Some Worry Pedestrian Tunnel Crossing Could Actually Hurt Pedestrian Safety

MD 355 crossing project, with pedestrian tunnel in orange and high-speed elevator bank in blue, via Montgomery County Department of Transportation

County transportation officials hope to start construction on a shallow tunnel crossing of Rockville Pike at Medical Center Metro by fall 2014 with a complete project by fall 2017.

Montgomery County Department of Transportation engineer Holger Serrano, his staff and consultants gave the latest on the $68 million, federally-funded job at a required public meeting on Tuesday in Bethesda. The county has issued a request for proposals for designers and builders and hopes to trim a list of candidates this fall before selecting a contractor next year.

The $68 million from two federal grants will build both the 80-foot long pedestrian tunnel crossing at the South Drive/Wood Road intersection with MD 355 and a bank of three high-speed elevators on the east side of the street that will allow commuters from the Walter Reed Military Medical campus to access the Metro station platform 120 feet below ground.

The goal is part safety — getting the Metrorail and Metrobus commuters off of the street-level crosswalk — and part traffic flow. About 3,000 people crossed the intersection daily before BRAC added Walter Reed to the National Naval Medical Center. Studies estimate about 7,000 people would cross by 2020 if not for the underground alternative.

Though the existing street-level crosswalk won’t go away, the pedestrian tunnel crossing underneath would ostensibly allow the State Highway Administration, which operates MD 355, to improve traffic flow through the notoriously clogged area.

That and an intersection improvement part of the project at Jones Bridge Road and MD 355 had a few Bethesda-Chevy Chase residents at the public meeting concerned about pedestrian safety.

Intersection improvements planned for Jones Bridge Road and MD 355, via Montgomery County Department of TransportationBen Ross, an Action Committee for Transit member who has taken on the county with pedestrian issues before, said the crosswalk design of the Jones Bridge Road intersection wouldn’t allow enough time for pedestrians to make it across the street.

Ross and Tracey Johnstone, also an ACT member, said the SHA’s designs for the intersection would serve to speed up cars. That, they worried, could lead to dangerous situations with pedestrians once those cars enter downtown Bethesda.

Serrano made it clear the designs were from SHA and had been grouped into the tunnel crossing project. He said his staff will confer with SHA about the planned improvements. But with designs 99 percent complete, he indicated it would be difficult to alter the project at this point.

The new intersection would include more curved corners, a technique that allows turning vehicles to move faster.

The tunnel will be open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and Serrano said the county is already considering lighting and art to make it more appealing. Montgomery County will own and operate the tunnel. WMATA will own and operate the high-speed elevators.

The high-speed elevator entrance on the east side of the road will mean Naval Support Activity Bethesda (NSAB), which manages the Military Medical campus, will have to move back its fence.

The 80-foot tunnel will include a hand railing. Some at the meeting suggested it include benches or a moving walkway, like you’d find in an airport terminal.

Serrano said that won’t happen because of cost. NSAB Commander Capt. Fritz Kass pointed out it wouldn’t add much for commuters making their way from the Metro station to the Military Medical Center. Once past the base gates, pedestrians still must walk much more than 80 feet to make it to the various medical facilities. The base also provides shuttle service for any disabled commuters who require it.

The public comment period will remain open until . For more information and for project contacts, visit MCDOT’s project page.

Images via Montgomery County Department of Transportation

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