Issues to Watch in Potomac

Issues to Watch in Potomac

The Techway

<bt>The Techway is the hydra of local issues. Every time one part of it is beaten back, another sprouts.

The Techway is the shorthand term for a proposed new bridge across the Potomac River, and its accompanying four-to-six-lane highway to get to it which, depending on the track, would split Potomac to varying degrees.

While Montgomery County officials oppose the bridge and Techway, others continue to lobby for it. There is no right-of-way set aside for such a project.

There are many possible alignments but most involve the highway stretching from the bridge to the vicinity of I-370 in Rockville, and some point out, to the proposed end of the ICC. A corresponding highway would connect the bridge with the Fairfax County Parkway or Route 28 in Virginia.

Proponents believe that it would reduce traffic on the American Legion Bridge and allow a freer flow of goods and people. Its most common name, the Techway stems from this idea of connecting the biotech firms in Montgomery County with the high tech firms in Fairfax County.

Opponents point out that hundreds of homes, on both sides of the river, would need to be torn down and many existing communities divided in order to complete the project.

Many people have environmental concerns about the possible effects of a new highway and bridge as well. Blockhouse Point in Potomac, a environmentally sensitive and historic area.

They also believe that traffic relief would be negligible and that such a bridge and highway project would only serve to create sprawl.

Most residents in Potomac fall into this camp.

The bridge was the subject of a federal study commissioned by U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.). At least 15 possible alignments were proposed as feasible. However, once Wolf saw aerial photographs of where the bridge might go, and the number of homes and communities that would be affected, he canceled the study.

But there are other studies. In 2003, two measures came before the General Assembly which some suspected could have lead to a Techway, but both were defeated.

This year, Techway related projects were relatively sparse in Maryland, with most major roads focus being placed in the InterCounty Connector.

But, on the other side of the river …

The Virginia Department of Transportation finalized an "Origin and Destination Report of traffic on the American Legion Bridge." This report used laser cameras to capture the license plate numbers of cars as they crossed the bridge, and again as they exited the Beltway. The license plate number was then compared to the home zip code of the car, assuming it to be the zip code of origin.

The study showed, to no one's surprise, that commuters do use the American Legion Bridge. Results beyond that are subject to substantial spin.

Proponents of a bridge were looking for a large number of commuters going from western Maryland to Western Virginia, the people most likely to use a new river crossing.

They were able to find them, but opponents of a bridge were quick to point out that the numbers were almost meaningless. West, in Maryland was defined at Georgia Avenue and in Virginia as the Beltway.

Opponents of the bridge were quick to point out that a commuter driving from Tyson's Corner, Va. to parts of Bethesda inside the beltway would be a west-to-west commute.

Calls for a new bridge and meetings to discuss alternatives came on the day of the report's release, lead by U.S. Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.).

<sh>Affordable Housing

<bt>Like much of the nation, housing prices in Montgomery County have been growing quickly for the past few years. In Montgomery County, it has reached the point that a family making the county's median income cannot afford a house at the county's median price.

The county has an "inclusionary zoning" program which requires developers to include some affordable housing in developments of more than 35 units.

Last year, multiple proposals to reform the program in an attempt to create more affordable housing were put forward by different members of the County Council.

Then-Council President Michael Subin (D-At Large) decided that, rather than deal with the issue piecemeal, the council should take a comprehensive look at the program. The result was a 104-page report issued in February by Council staff with recommendations for how to reform virtually every facet of the proposal.

In April Council member Nancy Floreen (D-At Large) jumped out ahead of her colleagues and issued a summary of her ideas for how to reform the program. Floreen has not yet released the specific legislation to reform the program, but it is expected that the council will be debating the issue throughout the fall.

<sh>The Kendale Connection

<bt>For several years, the Board of Education has been planning to put an addition at Seven Locks Elementary School. Once complete, this addition would make room for 150-200 students from Potomac Elementary, putting both schools at about 450 students.

This winter, the Board recognized that it had a piece of land, already in the boundary area of Seven Locks Elementary, on Kendale Road. School board staff estimated that it would be $3 million cheaper to build a new school on Kendale then to renovate the old school.

The new school would still be large enough to accommodate the students from Potomac Elementary as well. But now parents, who had initially been in favor of the new facility, are balking at the size.

Parents thought the school would be built in order to accommodate about 500 students, the number in MCPS's ideal range for the size of an Elementary School.

But proposals call for the school to be built with a core (core facilities include things like the cafeteria, offices and library) that will be able to support 740 students.

Both Kendale residents and Seven Locks parents are upset at the size. School officials explain that is the size of the last five Elementary schools which they have built and the school will still house the same number of students.

The Board is currently engaged in the initial planning stages of the school and has promised to include community input in its design process.

<sh>Toll Lanes

<bt>How much would commuters be willing to pay for a congestion-free lane? The Maryland Department of Transportation is studying just that, but Montgomery County officials say they’re asking the wrong question.

Under a proposal put forward by Maryland Secretary Of Transportation Robert Flanagan, the state would add one lane to the Beltway for its entire length in Maryland. That lane, and one of the existing lanes would then be turned into toll lanes, where all drivers would have to pay.

Similar plans are in moving forward for I-270, the Baltimore Beltway and a section of I-95 north of Baltimore.

In the end, there would be a five-lane Beltway, but only three of the lanes would be free. This contrasts with the proposals in other areas for HOT lanes, “high occupancy toll lanes,” which would allow carpools to travel for free.

The proposal conflicts with Montgomery County transportation planning which call for encouraging carpools, and with several area master Plans, including Potomac’s.

Many members of the general public and public officials have expressed dismay at the idea of charging residents which would make the lanes unavailable to poorer residents and create social inequity.

The issue came before the Park and Planning Commission, which recommended that the state also study carpool options for the project.

It also came before the County Council’s Transportation and Environment Committee. After hearing the plans, the County Council sent a letter to Flanagan expressing their desire to see the study include HOV and HOT lane alternatives. The letter further explained that Express Toll Lanes are not consistent with the County master Plan, and while their study may be valuable for comparison's sake, it is not recommended for further study.

The letter also restated the council's desire to see the bi-county transitway (formerly the Purple Line) placed as the top transportation priority for the corridor, and a desire to see a transit alternative extended into Virginia.

The study is expected to continue through the summer and the state hopes to have formal public hearings on the proposal this fall.

<sh>Crowded Schools

<bt>Students at most Potomac public schools are packed in tightly, but according to the County’s equations, they’re just fine.

The formulas the county uses to determine the school’s capacity are set by the county council and by law a school is permitted to be at 105 percent of capacity before it is considered crowded.

Relief is planned, but the cost is high and slow in coming. Last fall, Superintendent Jerry Weast released a plan to build and modernize the county’s schools over five year at a cost of almost $1 Billion.

The first year of that plan is coming soon, and the money situation has materialized. The State was asked for $59.9 million to assist with school construction, but only gave the county $9 million.

The County Council continued its tradition of assigning top budget priority to the school system, by giving the schools $1.6 billion of its $3.3 billion budget for the fiscal year which started July 1.

Perhaps the most crowded school in the Potomac area is Potomac Elementary. The school built for about 400 students has about 600. Relief for this school is intended to come from expanding Seven Locks and shifting some students to it, but that plan has created its own controversy (see Kendale Connection).

<sh>Exploding Houses

<bt>Last year, Potomac made national headlines in a dispute between "Nightline" host Ted Koppel and his neighbors on Ardnave Place over the size of their houses, and whether or not some of the new construction reached the prohibited size of 10,000 square feet.

The case was subsequently settled out of court, but it shed light on the size of the houses now being constructed. Developers who receive approval for new Potomac projects frequently say that the houses they're going to build start at 4,000 square feet.

Houses like those in the Fox Hills development, built in the late 1960 at 2,400-2,800 square feet are rarely seen among market-rate units.

Coupled with the sizes, house prices have been increasing dramatically. The average price for a single family detached house increased by 23 percent between 200o and 2002 according to the most recent data available from Park and Planning. In Potomac, million dollar homes are becoming increasingly common.

Prices have gone up so much that many county workers are finding Montgomery too expensive (see Affordable Housing).