Montgomery passes on transit alternative to M-83 highway
|Opponents gather before the hearing. Photo by author.|
Of all six alternatives for M-83, a proposed highway between Clarksburg and Gaithersburg in Montgomery County, Alternative 9 is the most expensive, environmentally harmful, and the one highway planners most want to build. Despite mounting opposition, the Planning Board rushed to vote in favor of it last Thursday.
The decision went against recommendations from planning staff that the board ask the Montgomery County Department of Transportation (MCDOT) to consider transit as well. Staff detailed Alternative 9's potential environmental impacts, including damage to parkland and the county's Agricultural Reserve.
MCDOT deputy director Edgar Gonzalez cautioned against any delay in choosing an alignment, but admitted that MCDOT has not yet received their permits indicating that Alternative 9 will even pass federal environmental review. Comments from the Environmental Protection Agency indicate that Alternative 9's path through wetlands and stream valleys mean it may not pass Clean Water Act standards.
EPA, one of six federal agencies that will review M-83, also known as Midcounty Highway Extended, released their comments about it the following day, identifying "several areas of concern." To comply with the Clean Water Act, MCDOT would have to evaluate all "practicable alternatives" before choosing the Least Environmentally Damaging Preferred Alternative, which EPA officials feel hasn't occurred.
"While we recognize the importance of the County's Master Plan (Alternative 9) to this project and to the County," reads their response, "for the purposes of the Clean Water Act Section 404 the Corps must evaluate a suite of practicable alternatives based on the overall project purpose and associated impacts regardless of the vision presented in the Master Plan."
Public opposition to M-83 is high. The vast majority of speakers at Thursday night's hearing came from people opposing the new highway and advocating for a transit alternative. Over the summer, the Board received 237 comments from the public, 228 of which were opposed to the highway.
That's not to say there is no support for the highway. Some supporters live along Alignment 4, which would be equally destructive, and they would rather see the road go somewhere else. Others live in transit-poor Clarksburg and are convinced a new road would solve their commuting frustration.
Following four hours of staff and public discussion, the Planning Board had 20 minutes left. Chair Françoise Carrier asked the other board members if they wanted to start deliberations that night. Amy Presley, board member from Clarksburg, insisted they start. It quickly became clear that she had two other votes on her side to approve Alternative 9.
Over objections from the chair and Casey Anderson, she insisted on making a motion to ignore planning staff and the public and vote in Alternative 9 as the Board's preferred alignment.
Everyone appeared stunned by the outcome and speed of the decision. Typically, the Planning Board takes much longer to decide, especially when there's a major disagreement or they are going squarely against staff recommendations and the public. It's equally surprising that they acted without seeing comments from the federal environmental review of the highway, which Gonzalez said he had not brought with him.
M-83 has been in Montgomery County's master plan for 50 years, and MCDOT has been conducting its most recent study for 10 years. Why the rush now?
The primary reason seems to be the drive to "fix" development problems in Clarksburg and make it up to some residents who feel like have been made many undelivered promises. This marks the second time in two months that the Planning Board has disregarded the recommendations of its staff about Clarksburg, the first time being recommendations to protect Ten Mile Creek from new development.
But for an estimated cost of $350 million, M-83 is likely to be an expensive band-aid for Clarksburg's congestion woes. MCDOT itself predicts that there will be more congestion if M-83 is built than if it were to make minor improvements to Route 355.
Clarksburg was built to be a transit-oriented community, but its promised frequent transit service never materialized. For $350 million, the county could make needed improvements to 355 and get their Bus Rapid Transit system moving on that corridor, which the County Council is likely to approve today. This would provide a much longer-lasting way out of congestion for Clarksburg residents.
Gonzalez and MCDOT created a sense of urgency that the board must vote to keep M-83 "on track" with their hopeful schedule, and not slow down to study transit or other less destructive alternatives. We'll find out this spring if the County Executive and County Council will do the same when they decide whether to include the road in their next budget.