Officials Hope New Strategies Ease Annoying Lane, Sidewalk Closures In Bethesda
County will hire a new inspector and put into place new protocols
A large truck delivering supplies to an apartment construction site shut down Norfolk Avenue in Bethesda during Thursday morning's rush hour. Credit: Aaron Kraut
Montgomery County officials hope a new inspector, a new set of regulations and a new law will ease the seemingly never-ending sidewalk and street closures popping up around downtown Bethesda construction projects.
The county’s Department of Permitting Services was given funding in the fiscal year that started July 1 to hire a new inspector, who department officials say will be assigned to check if construction contractors and utility companies are following pre-approved permits for shutting down sidewalks or traffic lanes.
“The fact that we’ll have somebody there actually making sure will help,” said Jessica Fusillo, community outreach manager for the permitting department (DPS). “We really weren’t equipped, unless we received a complaint, to go out and keep inspecting.”
Fusillo also said DPS staff is developing an official written protocol that will declare what types of construction projects merit closing down a piece of public right-of-way—and for how long.
After a slew of complaints from the community late last year and early this year, Department of Transportation (DOT) officials said they’re getting more aggressive when it comes to making sure that construction contractors understand what they’re agreeing to when they sign off on required temporary traffic control plans, or TTCPs.
Communication between the permitting department, which is responsible for enforcing right-of-way permits, and the county’s Department of Transportation, which traditionally has been responsible for approving the traffic control plans, is also improving, Fusillo said.
“Before, [the Department of Transportation] was handling a lot of the maintenance-of-traffic plans. We stepped in and said, ‘Look, it really deals with construction,’” Fusillo said. “DOT and DPS reviewed the process and developed a new approach. We now review the maintenance of traffic plans together.”
That step allows DPS more oversight, Fusillo said.
It’s unclear if the changes will help improve conditions in downtown Bethesda, where there are seven active major residential construction projects and more in the county’s development approval pipeline.
Fusillo acknowledged that construction projects are “fluid,” and that it’s difficult to keep up with the mix of long-term, short-term and even brief closures that can cause disruptions.
Thursday morning near the 7770 Norfolk Ave. construction project provided a good example of that challenge. At about 8:15 a.m., construction crews closed a section of Norfolk Avenue just west of Woodmont Avenue to allow for a large truck carrying construction equipment to access the site.
At 8:30 a.m., the truck could be seen attempting to back of the narrow space, not only blocking the road, but also blocking the Woodmont Avenue sidewalk—a minor inconvenience that nonetheless meant pedestrians had no choice but to walk on Woodmont Avenue.
Last October, DOT Chief of Traffic Engineering Emil Wolanin said contractors must apply for a waiver to close a sidewalk next to a construction project for more than two weeks. But he also said a lack of enforcement meant “we’re seeing developers who have not asked for permission” close sidewalks around construction sites.
Officials from DPS and DOT have been meeting regularly with Ken Hartman, director of the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Regional Services Center, to try to reduce those incidents. Hartman, whose office is in downtown Bethesda, is typically one of the first county officials to receive complaints about specific lane or sidewalk closures.
To address the sidewalk closure issue, the County Council passed a law that requires all developers and construction firms to post an informational sign during closures. It went into effect Wednesday.
The law requires the signs to include information about the duration of a sidewalk closure, the permit number allowing the closure and how to contact the permit holder in case more information is needed.
Problems also result from right-of-way closures on state roads, including at the Flats at 8300 project on Wisconsin Avenue and the Element 28 project on Old Georgetown Road in Bethesda—a project that has closed down an entire lane of the three-lane road for months.
David Buck, spokesperson for the State Highway Administration, said projects with long-term impacts on a state road are required to get an access permit to close down a sidewalk or traffic lane. The SHA assigns its own inspectors to make sure that developers and construction firms adhere to a traffic maintenance plan.
He said there are exceptions, but that the SHA typically only will allow a non-emergency lane closure from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekdays, from 7 p.m. to 5 a.m. weeknights and on weekends.
As for one-time closures, such as when a crane company was allowed to shut down southbound Wisconsin Avenue to lift heating and air-conditioning equipment to the top of a building, the state’s traffic engineers will simply approve or deny a request.