Lawmakers target construction blocking Bethesda’s sidewalks

One of many sections of blocked sidewalk in downtown Bethesda, Maryland. Pedestrians are directed to cross busy Wisconsin Avenue to continue in a north/south direction. (WTOP/Megan Cloherty)

While construction along drivers’ commute can mean economic growth, it can also mean a yearslong traffic headache. But in downtown Bethesda, Maryland, the closures are on the sidewalks, and construction is forcing pedestrians to cross busy roads and tying up traffic.

Construction is not a new concept in downtown Bethesda, which is hosting multiple projects along Maryland Route 355/Wisconsin Avenue alone.

“It has pretty much been consistent. Once one opens, another one closes. So you’re kind of just walking around and finding your way,” said downtown Bethesda resident Kylie Rapso.

She agreed it can feel like a game of Frogger for pedestrians who must cross the street to get around a closed sidewalk. “It’s very difficult. My parents are older, and they come and it’s very hard to go up and down and around. It’s more difficult than I think it should be,” Rapso said.

Pushing his walker toward a concrete barrier on the sidewalk ahead, George Chase has grown accustomed to the state of pedestrian access.

“I can get around it. It’s just when they do close a sidewalk, it’s just inconvenient. You have to realize you’re going to do it and then go around it,” Chase said on his way to an appointment.

The problem has spurred action by county and state lawmakers.

Montgomery County Council member Andrew Friedson said closing a sidewalk for construction should be viewed the same way as closing a lane of traffic. “Both should be viewed as critical infrastructure,” said Friedson, a Democrat who represents District 1 on the council.

He has introduced legislation which makes clear existing permitting laws, so developers and utilities know exactly how they’re expected to maintain sidewalk accessibility around a construction project.

“We haven’t clarified exactly what we mean by a safe pedestrian access, what we mean by when it’s appropriate to close a sidewalk and when it’s not,” Friedson said.

His legislation limits how long a county sidewalk could remain blocked to pedestrians. If the project extends longer than 15 days, the bill places the onus on the developer or utility running the project to identify alternate routes for pedestrians.

Friedson said sidewalks under repair cannot be closed for more than six months.

His bill does not, however, apply to the city’s major construction projects along thoroughfares that are governed by the state, such as Bradley Boulevard, Wisconsin Avenue and Old Georgetown Road.

Those highways — like all roads with three numbers — are managed by Maryland’s State Highway Administration.

Maryland state Del. Marc Korman, a Democrat who represents Bethesda residents, is working with SHA to establish clear rules when it comes to permitting along state highways.

“Whether it’s a utility to do maintenance work or a construction company doing a building — that we are putting much more clear rules about the need to keep pedestrian access available and open as much as possible,” Korman said.

He wants to see more sidewalk shelters like the one protecting walkers near the construction at Wisconsin Avenue and East-West Highway, he said.

Korman added that SHA has recognized Bethesda is fast becoming more urban than suburban in its traffic density.

“They’re issuing what they call context-sensitive guidelines for how to deal with roadways that are in different types of areas, instead of their historic one-size-fits-all approach,” Korman said. “A state highway in a rural area of Carroll County is obviously very different than a state highway that runs through downtown Silver Spring, and they need to treat those things differently.”

Both lawmakers are hoping to effect change with their bills by the end of the upcoming session.

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