The City of Rockville says the best way to cure Rockville Pike traffic congestion, connect the Rockville Metro station to Rockville Town Center and allow for a smooth bus rapid transit experience could be a radical—and costly—idea.
City officials last week presented to county officials a recently completed study that proposes tunneling about five blocks of Rockville Pike traffic through the center of the city.
While the idea of tunneling part of Rockville Pike has been in a city master plan since 2001, it has gained new traction as Montgomery County and state transportation officials study bus rapid transit (BRT) routes on Rockville Pike and Veirs Mill Road.
Veirs Mill Road and Rockville Pike meet just north of where the tunnel, which would feature four through lanes, would start. The Rockville Metro station, where the proposed MD 355 South and MD 355 North BRT routes would meet, is a few blocks farther north. The tunnel would extend to just north of Beall Avenue.
The tunnel would be almost three-quarters of a mile in length, slightly longer than the Connecticut Avenue tunnel under Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C. And importantly for city officials, it would allow more room for BRT to run on the existing roadway in two dedicated median lanes.
Rendering of Rockville Pike with BRT lanes and a station in the median. The intersection of Middle Lane and Park Road is toward the bottom of the rendering, which also shows development on the Metro station parking lots just to the west of Rockville Pike. Via City of Rockville
Via City of Rockville
Andrew Gunning, assistant director of the city’s Community Planning department, said the amount of existing traffic and potential addition of three BRT routes would make an already clogged area more congested.
“Those lines coming together in a really congested area caused a little bit of concern for us,” Gunning told a joint meeting of County Council members from Rockville, Gaithersburg and Montgomery County on Dec. 3.
The study estimated the tunnel project would cost at least $214 million, which Gunning admitted seems out of reach, especially given the uncertain financial outlook for the rest of the county’s BRT plans.
“The irony isn’t lost that there’s been a lot of discussion about saving costs and making sure that you can build these projects,” Gunning told the council members last week. “We think we have a way to pay for it.”
“I’m writing that down,” quipped council President Nancy Floreen, who presided over the meeting.
Gunning said the city doesn’t anticipate the tunnel would be paid for through any potential county BRT project. He said the city could rely on revenue from redevelopment immediately around Rockville Pike to help pay for at least part of the tunnel.
The study points to two properties in particular as ripe for redevelopment: The Metro station’s west parking lots and the 255 Rockville Pike site, which is now a county government office building.
On Monday, the City of Rockville Council will discuss the best way to inform the public about the study.
City officials, including Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton, see the idea of tunneling Rockville Pike as more than something that would alleviate traffic congestion; it’s an option that could also produce new sidewalks, bicycle lanes and development to draw Metro users into the Rockville Town Center.
The city has a pedestrian bridge over Rockville Pike that connects Metro users to the Town Center area. Sketches of the tunnel idea include improvements to that bridge that would connect to Metro and a BRT station.
“When coupled with the rail lines a physical and perceptual barrier divide has been formed between east and west Rockville,” the city’s study said of the existing Rockville Pike. “A newly designed streetscape and infill developments in association with a new Bus Rapid Transit line would help resolve many of the long-standing physical barriers and conflicts along the corridor.”
The study also evaluated other options for accommodating BRT along Rockville Pike, including putting the buses in regular mixed traffic lanes and building dedicated lanes for buses without the thru tunnel below.