Driving west on River Road, past Potomac Village shopping center and the Potomac Village Post Office can be a harrowing experience.
The morning and evening commutes can quickly turn into a game of "chicken" as drivers race to merge from two lanes into one as the road passes the post office. A road improvement project designed in part to alleviate the situation may be simply pushing the problem further down the road - and right into Potomac Elementary School.
The project was designed to alleviate the bottleneck just west of the intersection of River and Falls roads, as the road narrowed from two lanes to one as it sloped downhill and over Rock Run, according to Chuck Gischlar, spokesman for the Maryland State Highway Administration.
That expanse will now remain two lanes wide to the post office, with the right lane becoming a turn-only lane onto Gary Road once it passes the post office. The concern is that instead of drivers racing each other as the road narrows to one lane before the post office, creating a turn only lane will move that traffic pattern further down the road and just one block east of Potomac Elementary School.
In a letter dated Nov. 16 Diana Conway, president of the Potomac Elementary School PTA wrote: "the dedicated right turn lane (onto Gary Road), if it is not respected, extends into the deceleration lane for our school." This creates a potential hazard as drivers in the right lane accelerate to get over to the left lane just as parents and school buses approaching Potomac Elementary are slowing down to turn right onto the school's property.
To address that concern state highway will mark the turning lane onto Gary Road as a right turn only lane by using signage and striping that is in excess of what is normal in such a situation, according to Gischlar, but Conway remains unconvinced.
As she noted in her Nov. 16 letter, "drivers everywhere regularly use shoulders, bike lanes, and other roadbed... as passing lanes - regardless of striping or signage.” She is concerned that parents and bus drivers will be slowing down in the same space drivers continuing up River Road will be speeding up to merge.
"It's a failure of thinking, of forethought (by SHA), of not thinking of the unintended consequences of a project," Conway said.
Gischlar stressed that state highway did consider Potomac Elementary's location when designs were put together, but is also working to accommodate the concerns of residents including those of the Potomac Elementary parents. "We do look at the full picture - at developments and schools and everything in the vicinity of a project," said Gischlar.
"Once the project is complete if we have a situation where there are consistent violators of the signage that is posted, it will be a matter of [police] enforcement," Gischlar added.
"If all of that doesn't work I think they will put in plastic tubular markers," that automobiles would have to physically drive through, said Maryland Senator Robert Garagiola (D-15), who has had discussions with SHA over the issue. "I think (Conway) raises a lot of good, valid concerns."
In addition to improving the traffic pattern, the SHA project was designed to reduce flooding of that section of road by installing a larger culvert beneath the road and by widening and deepening the streambed, according to Gischlar.
"It's our way of killing a few birds with one stone," said Gischlar. "One of those pipes (currently under River Road) is mostly clogged, so every time there is a really big storm the water backs up and washes over the road," creating as much as four inches of flooding on the road surface, according to Gischlar.
Some residents were alarmed, however, when they first saw the number and size of pipes that were laid on the side of River Road. At a West Montgomery Citizens Association meeting in early November, residents noted that those pipes were both wider and longer than they had anticipated.
If the pipes were laid end to end they would stifle aquatic life in the stream, a situation that could be more harmful there in "the extreme headwaters" of the Rock Run, according to Ginny Barnes, member of the West Montgomery Citizen's Association (WMCCA). Those fears were put largely to rest, after members of the WMCCA met with SHA officials and circulated a report to their members, according to George Barnes.
"I don't think it's an issue for right now," said George Barnes, also a WMCCA member.
The streambed will also be deepened and widened to address the flooding concerns.
"You have to worry about the human environment too," said Gischlar. "The flooding that occurs there is a safety hazard that we need to address."
The project will also reduce the grade of the slopes surrounding the stream to reduce the amount of sediment and storm runoff that goes into the watershed, according to Gischlar, and the surrounding area and streambanks will be replanted with native shrubs and grasses.
Currently construction is on hold while surveyors recalculate the height of certain aspects of the topography, according to Gischlar, and is set to resume on Dec. 11. The goal is to be finished by March 1, at which point were the project not completed construction would be suspended until June 15 so as not to interfere with fish that spawn in the stream at that time.