Midcounty Highway extension could ease congestion

MONTGOMERY VILLAGE, Md. – Plans are being dusted off to extend the Midcounty Highway and ease congestion in Montgomery County.

With sprawl and crawl popping up in Clarksburg, the move would be an alternate to Md. 355 and Interstate 270, offering residents another way to get to the Shady Grove Metro station.

“Currently the Midcounty Highway runs from Shady Grove Road to Montgomery Village Avenue. The master plan anticipates it would be extended northwest and connect to 27 (Ridge Road) to provide a connection to all the new residents in Clarksburg,” says Bruce E. Johnston, chief of the Montgomery County Transportation Engineering Division.

Driver Ron Simmons has lived in Montgomery Village for 40 years and believes the plan is a good idea.

“Where I live there is a mile-and-a-half backup each day getting out of town. Every day and every evening, whether you’re coming or going. So I think offering another option is an awesome idea,” he says.

Keith Miller, president of Arora Hills Homeowners Association in Clarksburg, says he would definitely use the highway.

“This highway will give us the connection we need to the downcounty parts of Montgomery County that we need to get around this region.

“It’s critical that we have a way to get around, to have another thoroughfare to get to Shady Grove Road and the Metro station,” Miller says.

Gerri Wright of Germantown says she hits traffic at Md. 27 and Brink Road several times each week and hopes this would solve those backups.

“I think it’ll ease some of the congestion burdening us now. It’s time consuming when you’re in a hairy position going to work,” she says.

A plan to build the Midcounty Highway has been on the books since the 1960s, but only recently did the concept get renewed attention.

In 2007, the Montgomery County Department of Transportation issued a lengthy report about why the 6-mile extension to Clarksburg was necessary.

In 2009, a detailed traffic analysis was completed to show how the road would help reduce traffic in the future.

On Wednesday, a public hearing will be held at Seneca Valley High School where a study known as a National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) report will be released. Nine alternatives for extending the highway will be considered.

“We see this as another rung of the ladder to get people around the growing corridor between Gaithersburg and Clarksburg. Our studies have shown that 40 percent of the traffic on the Midcounty Highway would come from people currently driving on 355 or I-270. It will take some congestion off those roads,” says Johnston.

“It will provide free flow traffic from Clarksburg to Montgomery Village Avenue to Shady Grove Road where drivers can turn right and get to the Metro station,” Johnston said.

But not everyone is onboard with the project. Kelly Blynn of the Coalition for Smarter Growth is part of an organized movement to scrap plans for the extension.

“Extending the Midcounty Highway is extremely destructive to existing communities. It’s very destructive environmentally. It would go through wetlands, parklands, an agricultural reserve,” she says.

Montgomery County transportation officials believe it would cost about $350 million to design, engineer and build the extension.

“For the same amount of money, we can do much more to implement bus rapid transit along 355 to provide better options for people than a brand new highway,” says Blynn.

“We support public transit as a priority means of travel by building the Corridor Cities Transitway, initiating rapid transit vehicles through Montgomery County, increase MARC train to full passenger service on the Brunswick Line and finish the Purple Line,” writes Margaret Schoap of the Coalition for Transit Alternatives to Midcounty Highway Extended (TAME) in talking points shared with WTOP.

The Corridor Cities Transitway is another project in which Montgomery County would set up a bus rapid transit network to connect the Shady Grove Metro station to the Metropolitan Grove MARC station, then connect to COMSAT in Clarksburg.

The network would have bus-only lanes, offering another option to the Midcounty Highway, as a way to bypass I-270 and Md. 355 congestion.

Currently only phase one has received funding. The status of the connection to Clarksburg remains unclear.

On Monday, Gov. Martin O’Malley made a $400 million commitment to the Purple Line, and Maryland Transportation Secretary Jim Smith met with the Federal Transit Administration on Tuesday about federal funding.

“We believe in protecting the last remaining high bio-diverse wetlands, interior forests and stream valleys in North Germantown-Greenway Park, which help make up Seneca Creek Watershed, and protecting Whetstone Run Watershed in Montgomery Village,” writes Schoap in her talking points.

“We also believe in preserving well-established residential neighborhoods in Montgomery Village, Gaithersburg and Germantown,” writes Schoap.

Commuter Simmons says he’s seen traffic in the town multiply threefold.

“With all due respect to the environmentalists, the roads have to be much better than they are right now,” says Simmons.

Schoap, Blynn and Miller all plan to testify on Wednesday evening.

So when could drivers expect to see an extended Midcounty Highway?

Not anytime soon, says Johnston.

After the public hearing and comment period, the Department of Transportation will lobby the county executive to include design money in the budget. Design would take about three years, then money would need to be found for construction.

Montgomery County would fund the project.

“Best case scenario is that design takes three years and construction takes another three years. So six years would be the best case,” says Johnston.

“I am not sure the money is there for all of that in this current fiscal situation.”

When asked, Johnston said he’d be ecstatic if the Midcounty Extension were built and open in 10 years.

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