Bill Would Limit Sidewalk Closures for Construction
Alternative paths must be provided for extended work
Construction along Wisconsin Avenue in downtown Bethesda has blocked public rights-of-way for several months.
Photo by Kate Masters
There are entire blocks in downtown Bethesda where the sidewalks have disappeared, taken up by long-term construction.
Council Member Andrew Friedson wants to fix that.
He introduced a bill on Tuesday that would limit how long county sidewalks could be closed, requiring crews to establish alternative paths if the work extends past 15 days.
If sidewalks themselves are being repaired, they could only be closed for 6 months without an alternative walkway.
“This has been a consistent challenge that we’ve faced,” said Friedson, who launched his first term in office with a walking tour of Bethesda. “I believe in construction and development, but we have to balance it with maintaining quality of life in an urbanizing community.”
The bill would not apply to public walkways along state highways — including high-traffic roads such as Wisconsin Avenue — which are governed by the Maryland Department of Transportation.
The council was working separately with MDOT to improve pedestrian access on those roads, Friedson said Tuesday.
As the representative for District 1, one of the most urbanized areas in the county, Friedson has been focused on walkability and pedestrian safety since taking office. The entire County Council is still grappling with the challenge of implementing Vision Zero — an ambitious plan to drastically reduce or even eliminate traffic-related injuries and deaths by 2030.
Eleven pedestrians and cyclists have been killed in Montgomery County this year. At least 70 more have been seriously injured, according to county data.
Hundreds of public right-of-way permits have been issued and remain active over the last five years, the database shows. It isn’t clear how many injuries might have been caused by sidewalk closures, but Friedson has framed accessibility in general as a major public safety concern.
In late November, he wrote a letter to the Department of Environmental Protection, requesting a review of existing policies on leaving trash and recycling bins in public walkways. The bill was co-signed by Council Members Hans Riemer, Tom Hucker and Evan Glass, all members of the council’s Transportation and Environment Committee.
Glass was already listed as a co-sponsor on Friedson’s bill to limit sidewalk closures, along with Council Member Will Jawando.
On Tuesday, Riemer and Hucker asked to be added as co-sponsors — along with Council Members Gabe Albornoz, Sidney Katz and Craig Rice — describing it as an important effort to solve an ongoing dilemma.
“It has been a vexing problem for years,” Riemer said on Tuesday. “There have been a number of efforts to make a change, so I hope this bill will move the needle.”
The legislation would limit the conditions for closing a public walkway. Permits would have to include plans to minimize inconvenience to the public, limit the duration of the closure to the minimum time necessary, and assure public safety in the work area, according to the bill.
It also tasks the executive branch with crafting regulations to limit an applicant’s ability to extend a sidewalk closure.
Friedson said several sections of the bill were designed to increase transparency in the permitting process, including the requirement to establish new guidelines for determining whether an extension is necessary.
The bill would require the director of Permitting Services to regularly review closures without a safe alternative path and immediately end them — or provide another walkway — if the department determined they were no longer necessary.
All public right-of-way applications and permits would have to be posted on the department’s website.
“It’s long overdue that we have a systematic approach,” Friedson said on Tuesday, “and a way that is clear and consistent and transparent for residents to understand when and for how long a sidewalk would be closed.”