The future White Flint envisioned by Montgomery County will be a walkable, bike-friendly downtown built around a Rockville Pike transformed into an inviting boulevard full of new residential development.
But that future, as outlined by the 2010 White Flint Sector Plan, is many years and probably a few decades down the road.
For now, Rockville Pike remains a six-lane road with a 40 mph speed limit that at times operates more like a highway. Many in the community feel it’s creating a dangerous mix for pedestrians just as the first of the new, transit-oriented development projects sprout.
“Rockville Pike is too fast and everybody knows it’s too fast and it needs to be turned into a boulevard,” said one member of the Friends of White Flint at a meeting of the group on Wednesday. “We don’t really know when that’s going to happen.”
The Friends group, a nonprofit of residents, business owners and major developers, made pedestrian and bicyclist safety around White Flint the featured topic of the meeting. In attendance were officials from the Montgomery County Department of Transportation and State Highway Administration, plus officials from the county executive’s office and Councilmember Hans Riemer.
On Aug. 6, 24-year-old Matthew Papirmeister was struck by a car while crossing the southbound lanes of Rockville Pike at Executive Boulevard. Papirmeister, a Bethesda resident and Iraq War veteran, died in the hospital a few days later.
The intersection of Executive Boulevard and Rockville Pike was a frequent topic of conversation during the meeting. Some said they’ve seen drivers turn off of and on to Rockville Pike at Executive Boulevard at high speeds that force pedestrians to dodge vehicles.
With the success of the North Bethesda Market project, more pedestrians are using the intersection to head to Whole Foods, Starbucks or one of the restaurants on the property. There’s also a bus stop on the opposite side of Rockville Pike.
The Sector Plan recommends Executive Boulevard be extended through Rockville Pike to the east side of the White Flint area. But that depends on cooperation with the SHA and funding. The SHA operates major state routes in White Flint including Rockville Pike and Old Georgetown Road.
Dee Metz, the county’s White Flint Implementation Coordinator, said it’s unknown at this time whether a traffic light would be installed in the new Executive Boulevard intersection. Those determinations are made in studies done in the planning and design process.
“I think it’s a really pathetic excuse to just say, ‘It’s a highway,’ because it’s human nature that people are going to want to cross the road,” one attendee said. “If there’s a business on one side and a house on the other, people are going to want to go there so we need to engineer solutions.”
Ken Hartman, director of the county’s Bethesda-Chevy Chase Regional Services Center, said getting pedestrians across Rockville Pike will be critical to the area’s success.
“The little walkable areas are dangerous because Rockville Pike is a highway and should not be,” one attendee at the meeting said. “I don’t know if there are any today solutions for restriping it, for getting some of the lanes to be narrower, to do a few things now rather than waiting for that 30-year buildout.”
SHA officials said they must balance a number of often competing interests: drivers looking to get through intersections with less traffic, pedestrians looking for more crosswalks and signals and bicyclists looking for bike lanes and other bike infrastructure, among others.
When the discussion of lowering the speed limit on Rockville Pike (Wisconsin Avenue in downtown Bethesda is 35 mph) one attendee reminded others of the potential trade-offs.
“The idea of slowing down Rockville Pike will simply cause horrendous traffic problems,” one attendee said.
Still, many at the meeting expressed a sense that pedestrian-oriented development happening now is being hindered by previous standards for moving traffic as quickly as possible.
Lindsay Hoffman, executive director of the Friends of White Flint, said she got three emails in the last few weeks from pedestrians concerned with a “slip lane” from Rockville Pike onto Old Georgetown Road.
The slip lane is separated from the through lanes at the intersection, allowing drivers turning onto Old Georgetown Road to continue without stopping at a red light, but causing angst for pedestrians attempting to cross with the walk signal.
Not too far from the intersection is Pike & Rose, the massive mixed-use community being constructed at the site of the former Mid-Pike Plaza. Developer Federal Realty has marketed the property (its first apartment building opened earlier this year) as easily accessible by foot from the White Flint Metro station, just a few blocks south.
Riemer suggested the Friends group push MCDOT and SHA to take part in a walkability audit. Hoffman said she was looking for suggestions for specific problem intersections.
SHA officials said they’d come back to the Friends of White Flint with some potential solutions to the issues discussed at Executive Boulevard.
Photo via Google Maps