The Top Montgomery County Transportation Stories of 2017
From the dispute over Leland Street to the beginning of Purple Line construction, here are the local transportation headlines of the year.
This story was updated at 3:25 p.m. Dec. 31 to correct the spelling of Elaine Chao's name in a photo caption.
9. The Leland Street blockage in downtown Bethesda
The bollards blocking Leland Street. Credit: Andrew Metcalf
A two-week drama played out in August after residents and County Council members questioned a residential street blockage in downtown Bethesda. The situation kicked off when the county’s Department of Transportation blocked right-hand turns from Woodmont Avenue onto Leland Street using plastic bollards in late July following complaints about cut-through traffic.
Drivers who use Leland Street to get to Bradley Boulevard later complained about the change, with some noting that the transportation department failed to follow the required public process. The drivers’ concerns led two County Council members to question the department over the blockage. They noted that Leland was designated in the Downtown Bethesda Master Plan as a minor arterial road, meaning it should serve traffic beyond the residential homes that line the short street.
Soon after council members raised their concerns, Transportation Department Director Al Roshdieh ordered the bollards to be removed and admitted in a letter that the department didn’t follow the public process required in county regulations before the bollards were installed.
8. Watkins Mill Interchange groundbreaking
Gov. Larry Hogan, center, and County Executive Ike Leggett, right, at the groundbreaking. Credit: Andrew Metcalf
Gov. Larry Hogan and County Executive Ike Leggett broke ground in July on the long-awaited Watkins Mill Interchange project to connect two sides of Watkins Mill Road over I-270 in Gaithersburg. The $97.1 million diamond interchange will include a four-lane bridge over the busy highway.
The state plans to complete the project in 2020. The interchange has been a top county transportation priority for more than a decade and is expected to aid business development efforts in the Gaithersburg area.
7. County moves forward with Vision Zero plan
Montgomery County released its two-year “Vision Zero” action plan in November aimed at eliminating traffic deaths and severe crashes on county roadways by 2030. The plan includes 41 tasks meant to improve road safety, raise awareness, increase enforcement and provide prompt rescue services.
By November 2019 officials hope the plan will reduce fatal and other severe crashes by 35 percent on county roadways. Between 2012 and 2016, an average of 35 people died and 400 people were severely injured per year on county roads, according to county statistics.
Vision Zero is a popular policy that has been adopted by numerous jurisdictions around the world that aims to eliminate severe crashes by redesigning dangerous intersections and roadways.
6. Metro pilots waterproofing project in Bethesda area tunnel
Emergency crews at the Medical Center station after a report of an arcing insulator. Credit: Pete Piringer
Water seeping through the Red Line tunnel deep underground in the Bethesda area has been an ongoing problem for Metro for years. The water leaks through the walls and pools near the tracks, sometimes causing debris or moisture to come into contact with the electrified third rail, which can result in arcing insulator incidents that generate smoke or fire.
Over the summer, Metro launched a pilot program to install a polymer-based material to coat the tunnel’s walls to try to prevent the leakages. In December, the transit operator announced it was expanding the pilot between stations ranging from Grosvenor-Strathmore to Friendship Heights.
Metro has noted that the tunnel between the Farragut North and Medical Center stations was built without a waterproof membrane that was installed on other parts of the rail system. Paul Wiedefeld, Metro’s general manager, said in June that workers have to pump thousands of gallons of water daily out of the porous concrete tunnel.
5. Debate over a second Potomac River crossing
County Council member Roger Berliner likes to describe a long-proposed plan to build a second Potomac River crossing north of the American Legion Bridge as the “zombie bridge” because it keeps rising from the dead.
In the summer of 2017, the plan made a comeback when the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments’ Transportation Planning Board decided to study a new northern bridge crossing. In advance of the study, the council passed a unanimous resolution opposing the study.
Council members noted that Maryland would have to pay for the new bridge and there’s no interest in funding it. They also said it would likely benefit Virginia more by providing a boost to suburban developers there.
Supporters of the plan believe it could reduce congestion on I-270 and the American Legion Bridge. However, the study, which was later released in November, found that while a second crossing would slightly improve some bottlenecks and traffic problems, it would significantly increase roadway repair needs, hurt the environment and force development of protected agricultural reserve land in Montgomery County.
4. Purple Line lawsuit reaches likely conclusion
Two of the plaintiffs in the Purple Line lawsuit, Ajay Bhatt, left, president of Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail, and John Fitzgerald, right, an attorney and Town of Chevy Chase resident. Credit: Andrew Metcalf
The three-year saga that was the environmental lawsuit against the 16.2-mile Purple Line light-rail project came to an end this year. A panel of three judges at the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that the Federal Transit Administration and Maryland would not have to do a new supplemental environmental review that accounts for Metro’s ongoing ridership decline and safety problems.
The ruling likely ends the legal effort by Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail and two Town of Chevy Chase residents who have been pursuing the case in federal court since 2014. They still could appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the court would have to agree to review it.
The December ruling by the appeals court in Washington, D.C., reversed a lower court’s ruling asking the Federal Transit Administration and state to reexamine Purple Line ridership given Metro’s problems. The court found that the agency and state properly examined Metro’s problems in 2016 when it submitted a report to the federal government. The report found that the ongoing problems wouldn’t significantly affect Purple Line ridership.
The lawsuit delayed the start of construction on the project for over a year.
The plaintiffs still are pursuing a second legal case in federal District Court in D.C. that hinges on whether the federal government properly vetted the light-rail project before approving $900 million in federal funds for it.
3. Metro’s ongoing problems and dedicated funding dilemma
The Washington media cycle barely lasts a day without a new story on the latest Metro problems or the plans being hashed out to address them. Throughout the year, there have been stories about arcing insulators, leaky tunnels, SafeTrack repairs, emergency maintenance, long-term single-tracking and station closures. Metro has undertaken extensive repairs in the wake of a January 2016 smoke incident that left a woman dead on a Yellow Line train.
This year, the transit operator completed its year-long SafeTrack maintenance surges to repair track infrastructure. Metro also increased fares and shortened its operating hours to balance its operating budget in 2017.
In September, the transit operator reported that its bus and rail ridership dropped by 20 million trips over the past year—to 321 million trips on the system. The rail system lost 15 million boardings compared to the previous year.
The ridership declines came as Metro’s leaders sought support from public officials in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., to pass dedicated funding measures to raise money to properly repair the transit system. Metro estimates that it needs about $500 million more per year in funding to repair and upgrade the regional transit system.
2. Gov. Larry Hogan’s I-270 and I-495 highway widening plan
Gov. Larry Hogan generated transportation headlines in September when he announced that Maryland would launch an estimated $9 billion public-private partnership to widen I-270, I-495 and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway.
The initial plan in Montgomery County calls for partnering with a private company to add four toll lanes to I-270 and the Capital Beltway in Maryland. Both highways are known for their traffic congestion—especially during rush hour.
The governor’s plan was met with immediate criticism because of its lack of details. Officials from Montgomery County questioned how the state plans to widen parts of I-270 and the Beltway in the county where the highways are hemmed in by residential and commercial development or, in the case of the Beltway in the Kensington area, by Rock Creek.
Pete Rahn, the state’s transportation secretary, has said state officials have kept the proposal purposefully vague to allow companies planning to bid on it to be creative in their pitches. Significant details about the plan are scheduled to be released late in 2018—likely after the November 2018 election, when Hogan will be up for re-election.
1. Purple Line groundbreaking and the beginning of construction
Gov. Hogan and U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao sign the full funding grant agreement for the Purple Line. Credit: Andrew Metcalf
The Purple Line broke ground and began construction this year after more than three decades of debate over the light-rail project. The project overcame community protests, opposition from political leaders and legal battles before Gov. Larry Hogan and U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao flung the first shovels of dirt in the air on Aug. 28 to start construction on the 16.2-mile light-rail line.
The line is estimated to cost $2.3 billion to construct and is funded in part by a $900 million from the federal government. The state is paying for the line through a $5.6 billion agreement with Purple Line Transit Partners, the private group of construction and finance companies that will not only build the line, but also operate it and maintain it for the life of the contract.
The line and the 21 stations are expected to be completed in 2022. Once finished, it will stretch from downtown Bethesda, along the former Georgetown Branch Trail, through downtown Silver Spring, into Prince George’s County, through the University of Maryland at College Park campus and end in New Carrollton.
The start of construction brought its own problems—ranging from controversy over the abrupt closure of the Georgetown Branch Trail to residents living along the trail complaining about the loud noises generated by the tree-cutting process.
State and county officials believe the project will provide an alternative to travelers who drive east and west along the route, as well as spur economic development near the stations along the line. The county is paying to rebuild a new walking and biking trail along the route between Bethesda and Silver Spring.
Purple Line route. Click to expand.