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County Council Debates Future of Mid-County Highway Expansion

At Tuesday’s meeting of the Montgomery County Council, the debate over M83 or the expansion of the Mid-County Highway continued, much as it has for the last many years. Tuesday’s debate ended, as debates over M83 have done for many years with no decision.

The debate came about as the Montgomery County Planning Board was presenting its semi-annual report to the County Council. After Planning Board officials touted the successes of County parks and planning projects, the topic of M83 came up as a result of the Planning Board’s intention to revisit the Master Plans in many of the areas of the county east of Interstate 270, including Montgomery Village and Gaithersburg East. As Montgomery County Deputy Council Administrator Glenn Orlin said, “It is hard to do a master plan without knowing the fate of a major project like (M83).”

M83 or the Mid-County Highway extension has been in the Montgomery County Master Plan since the plan was originally adopted in the 1960s. The controversial four-lane road between Gaithersburg and Clarksburg is designed to ease traffic on heavily congested Route 355 and other roads east of Interstate 270.

According to a 2015 Washington Post article, “County transportation officials have said the road was long-planned to accommodate the crush of traffic that planners knew would follow as subdivisions and shopping centers popped up in northern Montgomery. Development was allowed to occur assuming that the road would one day be built, county planners have said.”

In 2015, M83 was estimated to cost $357 million, but the county has not budgeted any money for its design or construction.

The impetus for the latest discussion of M83 by the County Council was the release of the long awaited results of an independent study whether building the M83 or funding the proposed Bus Rapid Transit program along Rt. 355.

Many currently sitting members of the County Council do not support building M83. It should also be pointed out that only two current members of the County Council live or work within 12 miles of Clarksburg. Indeed, all four At-Large members of the County Council live within a half-mile of each other in Takoma Park.

The report was hoped by many who oppose M83 to put the final nail in the Mid-County Highway Extension coffin, but instead it has given hope that the long planned road may be built and relieve some of the traffic congestion in the UpCounty.

Indeed, the Supplemental Report, dated Feb. 10, 2017 stated, “As a basic conclusion, implementation of versions of the Mid-County Highway (in the preferred alignment defined in the previous round of planning) and the MD 355 BRT, separately and in combination with each other, provide substantial improvement to the transportation network performance in the study area.”

The summary of the report went on to state, “As a basic finding, this analysis shows that both projects are beneficial and neither project substantially replaces the benefit of the other. Rather, the benefits of the projects are cumulative.”

As a result, Council President Roger Berliner, who represents District 1, which includes Bethesda, Chevy Chase, Potomac, and Poolesville, provided the County Council with two options on how to deal with M83 going forward.

Berliner did not officially add the discussion of M83 to the Council agenda until Friday, March 31, giving M83 supporters and those opposed just three days to mobilize to make their presence known during the discussion. A contingent of Clarksburg residents and business people, holding signs in support of M83 made the Council aware that the long awaited connection was supported by many in the UpCounty.

The first option, according to a memo from Berliner to Council members, was to refer the report to the Planning Board and its staff for review, and wait for the Planning Board to transmit its findings to the Council and the Council’s Transportation, Infrastructure, Energy and Environment, known as the T&E committee. The T&E Committee would make a recommendation to the Council. “Under this option a public hearing would not be required, but the Council could schedule a hearing nevertheless if it wishes. Then the Council would make its decision. The decision would be in the form of a resolution directing the Planning Board what to assume regarding the M-83 right-of-way in developing upcoming master plans,” read the memo.

The second option, according to the memo, was direct the Planning Board to prepare a functional master plan amendment for M83. This would require formally adding M83 to the Planning Board’s work program. This option would require the preparation of “Staff Draft, a Public Hearing Draft, advertising and holding a public hearing, and the preparation of the Board’s Final Draft” which would be transmitted to the Council and Executive.

According to a memo from Berliner to Planning Board Chairman Casey Anderson, the Council chose the second option. “The Council chose this option because it believes the formal functional master plan amendment process will provide a more robust and substantive review of the transportation issues involved... We expect this process—including the notice requirements and the hearings—would take about 9 months, which means the master plan could be amended in early 2018.”

Craig Rice, who represents District 2 which is comprised of Clarksburg, Germantown, and Montgomery Village is pushing for Option 2 and hoping for public input in the project. “One of the great things about having this before the Planning Board is that people will be able to be heard, whether they are for or against the project, but also those people that have suggestions—that have ideas about things that we can do to make this project work; or things we might be able to do in place of this project. That is the great thing about having this before Planning Board, having a public hearing and having work sessions. I think it is owed to our community when it comes to something that is as major a project as this is. It would be a big mistake to just shift this to the Department of Transportation and isolate the very people who this is meant to support, or effect, or have an impact on. That is a big mistake for us.”

“If it takes 18 months or two years to do it right. Let’s do it right,” said Rice. “There is no rushing this. This is something that is major and is going to have huge impacts, not just on the community, but also on economic development. We have a lot of development plans that are currently being floated in Germantown. This is going to have huge implications.”

“You are also talking about one of the largest constituencies in Montgomery County,” Rice continued. “While, yes, Councilmember Berliner has lots of plans, the reality is that none of those plans effect 100,000 people like this will.”

Councilmember Sidney Katz, who represents District 3, which is Gaithersburg and Rockville said he was willing to keep M83 in the master plan. “I am in agreement that, however we get there, this should stay on the master plan and we can figure it out from there.”

While At-Large Councilmember George Leventhal, who was perhaps the Council’s biggest champion of the Purple Line addition to the Metro, asked Planning Director Gwen Wright how M83 would line up with the County’s newly approved Subdivision Staging Policy.

The latest version of Montgomery County’s Subdivision Staging Policy (formerly called “Growth Policy”) has being updated approved by the County Council in November 2016. Wright said, “In that policy we identified red areas, orange areas, yellow areas, and green areas. Most of the area where M83 would run through is in either yellow or orange. The red is the transit core – the most appropriate areas for transit oriented development. The orange areas are perhaps available for infill but are not as accessible to transit. The yellow are the traditionally suburban areas, and the green is really the Ag Reserve, where we are not interested in seeing a lot of new development.”

Leventhal responded, “So to simplify, the development currently proposed for Germantown is in what we consider the less desirable area to develop in terms of smart growth.”

“No,” corrected Wright, “It is more in the area where we are looking for more traditionally suburban development. We aren’t looking for 200 foot tall buildings. We are looking at more single-family and lower scale development.”

Meanwhile, it seems that At-Large Councilmember Nancy Floreen seems tired of discussing the idea of M83. She doesn’t want to spend the money on the planning for M83, doesn’t want to fund it, but also doesn’t want to vote against killing it altogether.

“No one here is proposing at this moment to build it,” said Floreen. “There is not a capital project. This is an idea. This has been on our master plans for many years. When we first asked for this work to be done, it was to decide whether or not to take it off the master plan. So we have this study… I honestly don’t know what more we need to move on. I know my colleagues don’t want to fund this. I don’t want to fund this. I am willing to join with you all and say we are not going to fund this. I don’t know why we are making this more difficult.”

However, in the next breath she said, “If everyone here wants to take it off the master plan, let’s vote it up or down. I don’t know what more information is necessary.”

Floreen continued, “We do have a study before us that says both (M83 and BRT) would be beneficial. I actually didn’t expect this to come out this way. I thought it was going to say ‘the BRT will save our lives’ and that would be the end of it. I don’t know what more information is necessary.”

In what is perhaps the greatest example of speaking out of both sides of one mouth ever uttered, she said, “If people here want to vote against M83, go for it, but I am not going to do that. I think it is irresponsible for us to send out mixed messages to the community while we have this report, but we really are not going to listen to it. We are really going to try to find some way to take it off the master plan despite what this report says. I don’t think that is fair to people. I think this is a thoughtful enough report that we can base our decisions on it. We were always supposed to have I-270 and these two arterial type roads” referring to Great Seneca Highway and M83.

“This is Montgomery County and no never means no,” said Leventhal, “There will be a decision, I would anticipate if we go forward with Option 2, that the direction of this Council is that we have other priorities that are more in the public interest. I would say, however we are not going to pay for it ourselves that substantially improving I-270 and the American Legion Bridge ought to be our next most significant priority.”

Leventhal said he did not think UpCounty traffic and transit concerns should be something that County Council should make a priority. “I think that we should really highlight a focus on I-270. That will substantially address the concerns that I hear about from my constituents in Clarksburg and Germantown. I also think also think in the long run we should rethink having this road on the master plan, that the majority of the council members and that the public statement of the county executive is that we don’t want to building it.”

He then went on to call for M83 to be removed from the master plan, “I don’t believe that M83 is going to happen in this generation. I don’t see it in the near future. It bothers me that it is in the master plan.”

The last Councilmember to weigh in on the topic was At-Large member, Marc Elrich, who has announced that is a candidate for County Executive in 2018. He said he didn’t see a need for M83 because it hasn’t hampered development in the UpCounty.

“Since I have been here,” said Elrich, “I have yet to hear any project being turned down and told that they cannot proceed here because o