In a rare move, the Montgomery County Planning Board on Thursday voted against its staff’s recommendation to make permanent a “road diet” that would reduce the number of lanes on Little Falls Parkway at its intersection with the Capital Crescent Trail.
Instead, the board in a 4-1 vote opted to reinstate the road’s original four-lane design and move the trail to an existing traffic signal at Arlington Road, just a few yards away. The change is expected to add 13 seconds to travel times through the area and about 30 seconds for users of the popular hiker-biker trail.
The county implemented the “road diet” — reducing the number of lanes from four to two — in early 2017 after a bicyclist was struck by a car and killed at the intersection.
Planning Department staff said the road changes reduced the number of crashes in the area from 12 in the two years prior to the safety modifications to five in the two years following the changes.
The Capital Crescent Trail is an 11-mile trail that runs from Silver Spring to Washington, with approximately 5.5 miles of the trail in Montgomery County. It was created in the 1990s and about 5,000 people use the path daily.
Planning Board member Tina Patterson said she was unaware until recently the fatality that sparked the road changes occurred when a vehicle struck a man who was riding a recumbent bicycle, a bike that places the rider in a reclining position and is harder for motorists to see, researchers suggest.
“Had I known this after the fact and moved forward with the staff recommendation, I would have been very embarrassed,” Patterson said. “When we’re going to talk about something that is impacting the community, we need to get the full details. We know that road diets are sexy and it’s the trend right now but sometimes it’s not appropriate.”
Planning Department staff had reviewed three options for the intersection, including maintaining the temporary road diet, the move to Arlington Road and building a trail bridge over the roadway, all options that received support from the public, according to Planning Board documents.
The bridge, although it gained the strongest public support, was the most expensive option with $5.8 million to build and $50,000 a year for annual maintenance, Planning Department staff said.
Planning Board member Normal Dreyfuss, whose term expires next month, said he hopes the bridge can be built in future years.
“We have these crazy street solutions trying to take a bicyclist … and get them across the road with painting stripes,” Dreyfuss said. “We need to cross over busy roads, so long-term, the solution for the county is to budget these things so they really separate bicyclists and walkers from the hazards of roads.”
Maintaining the road diet was estimated to cost $1.4 million with $8,000 per year in maintenance and the trail move to the Arlington Road signal is estimated to cost $2 million with $17,500 per year maintenance.
When an intersection has four lanes, drivers are more apt to collide with pedestrians and bicyclists, county planners said in a report to the Planning Board, in a phenomenon called “a multi-lane threat” – when one driver stops to allow a pedestrian to cross the street and a different driver coming from the same direction hits the pedestrian because the stopped car obscures the second’s view of the person crossing the street.
About 20 people spoke at the Planning Board’s public hearing, some saying they strongly opposed permanent implementation of the road diet, citing increased vehicle traffic and dangers of having a trail-road crossing without a traffic signal to stop cars and give pedestrians the right-of-way.
Neighbors and some trail users largely advocated for the Arlington Road intersection plan adopted by the board. Others argued the road diet should be maintained, pointing to the reduced number of crashes since it was implemented.
Planning Board member Natali Fani-Gonazalez said she did not agree with maintaining the road diet because drivers often do not stop for pedestrians attempting to use a crosswalk, creating dangerous situations.
“What we have here is a behavioral problem in this society. People just want to think about themselves and what they’re doing without thinking about how it will impact other people, so … if you don’t have a traffic light, especially in a place with so many people using the intersection, it’s not safe,” she said.
Planning Board Chairman Casey Anderson, the lone vote against moving the trail to Arlington Road, said he doesn’t believe community members advocating for a four-lane intersection understood the timing of the traffic signals will have to be changed to accommodate trail users’ crossing.
“I may be outvoted but honestly I don’t think this is a good idea,” Anderson said. “I think the road diet has been successful … I just wanted to say I think this is a mistake.”
Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org