- The Washington Times - Monday, January 24, 2000

Officials work to balance traffic with success

Long before the arrival of cars and stores, Indians walked along a quiet, forested dirt trail. Next came the early settlers, hauling goods to and from Georgetown port on a stone-paved toll road. Modern asphalt and trolleys followed.

Since it became "Rockville Turnpike" in 1818, this well-traveled section of state Route 355 has mirrored the growth of American commerce. The two-lane road became four lanes in 1952, then six lanes in 1974. The tolls and the trolleys disappeared.

No one any longer pays 12.5 cents to transport 20 sheep, but today's travelers on the north-south route pay a different sort of price: traffic congestion that strains drivers' patience as well as the road itself.

Rockville Pike is a victim of its own success. One of the most vibrant retail corridors on the East Coast, the 7-mile stretch of wall-to-wall strip malls and stores draws shoppers from Montgomery County and beyond.

"You can get anything and everything," said David Jannarone, retail practice director for Delta Associates, an Alexandria firm that tracks commercial real estate.

But there's trouble in this shoppers' paradise. The Pike's growing popularity as a retail destination, combined with its use by commuters during weekday rush hours, have made it one of the busiest roads in the Washington area.

"Our residents and workers spend countless hours in near-gridlock conditions. Traffic congestion is an increasing threat to the environment, to our economy and to our overall quality of life," Montgomery County Chief Executive Douglas M. Duncan said in his State of the County address last month.

Failed intersections

How bad is it? Difficult and getting worse, according to state and local traffic officials:

The number of vehicles traveling through the Montrose Road-Randolph Road intersection with Rockville Pike during 24 hours rose from 56,975 in 1995 to 71,100 in 1998, a 25 percent increase.

Two intersections flunked government level-of-service tests: West Edmunston Drive in the morning rush hour and Randolph and Montrose roads in the evening rush hour. Five other intersections earned near-failing grades.

The southern part of the Pike, from the Capital Beltway to Strathmore Avenue, is generally busier than the northern portion that stretches to East Middle Lane in downtown Rockville.

The traffic is not bad enough to keep shoppers away. In fact, the more traffic, the better, as far as retailers are concerned.

"If it wasn't for the traffic, there wouldn't be the stores. The stores need to be where the people are," said Ray Whalen, managing senior vice president of Bethesda-based real estate broker Transwestern Carey Winston.

Not surprisingly, rents are high and space is tight in this retail mecca. As of Dec. 31, 1999, Montgomery County had the highest average retail rent in the D.C. area, $24.29 per square foot, and the lowest vacancy rate, 0.8 percent, according to Delta Associates. Along Rockville Pike, rents range widely from $18 to $40 per square foot, and "any decent spot is snapped up pretty quick," Mr. Whalen said.

More people, more residential development and more cars have all contributed, observers say.

"With a growing and more urban society, the fact of life is greater density," said Timothy Dugan, a Bethesda lawyer who chairs the transportation and land-use committee of the Montgomery County Chamber Workforce Corp.

"Slowing growth is not a satisfactory solution. We need to manage the growth that's inevitable," he added. The issue of how to continue the Pike's commercial success while alleviating traffic congestion is a matter of debate among county and city planners, politicians and local residents.

Smart growth

The county's official policy is to encourage "smart growth" near Metro stations, so people can take mass transit to at least some jobs and shops.

In addition, the city of Rockville has a moratorium on "big-box" tenants of 60,000 square feet or more until April. The city adopted the measure to study the traffic impact of a proposed Cosco store at Congressional Plaza South, one of the busiest parts of the Pike.

"There are no silver bullets," said Al Genetti, director of the Montgomery County Department of Public Works and Transportation and overseer of many traffic-mitigation efforts. The county is taking a multipronged approach, with plans to build new roads, improve intersections, increase its Ride-On bus service and encourage use of mass transit.

Now Mr. Duncan is backing up his plans with money. His new $1.7 billion capital budget, released earlier this month, proposes spending more than $445 million on transportation, much of it aimed at improving traffic flow and relieving congestion. The County Council must approve the six-year budget, which starts July 1, by the end of May.

But local activists question the county's approach. They say the county should better coordinate development planning and pay more attention to mass transit and less to road-building.

"A lot of different projects are being approved without any thought as to how one relates to the other," said David H. Brown, a retired federal employee who opposed the Montgomery County Conference Center, a $60-million project to be built across from his condominium building on Rockville Pike.

Although designed to take advantage of mass transit, the planned conference center, Strathmore Hall Arts Center addition and Grosvenor Metro garage, will just add more cars to the road, Mr. Brown believes. He added, "The Pike just can't handle all this traffic."

Local politicians talk about increasing the use of public transportation, but it's little more than lip service, said Stanley A. Klein, a member of the city of Rockville's advisory panel on traffic and transportation. If they were serious about it, they would make mass transit easier to use by adding better lighting at Metro stations, building buffers between busy roads and sidewalks and running buses more often, he added.

Shuttle service

Indeed, the county's attempts to boost bus service have been anemic. To help alleviate lunchtime congestion, a free shuttle service runs buses every five minutes from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on the Pike between the Twinbrook and White Flint Metro stations. The $240,000, state-funded service, launched in May, attracted 187 daily riders at last count in the fall. "It's not going great," Mr. Duncan conceded in a telephone interview.

The county has had trouble distinguishing the shuttle buses from other Ride-On buses. Identifying flags and magnetic signs kept falling off, said Department of Public Works spokeswoman Carolyn Biggins. The county plans to beef up advertising in the spring and hopes to get 200 riders per day, she added.

The county also replaces 18 to 20 buses annually in its 240-plus fleet, Miss Biggins said. Each bus costs about $300,000.

Mr. Duncan's new budget proposes $90.2 million in mass-transit projects, including new parking garages at the Shady Grove and Grosvenor Metro stations. Nearly $69 million would go for road projects that affect the Pike. They include intersection improvements near the planned conference center, Old Georgetown Road and Jones Bridge Road.

The single largest transportation item, though, is $63 million to start building Montrose Parkway, a bypass that would help relieve congested Montrose Road east of Interstate 270.

As it stands, Montrose Road is "a nightmare," Mr. Genetti said. Planners are looking at alternatives for building the parkway.

The state of Maryland is also studying ways to relieve congestion at Rockville Pike and Montrose and Randolph roads. One possibility is to turn part of the Pike into an overpass that would allow east-west traffic to flow without stopping at the Pike. Another idea is to add turning lanes to each leg of the intersection.

Some activists think the road improvements will relieve traffic congestion only marginally and even add to it in the long run. Mr. Brown advocates a broader approach that considers why Rockville Pike is so crowded to begin with.

"The [county's] thinking has been too boxed in … They're dealing with the symptoms, not the root cause," he said. "You're not going to get people out of their cars, so why don't we look at why people are in their cars?" Rather than build new roads, the county should encourage more telecommuting, he suggested.

Despite the traffic problems, advocates see a bright future for Rockville Pike 20 years down the road. "I expect it to be thriving," predicted Mr. Duncan. "I expect to see more Metro-related uses," including offices and housing.

Developers will continue to be drawn to the high-visibility road, Mr. Dugan said, but "I don't know that we'll ever be able to drive down Rockville Pike freely at rush hour."


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