Montgomery Hills. Image by Earl Dotter used with permission.

A highly-trafficked section of Georgia Avenue in Montgomery County has become notoriously dangerous for everyone using the road. Can Montgomery Hills – and areas like it – be saved?

You may not have realized it at the time, but you’ve probably driven through the Montgomery Hills section of Montgomery County. The three-quarter mile long section of Georgia Avenue that runs from the end of 16th Street to the Capital Beltway is located adjacent a Red Line Metro station and major regional hospital (Holy Cross). It also has the distinction of carrying more vehicle traffic than any other non-interstate road in the state of Maryland.

This is the area slated for change. Image created with  OpenStreetMap.

Like a lot of places in the United States, Montgomery Hills was once home to a relatively small but economically diverse commercial area that mainly served the residential communities located nearby. But as suburbs further north of Silver Spring grew in population, commuter traffic slowly took over, transforming Georgia Avenue and the area around it into an auto-centric mini-highway.

An average of 83,000 cars, trucks, and buses travel through Montgomery Hills on Georgia Avenue every day, a number that is expected to grow to 93,000 by 2040. By comparison, the average daily traffic volume on a nearby section of the Beltway is 230,000 vehicles.

The high volume of vehicle traffic along this short stretch of road is accompanied by a high number of crashes. From 2016 through the first half of 2018, there were 251 vehicle crashes reported, 100 which involved injuries. Crashes that involve rear ending, side-swipes, and left turns were the most common types of crashes, and occur at a higher rate than the statewide average.

It's also hostile for people bicycling and walking

As it’s expanded over the years to maximize vehicle throughput, this section of Georgia Avenue has become not only dangerous for drivers, but also a hostile environment for pedestrians and bicyclists. The lack of a median, coupled with a reversible center lane, means vehicles can enter or exit at numerous points along the roadway, with little warning to pedestrians or bicyclists who might be in the path of an oncoming car.

Even though the area has plenty of sidewalks, they aren’t particularly inviting or usable. Utility poles and signs present numerous obstacles, which means sidewalks along the corridor are generally not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

When county planners looked at the how walkable the area around Montgomery Hills is, they determined that most of the existing pedestrian links are “unacceptable” and only 23% of housing units within half a mile of the retail area achieved higher than a “no access” rating. Even though Forest Glen Metro is so close, the challenge of navigating Georgia Avenue by foot means many locals who use the station drive there and park in the station’s surface lot.

Current walking conditions to Montgomery Hills retail.

Considering that it is less than half a mile from the Forest Glen Metro station and effectively serves as a gateway to downtown Silver Spring, Montgomery Hills should be a vibrant commercial center. Instead it looks like a cross between a highway rest stop and run-down small town. It has five gas stations and a car wash for those who are just passing through in their cars. The rest of the retail environment is comprised mostly of functionally obsolete buildings whose heyday was in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. Local businesses struggle from a lack of walk-in customers despite below-market rents, and vacancies abound.

However, nestled behind the gas stations and worn-out storefronts are diverse and vibrant neighborhoods that were among the first Maryland suburbs built outside of DC. These neighborhoods are full of schools, churches, and single family homes with residents who wish they could walk around, shop, and eat near where they live.

In its current condition, Montgomery Hills is not serving anyone in the region very well. Essentially forgotten by state officials who control the Georgia Avenue roadway and county officials who set policy for the rest of the area, the question now is whether it is possible to strike a balance between the needs of commuters and nearby residents in a way that serves both more effectively.

What would a better Montgomery Hills look like?

Any plan to improve Montgomery Hills must start with making the entire area safer and more hospitable for people bicycling and walking. Improvements should aim to make Montgomery Hills a model for the Vision Zero program’s goal of no pedestrian or bicyclist fatalities or serious injuries by 2030.

Georgia Avenue should be redesigned and rebuilt to make it safer and more usable for both local and through traffic. Signage should be rationalized and traffic flow improved on both Georgia Avenue and surrounding streets.

We should also improve the aesthetics in Montgomery Hills and give the area a sense of place. Improvements to sidewalks and roads won’t mean much unless the area becomes more appealing for locals and enables community-serving businesses to locate in the area and thrive. Attractive public spaces and meaningful improvements to the area’s commercial buildings are badly needed.

Officials should also take steps to better integrate Montgomery Hills with the local transit network. They should make it easy for people to get back and forth to the Forest Glen Metro station, make it easier to use the local bus system, connect to the nearby Capital Crescent Trail, and look for ways to integrate with the future Purple Line station at Woodside.

Maryland has a plan for fixing Georgia Avenue

The good news is that both the Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA) and Montgomery County Planning Department are simultaneously working on plans to improve Montgomery Hills.

The SHA began looking at ways it could improve Georgia Avenue back in 2011. Last year, the county’s Planning Department kicked off an update to the section of master plan that encompasses Montgomery Hills.

In 2015, SHA released several alternative proposals which it developed in consultation with a community advisory committee. The alternative that garnered the most widespread support was called Option 5 with a protected bikeway.

Option 5 with a protected bikeway. Image by State Highway Administration.

There is a reason Option 5 was popular with the advisory committee and local neighborhood groups: it proposes to do most of what the state could reasonably be expected do to improve the Georgia Avenue streetscape. (An early option would have put through traffic in an underground tunnel. Most local residents would have preferred that alternative, but it was eventually dismissed as too expensive.)

Option 5 with a protected bikeway is most easily understood by looking at a map provided by SHA, but here are the highlights:

  • Widen sidewalks and eliminate many of the mid-block access points, making sidewalks more contiguous and useable. Wider sidewalks would also provide opportunities to increase the area’s tree canopy, which is among the lowest in the county.
  • Add a dedicated bike lane along the west side of Georgia Avenue that is separate from vehicle traffic. This bike lane would connect to a pedestrian/bike bridge and tunnel that crosses the Beltway to the Forest Glen Metro to the north, and could extend south to where the Capital Crescent Trail meets Hanover Street.
  • Build a median along the center of Georgia Avenue. The reversible center lane would be eliminated. A median in Montgomery Hills would be consistent with the way Georgia Avenue is configured the rest of the way between Silver Spring and Wheaton.
  • A median would allow for more landscaping to be planted and prevent drivers from making dangerous mid-block turns. The median also provides a pedestrian refuge for those crossing Georgia Ave.
  • Establish turn bays along the median that allow for controlled left turns at Seminary Road and Forest Glen Road during all times of day. Currently, left turns are prohibited at those intersections during rush hour, which leads to illegal turns.
  • Modify the Georgia Avenue-Seminary Road intersection by adding an additional turn lane from Seminary Road and close Columbia Boulevard at Seminary Road.
  • Add a traffic light at Flora Lane that provides an additional controlled crosswalk across Georgia Avenue. Would allow for the elimination of two traffic lights further north.
  • Eliminate the southbound 16th Street sweep that allows traffic to speed down 16th Street and makes it almost impossible to walk down the west side of Georgia Avenue toward Silver Spring. Instead of a right angle turn, traffic from southbound Georgia Avenue transitions onto southbound 16th Street much like a highway exit ramp — never slowing down, with no safe way for pedestrians to cross.

16th Street sweep. Image created with  OpenStreetMap.

In addition to these features of Option 5 with a protected bikeway, the state and county should commit to burying the utilities along this section of Georgia Avenue. Lighting along the corridor should be improved so that pedestrians and drivers can see and be seen. SHA and the county should also work to ensure that signage along the revamped roadway is clear and does not needlessly add to the area’s already considerable visual clutter.

The time has come to make improving Georgia Avenue a priority

SHA’s plan for Montgomery Hills has been in a holding pattern since 2015, but officials now say they plan to release their preferred alternative in early 2019.

At the same time, county planning staff are developing their own vision for Montgomery Hills. The updated sector plan will propose changes to both transportation and land use policies for the area. Both SHA and planning officials say they are talking to each other about their respective plans, but it is difficult to tell from the outside how these discussions are unfolding.

The hope is that the transportation plans from these two agencies will complement each other and not end up as a jumble of conflicting recommendations.

Even after officials agree on a plan for Georgia Avenue, the next challenge will be to secure funding to make the proposed changes a reality. Considering its importance to the region’s transportation network, as well as those who live and work nearby, the future of Georgia Avenue and Montgomery Hills should not be allowed to fall by the wayside any longer. Montgomery Hills can be saved, but only if state and local officials step forward to make it a priority.