In which Roger Schlegel’s close analysis of the traffic studies leads him to the conclusion that “the next logical step would be to begin considering other kinds of site development with minimal impacts on peak-hour traffic.” Here, we give you the Introduction to his full 19-page analysis, with a link to read the rest, including charts, diagrams, and suggestions for logical alternatives to the current plan.
When Neighborhood Development Corporation (NDC), presented its draft site plan for Takoma Junction in October 2017 and its revised site plan in April 2018, the required accompanying traffic study still wasn’t completed. Early critiques of the site plan thus couldn’t take into consideration the development’s impact on traffic, although it seemed that the driveway location and the truck lay-by could create traffic or safety hazards. Thinking that this was NDC’s “final offer,” I initially concluded that the Council should vote “no” because the revised site plan failed to respond adequately to ten of the eleven requirements set forth in the Council’s October 25, 2017 resolution. While the facade seemed acceptable, I soon realized that its height was incongruous with that of the Turner building and other buildings nearby.
As the process unfolded after April 4, there seemed reason to hope that the site plan could be revised to better meet the project goals outlined in the Development Agreement and the October 25 Resolution. Therefore, along with many other residents, I focused on suggesting adjustments that could address apparent shortcomings, particularly with respect to the size of the public space, the plan for deliveries and trash, and the total square footage. NDC’s responses to Council questions during work sessions indicated that the developer was unable or unwilling to make meaningful changes. Despite this impression, I collaborated with another resident, Byrne Kelly, who drew up an alternate 34,000 square-foot site plan that, in our view, better responded to the project goals and that could likely be profitable for NDC.
The completion of the traffic studies in mid-June changed everything for me. These studies were conducted by A. Morton Thomas (hired by the City) and by The Traffic Group (TTG), hired by NDC. Between June 19 and July 3, I carefully examined the studies, along with presentations and Council work sessions, to grasp fully what they reveal and how they are being interpreted.
What I’ve concluded is that if the City Council had had studies like these in hand in 2014 or 2016, it never would have sought a retail/office development anything like what NDC has proposed. The TTG study indicates that NDC’s commercial development would push Junction traffic to the breaking point, regardless of how deliveries or parking are handled. The study obscures that fact, though, by projecting that future off-site, “background,” developments would cause intersection failure; my analysis below calls that key assumption into question.
The studies make clear that the NDC design — especially the configuration of the lay-by and the public space — relies upon public funding for major changes to the junction of Grant, Carroll, Ethan Allen and Sycamore Avenues. The City Council is being advised that these “intersection improvements” (a) are necessary for other reasons and (b) will improve Junction traffic. Again, both of these assumptions must be called into question. As annoying as peak-hour delays can be, the Junction intersections are rated as having “acceptable” levels of service at present. While the intersection reconfigurations recommended by AMT and TTG would be projected to lessen peak-hour delays in the short term, they would immediately increase the total volume of traffic flowing through the 410 and 195 corridors in Takoma Park. As area drivers responded to the improved intersection capacity, the reconfigured intersection would generate still more traffic by inducing more trips along these routes — and could possibly generate new north-south routes involving Sycamore, Columbia, Elm, and Poplar Avenues.
Regardless, the City Council is being advised to vote “yes” for the NDC site plan in order to get the State Highway Administration (SHA) to study intersection improvements. However, the relationship seems to be the opposite: it’s not that site plan approval is needed to get a new intersection; rather, a new intersection design is needed to make the site plan feasible! Obviously, the possibility of leveraging public funding for changes in the transportation infrastructure is not sufficient reason to vote “for” a particular development. And serious concerns exist about the advisability of making such changes, among them:
– How long would it take for SHA to approve, design, and schedule intersection changes?
– How much would an intersection reconfiguration cost?
– How much would the City have to pay to make such a project happen?
– How much time and attention from the Council and the public would be demanded by a process to evaluate and respond to designs for intersection reconfigurations?
– How would a changed intersection affect mobility for bus riders, cyclists, and pedestrians?
– How would a changed intersection affect cut-through traffic in residential neighborhoods?
– How long would it be until induced demand returned traffic delays to their previous levels?
– What effects would permanent increases in traffic volume have on other areas of the City?
– What environmental impacts would result from increases in intersection capacity?
– How would changes affect visibility and viability for businesses on Carroll Avenue?
– How would changes affect the historic character of the Junction, which is the chief bulwark against future widening of Route 410 through Takoma Park?
– On what basis can we conclude that traffic is “bound to keep getting worse”? Given investments in the Purple Line, intersection changes at Ethan Allen and New Hampshire Avenues, possible establishment of a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) corridor on New Hampshire Avenue, increasing use of biking as a means of commuting, and the advent of driverless vehicle technology, is it possible that congestion is at its peak right now and about to start declining?
Given what we know, as well as what we don’t know, the wise course of action for the City Council is to vote “no” vote on this NDC site plan. Based on the traffic studies alone, the next logical step would be to begin considering other kinds of site development with minimal impacts on peak-hour traffic. Such uses could include small-scale retail, housing, certain kinds of institutional uses, continued parking, a park, or a multi-use pavilion.
– Roger Schlegel
(Member, Takoma Junction Task Force, 2010-2012)