The Capital Crescent and Little Falls intersection where 81-year-old Ned Gaylin of Chevy Chase was struck and killed while bicycling in 2016. Image create with Google Maps.

Counter to the advice of its own staff and the county’s goal of eliminating road deaths, the Montgomery County Planning Board voted to add two lanes back to Little Falls Parkway at the dangerous Capital Crescent Trail crossing where a cyclist died. The new plan would also reroute the trail crossing to Arlington Road a few yards away.

In October 2016, Ned Gaylin was struck and killed by a driver while bicycling through this intersection. Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission responded by reducing Little Falls Parkway from two car lanes each way to one, and lowered the speed limit. This intervention has worked incredibly well for over two years. The number of crashes has been reduced by more than 50%, and it has negligibly impacted drivers, area neighborhoods, and trail users.

But at its June 13 meeting, the Montgomery County Planning Board, in a 4-1 vote, chose to ignore the objective metrics and data collected throughout the extensive and inclusive planning process, as well as the core tenets of Vision Zero—which it has endorsed. Casey Anderson alone voted to support the staff’s recommendation.

The Board rejected the recommended Alternative A as well as all other proposals, and came up with its own solution: A more dangerous version of Alternative B that widens Little Falls Parkway back to four lanes. That’s something Montgomery Parks never considered because drivers are more likely to hit people walking and bicycling at such multi-lane crossings.

Multi-lane threat scenario where a trail user is at risk when one car yields, but a car in the second lane does not. Image from Montgomery Parks background materials and Sabra & Associates.

A solution long in the making

Montgomery Parks has worked since January 2017 to develop a permanent solution for this intersection that would maintain safety while minimizing negative impacts. With the help of consultants, they carefully planned out 12 proposals, and gave numerous opportunities for public input. Objective traffic counts and modeling were performed to ensure that community concerns would be addressed, and impacts on all users and area neighborhoods would be minimized.

Recently the proposals were narrowed down to three preferred alternatives. One of those, Alternative C, would build a trail bridge over the roadway but was rejected because of its high cost and substantial environmental impacts. Finally, in May 2019, Montgomery Parks Director Michael Riley recommended Alternative A for approval to the Montgomery County Planning Board. It would have made the existing road diet permanent, and added safety measures and landscaping.

Recommended Alternative A with a permanent road diet, extra safety measures to protect trail users, and additional landscaping. Image from Montgomery Parks background materials.

Recommended Alternative A is the most proven, cost-effective, and environmentally friendly solution that came with dramatically improved safety and negligible impact to drivers. Despite community concerns, objective traffic studies found the intersection continued to handle the same number of cars without any traffic diversion to Kenwood, Kennedy Drive, Arlington Road, or Dorset Avenue. Some increased traffic was seen on Hillandale Road, so Parks and Montgomery County Department of Transportation (MCDOT) coordinated to develop a mitigating strategy with traffic calming infrastructure.

The only impact that remained was a seven-second average delay for drivers passing through the intersection. Parks committed to repeating the traffic counts and analyses five years after implementation to check for any new negative impacts.

Recommended Alternative A along with additional traffic calming measures on Hillandale Road. From Montgomery Parks background materials.

Alternative B proposed moving the trail to a crossing with a stop light at Arlington Road, but kept the road diet on Little Falls Parkway to one lane each way because multiple lanes were shown to be dangerous. Keeping the road diet was consistent with the county’s commitment to make high-risk multi-lane crossings safer.

As Parks stated in its background material for the Planning Board: “Crossing two lanes is always safer for trail users than crossing four lanes” and returning Little Falls Parkway to four lanes “[would increase] the travel distance and time of exposure for trail users, decreasing safety” and “would…not decrease motorist travel times and [would result] in additional motorist delay and additional traffic diverted to adjacent neighborhood roads.”

Alternative B was not recommended because it is more costly, introduces extra delays for both drivers and trail users, would result in more diverted cut-through traffic in area neighborhoods, and would tempt trail users to cross against the signal, causing more dangerous exposure to cars.

Alternative B proposed a crossing with a stop light at Arlington Road but with increased delays, diverted traffic, and danger for all users. From Montgomery Parks background materials.

Elrich paid lip service to Vision Zero, but then endorsed a dangerous option

Following community complaints, Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich responded with a letter that paid lip service to Vision Zero, stating that he is “committed to achieving the Vision Zero goals.” He then went on to say that he was “surprised that the Parks Department did not include [alternatives restoring four lanes on Little Falls] as part of the discussion.

It’s quite clear why Parks didn’t include this in its plans. The multi-lane threat is much more dangerous, and four lanes has been proven unnecessary to handle vehicular volume at this location.

Choosing a variant of Alternative B makes no sense for any trail or road user of this intersection. It will result in increased delays for both drivers and trail users, more diverted neighborhood traffic, and decreased safety for all. Taking the extra step of widening Little Falls Parkway back to four lanes makes it even more dangerous. Despite Elrich’s letter, the county knows this. As it states in its Vision Zero Two-Year Action Plan:

“Crossings identified as high risk (high posted speed, multiple lanes, and roadway median) will be transformed first.” to “Ensure that vulnerable users (pedestrians and cyclists can cross safely.”

The Action Plan referenced this exact crossing as an example of a dangerous intersection where a cyclist was killed, and highlighted the temporary road diet as a successful measure that improved safety.

Montgomery County highlighted the temporary road diet as a Vision Zero safety measure to improve dangerous intersections. From the Montgomery County Vision Zero Two-Year Action Plan.

Despite all this objective research and planning efforts, the new proposal the Planning Board and Elrich put forward to reroute the crossing to Arlington Road and reinstate four traffic lanes will cost more, increase neighborhood cut through traffic, and lengthen delays even beyond the expected 13 seconds for road users and 30 seconds for trail users with a two-lane crossing. Worst of all, it would make this intersection more dangerous for everyone.

For a trail crossing used by thousands of people per day, implementing Alternative A is the obvious choice to protect them. The County’s Vision Zero website states that “Human life takes priority over mobility and other objectives of the road system.” With this decision, the Planning Board and County Executive Elrich effectively said that human life is worth less than a seven-second delay.

If you think Montgomery County should take action that is consistent with Vision Zero and protect human life, email the County Council, County Executive Elrich, and the Montgomery County Planning Board and tell them this decision was wrong.