ROCKVILLE — On Sept. 13, the Transportation and Environment Committee of the Montgomery County Council praised the Planning Board for reversing its approval to realign the Capital Crescent Trail with Little Falls Parkway in Bethesda.
The crossing of the Capital Crescent trail and Little Falls Parkway is heavily used by bikes, pedestrians and cars.
In 2016, a bicyclist was struck and killed while crossing the intersection, and the county parks department took steps to make the intersection safer. They lowered the speed limit to 25 miles per hour and narrowed lanes on the road from four to two.
These measures made the crossing much safer for users, according to the Transportation and Environment Committee.
“The road diet slowed vehicular speeds to an average of 17 miles per hour, eliminated the multiple lane threat and encouraged bicyclists to slow down,” the committee wrote in a letter to the planning board in July. “The decision was lauded in the County’s Vision Zero Two-Year Action Plan as a prime example of how to improve a dangerous crossing. In the two years before the road diet was instituted, there were 12 crashes between trail users and motorists. In the (more than) two years after the road diet was instituted, there has been an over 50% reduction in crashes, with most importantly, no fatalities.”
According to the committee, however, the planning board voted 4-1 in June to reroute the pedestrian and bike trail to cross at Arlington Road and to restore Little Falls Parkway from two lanes back to four. Members of the council and residents called this new plan unsafe for those who use the trail and urged the planning board to maintain the road as it was.
According to Peter Gray of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA), there was some support for the planning board’s decision from the Citizens Coordinating Committee on Friendship Heights (CCCFH).
The CCCFH is a group of community organizations that represent neighborhoods along Wisconsin Avenue, River Road and Massachusetts Avenue and along the border with the District.
In an open letter to Montgomery Parks, CCCFH noted that constricting traffic flow is not a viable solution.
“Constricting traffic on Little Falls Parkway to accommodate bicyclists is not at all an optimal solution to the safety issue, and additionally will most certainly result in increased cut-through traffic in nearby neighborhoods – already the case as a result of the temporary Parkway constriction, ‘road diet’ utilizing bollards,” they wrote.
The CCCFH recommended that in the short term, the planning board adhere to the plan that would realign the Capital Crescent Trail to cross at Arlington Road where there is a signal. They also suggested that, in the long term, the county consider putting in a bridge over Little Falls Parkway, which would facilitate vehicular traffic.
Gray explained that the alternative suggested by the CCCFH sounded plausible in theory but would incentivize dangerous habits by bikers and pedestrians.
“It sounds reasonable, except that then, it would set up a situation where people using the trail would still have to cross four lanes of traffic and cars have an incentive to rush up to the intersection and make a right on red,” he said. “Also, trail users would be somewhat delayed in this solution (which would) incite trail users to dash across those four lanes. So, it was incentivizing bad behavior, and it wasn’t going to solve the problem.”
According to Gray, WABA also made their feelings known on the matter and sent messages to the council outlining their concerns. He explained that several hundred people signed on to a letter urging the planning board to reverse its decision and realign the trail to cross at Little Falls Parkway, not at the light on Arlington Road.
In the Transportation and Environment Committee’s letter to the planning board. they also cited their commitment to the county’s Vision Zero goals.
“In 2016 the Montgomery County Council passed a resolution committing the County to Vision Zero, a policy framework that aims to reduce traffic-related fatalities to zero. The key principle of Vision Zero is the ‘Human life takes priority over mobility and other objectives of the road system.’ As the most heavily used trail in the county (2,000-4,000 users daily), creating the safest possible crossing of the Capital Crescent Trail is critical to our Vision Zero plans,” the committee wrote.
Last week, the planning board voted to maintain the current two-lane alignment of the intersection and to delay funding the $2.5 million project for at least five years.
“I applaud the planning board’s decision to prioritize safety at this crossing of the Capital Crescent Trail,” said Councilmember Hans Riemer, who is also a member of the transportation and environment committee.
“Under the road diet, speeds are down, crashes have been cut in half and there have been no fatalities. While we cannot eliminate all mistakes in judgment by motorists, pedestrians and bicyclists, we can design our roadways, particularly in high-risk areas, to slow everyone down so that those mistakes do not result in serious injury or death. This is Vision Zero at work.”
Gray noted that although the current alignment is not perfect, it promotes safety at the crossing.
“Having a focus on safety for the trail users first and foremost is number one,” Gray said.“That should be involved in any solution to the problem.”