigh that option very highly because it doesn’t help people “cross.”

We have such a system. It’s not personal helicopters, but it’s a fast system that whisks people from many places across the region right to the doorstep of the facility. It’s called Metrorail. And if people arrive via Metrorail and can get out of the train on the Navy Med side, they don’t need to cross anything.

In an email, County Executive Ike Leggett wrote, “After BRAC there will be 6,700 pedestrian and cyclist [sic] crossing the Pike every day.” That’s only true if all of the Metrorail riders have to cross the Pike at all. With the elevator entrance, the study predicted that only 1,320 people would still cross, less than the number who cross today.

Gonzalez noted at the meeting that not everyone takes Metrorail. Some people arrive by Ride On or Metrobus, for example, and those buses do stop on the west side of the Pike. That’s true, and an underpass might increase their safety. However, a Metrorail entrance would also increase safety. The current Metro station has poor fire evacuation facilities, and the east side entrance would have included fire stairs along with the high-speed elevators able to evacuate people in case of fire.

A good study needs to weigh all of the safety implications of options whether or not they get people to “cross” the Pike. If an option separates traffic and pedestrians but encourages more people to drive, pushes some people to cross the street at-grade anyway, and doesn’t improve evacuation from the Metro station, is it really safer in the broader sense, or just safer on paper for the small numbers of users that you’re studying while ignoring the greater implications of any change?

The unsolicited not-a-plan from Clark would have required Metro riders to walk far out of the way, along a more circuitous route than they do today when they cross the street. This study might come up with a much more direct connection. It could even demonstrate that such a connection is superior to the Metro elevator entrance.

However, with the current Purpose and Need, the study will inevitably recommend grade separation whether or not that’s best. The County should amend the Purpose and Need to remove references to “crossing” 355 and replace them with something like “accessing jobs on either side of 355.”

It should include something about maximizing the available capacity on existing transit infrastructure by providing transit riders (bus and rail) with the shortest possible paths between transit and jobs. And any evaluation of safety should, at the very least, consider the safety implications of fire egress from the existing station, the safety effects from attracting more vs. fewer rail and bus riders, and the likelihood that some people will cross the street at-grade if the underpass requires walking farther than the direct crossing.

Montgomery officials say they are really open-minded. Now is a great opportunity to show that they are and to move beyond the secrecy, finger-pointing, and accusations of lying that have been flying back and forth by making this study a real, honest evaluation of the best way to get people to their jobs, by any mode, on either side of 355.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.