SILVER SPRING –A police officer knocked on Silver Spring resident Juan Gomez’s door to tell him that his brother had been killed and that authorities had found his brother’s body at the intersection of Veirs Mill Road and Connecticut Avenue.
Police have not yet determined who is responsible for his brother’s death more than seven months ago.
Gomez gripped the sides of the podium at the Holiday Park Senior Center in Silver Spring on Feb. 7 as he told the council about his late brother Omar Rivas, who left home on that June day to buy a SmarTrip card and never came back. Rivas, who was a father of three, died at age 51 or 52.
Gomez was one of dozens who advocated for increased safety measures and other issues the plan would address on Feb. 7 during the County Council’s public hearing for the Veirs Mill Corridor Master Plan.
The plan is a series of recommendations from the Montgomery County Planning Department that would improve safety for pedestrians, bicyclists and public transportation users.
“You need to stop counting every cent you save and start counting lost lives,” Gomez said.
Thirty-six people, including Gomez, signed up in advance to speak during the public hearing Thursday, and more than 50 people attended. County staff set up a few more chairs after the hearing had started to ensure people attending the hearing had seats.
The main goal of the master plan is to propose methods that might reduce fatalities and serious injuries suffered by passengers, pedestrians, people using public transportation and bicyclists traveling on or crossing that corridor, said planner Jessica McVary, who led the Veirs Mill Corridor Master Plan, prior to the public hearing.
Former County Executive Ike Leggett in 2017 created a vision zero action plan – a two-year plan that aimed to propel the county toward its goal of zero traffic-related deaths by 2030. It identified parts of the county, including Veirs Mill Road, as “high-injury networks,” McVary said.
“We basically looked at the number of severe injuries and fatalities in the county, and identified the locations or stretches along the county where severe injuries and fatalities were the greatest,” McVary said.
Veirs Mill Road has a high number of pedestrian fatalities and were serious injuries.
Gomez, who has lived in that area of Silver Spring since 1999, said he wanted the council to install better lighting and speed cameras to hold people accountable for their driving.
“My brother’s never coming back home, but I know his death will not go unpunished and that it will help to generate” action, Gomez said.
Back in 2016, the Montgomery County Council adopted “vision zero,” which has a goal of no traffic-related deaths in the county by 2030. The council hopes the county will have zero pedestrian deaths or severe injuries on the four-mile stretch of Veirs Mill Corridor.
“We hope to eliminate traffic-related fatalities and severe injuries (along) the corridor,” said McVary.
The Montgomery County Planning department, part of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Committee, published its most-recent plan in December.
The Veirs Mill Corridor Master Plan area is approximately four miles long, extending from the City of Rockville to “the Wheaten Central Business District and Vicinity Sector” boundary, according to a county planning department news release.
Nancy Navarro, council president (D-4) called up each speaker, who then approached the podium to speak, one at a time.
Responses to the plan during the hearing varied – many speakers said they support the safety improvements it would provide. Others, such as a staffer who spoke on behalf of County Executive Marc Elrich, said they did not support part of the plan because it would take away several affordable housing units near Veirs Mill Road.
Greg Ossont, speaking on Elrich’s behalf, said during the public hearing that the county executive does not support portions of the current master plan.
“There is not enough information to really understand what the results may be (on housing), although it most certainly will mean fewer truly affordable units for families,” Ossont said.
One woman said people frequently drive the wrong direction on a small, one-way road near the corridor, and it is dangerous. She asked for speed-limit signs as well as speed cameras or increased law enforcement officer presence to enforce the speed limit.
Another woman said the sidewalks leading to the bus stops and bus shelters are not always cleared of snow, such as the snowfall that resulted in an early closing of public schools a few weeks ago. She asked the council to put pressure on the State Highway Administration to do more to maintain the bus stops.
The State Highway Administration manages Veirs Mill Road, which is a state highway.
A few people said Veirs Mill Road needs to be more accessible to pedestrians and people riding bikes. Some said the fact that parts of the road have no sidewalk is dangerous for pedestrians, bicyclists and public transportation users.
David Helms, speaking as an individual, brought large photos of two teenagers and one adult who were killed in traffic-related incidents near the corridor. He held up the pictures one at a time for the council, and then he turned around and showed them to people in the audience. Helms said that when he went to get the photos copied for his testimony, a copy store employee cried and told him they had known the teenage girl, who attended Montgomery Blair High School, in one of the photos.
The council hosted the public hearing not in the Stella B. Werner office building in Rockville, which has hosted similar public hearings previously, but at Holiday Park Senior Center, which is less distance away from the homes of people who live along the corridor.
Navarro said the council changed the location of the hearing after the council had to reschedule it due to bad weather, because they wanted people living in the area to have an easier time traveling to attend and participate in the public hearing.
All members of the county council were present for the council’s public hearing.
The plan, in addition to aiming to reduce traffic-related deaths and severe injuries, includes steps to fulfill five “strategies.” One “strategy” for which the master plan provides recommendations is to “improve pedestrian and bicycle accessibility, connectivity and safety within the area,” according to a planning department news release. Another strategy involves redeveloping some of the existing property, specifically, to “redevelop at strategic locations to provide more walkable, neighborhood-serving development.”
Alison Gillespie, speaking as an individual, said she believes the athletes should be able to run safely in their neighborhoods, as other county high school teams do. She doesn’t believe they are able to do that, asserting that some members of the Albert Einstein High School track team run along the roadways that do not have sidewalks during practice.