Planning Board OKs Falls Road Path

Planning Board OKs Falls Road Path

Public Works and Transportation sticks to plans for east side.

Department of Public Works and Transportation Planners say that the construction of a proposed four-mile bicycle path linking Potomac and Rockville along Falls Road is still at least six years off, but the project passed an early hurdle Aug. 4 at the Montgomery County Planning Board.

Planning Board members voted 4-0 to support Public Works and Transportation’s plan for the path. Commissioner John Robinson was absent.

Under county planning rules, all government-initiated projects — from sidewalks to schools — must go before the Planning Board for a “mandatory referral.” The Board takes recommendations from its staff and votes to support or oppose the project, normally incorporating the staff’s recommendations. But such votes are only a recommendation and are not binding.

Still, a Planning Board blessing is a significant step forward for the project, which bicycle groups and Potomac and Rockville leaders support but has met opposition from residents along the east side of Falls Road where the proposed path would go.

The proposed eight-foot wide shared-use path would run continuously on the east side from River Road in Potomac Village to Dunster Road at the Rockville city limit. Planners consider it a “missing piece” that would link the existing Falls Road Bike Path south of River, which leads to MacArthur Boulevard and the C&O Canal towpath, with Rockville’s Millennium Trail, which originates at Dunster.

No sidewalks or shoulders exist for most of that stretch, which includes the Potomac Library, the Potomac Community Center, the Bullis School, and several places of worship. The east side of Falls Road is the same side as the library and the community center.

“THIS PROJECT has been in the master plan for 20 years and time has arrived for it to move forward,” said Betsy Thompson, speaking on behalf of the City of Rockville’s Department of Recreation and Parks, in testimony to the Board.

Thompson noted that Rockville has built several sidewalks and shared-use paths beginning in 2002, including a path along Wootton Parkway, a path along Falls from Wootton Parkway to the Rockville town center, and the Millennium Trail, a “bicycle beltway” for the city.

“Before construction of the paths in Rockville, we also had skeptical residents who said nobody was going to use it. We kind of believed, ‘build it and they will come,’ and it really has proven to be successful,” Thompson said. She recalled an older man picking up a bike map who said that the new paths have made him and avid biker. “He said prior to us building the path along Wootton Parkway he couldn’t even get out of his neighborhood but now he can get from that path just about anywhere,” Thompson said.

Carrie Sanders, a transportation planner for Rockville said that beyond providing a safe route for pedestrians and bicyclists, the path would help ease congestion as downtown Rockville undergoes rapid development.

Jack Cochrane, chair of Montgomery Bicycle advocates said that the Falls Road path is a top priority both for his organization and for Montgomery County Bicycle Advisory Committee. His group believes that the path should be eight feet wide for its entire length — the proposed path narrows to six feet in places — and that construction of the path should anticipate a subsequent widening of Falls Road to provide on-road bike lanes for more serious cyclists.

Refuting some residents’ concerns that a path that closely parallels the road could still be the site of serious pedestrian accidents, Cochrane noted that more than 90 percent of pedestrians struck by cars are either crossing the road or walking in it and that more than half of the remainder are waiting at bus stops.

“The fact that people walk and bike on Falls Road now despite the risk highlights the need for the path,” he said.

William Michie, speaking on behalf of the Rockville Bicycle Advisory Committee took a broader view.

“The reason we advocate is a lot more than health and travel,” he said. “It’s just a nicer way to live. When you leave your car behind, you walk or you bike, it’s just a nicer way to live than always depending upon your car.”

ABSENT FROM the meeting were the dozens of residents along Falls Road who vehemently opposed the path at a June 20 public meeting at the Potomac Community Center.

Those residents said that the path unnecessarily intrudes on their property, wouldn’t be safe, and wouldn’t be used enough to justify the estimated $10 million price tag.

Those concerns fit into a complex debate about whether to build the path on the east or west side of Falls or to build it partly on both sides and introduce crossing points.

The Department of Public Works and Transportation has strongly opposed any option that includes crossings, saying that they compromise safety — one of the project’s main goals.

Over the past three decades, several pedestrians have been killed at Falls Road Bike Path crossings south of River Road. A recently completed project removed all but one of those crossings.

Building on the west side would not resolve residents’ concerns about their properties, said Michael Mitchell, the Public Works and Transportation Planner overseeing the Falls Road project — the same complaints would come from residents on the west side of Falls.

The Planning Board supported 14 of 15 staff recommendations in their final vote, but struck the final recommendation, which stated that Public Works and Transportation should further study the use of existing right-of-way on the west side of Falls for part of the path route.

Public Works and Transportation studied options on the west side as part of initial planning for the path, but has decided that an all-east-side path is safer and more useful, despite having less available right-of-way.

DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC WORKS AND Transportation Deputy Director Edgar Gonzalez spoke in opposition to the staff recommendation to study right-of-way on the west side.

“Studying things forever is nice for planners but its not very nice for implementers of projects. We want to move on quickly and do things quickly and get them done so that the general public makes use for the amenities that are in master plans,” he said.

“We want to be working with you in sync. And having to come back and say well we’re not going to do it, that does not sound good.”

The Board supported that position. Perdue said that she didn’t see evidence that the benefits of studying the west-side right-of-way justified the additional time and cost it would entail.

Following the vote, Gonzalez added, “To City of the Rockville and the citizens that came here to support this project, I thank them very much, but I urge them to be involved throughout the process, because it ain’t going to be easy to obtain right of way in that area.”