Planning Board Hears Recommendation for Improving Pedestrian, Metro Commuter Access to NavyMed
Shallow pedestrian tunnel; Metro access elevators on east side of Rockville Pike recommended by local, state and federal stakeholders as military hospital merger nears.
In response to the pending merger of Walter Reed Army Medical Center with Bethesda's National Naval Medical Center in September of 2011, local, state and federal stakeholders are recommending an option for improving bicycle, pedestrian and Metro commuter access to the National Naval Medical Center.
The merger is part of the federal base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process. The Montgomery County Planning Board was presented Monday evening with the results of a study lead by the Montgomery County Department of Transportation that evaluated four potential options to ease access.
Currently, the Medical Center Metro station and bus stops are located on the west side of Rockville Pike, necessitating Metro and bus commuters – along with other pedestrians and bicyclists -- to cross busy Rockville Pike at grade to access NavyMed or neighborhoods on the east side of the pike. According to the staff report, there are 2,500 pedestrian and bicycle crossings in the areas every weekday, with the number expected to jump to 7,500 by 2030 largely due to the merger of the two military hospitals.
The option recommended by planning staff and the numerous stakeholders, including the county transportation department and the State Highway Administration who participated in the study, would involve constructing a shallow pedestrian tunnel beneath Rockville Pike, acting as a go-between from the National Naval Medical Center and the National Institutes of Health on the west side. The option would also install deep elevators to the Medical Center Metrorail Station on the east side of Rockville Pike, connecting the station to the Navy side of the street without Metro commuters having to cross Rockville Pike at grade. The option would also extend the southbound left turn lane into NavyMed to allow more room for cars to queue.
The other potential projects studied were an option that would install the pedestrian tunnel only, along with the extended southbound turn lane. A third option would have submerged Rockville Pike beneath the intersection at South Drive and South Wood Road – which provides access to the National Institutes of Health and NavyMed – allowing pedestrians to cross using a bridge. A fourth, "no-build" option was also evaluated.
At Monday's presentation, planning staff and the county Department of Transportation told the Planning Board that the option that combined the deep elevators with the pedestrian tunnel was preferred because it would decrease travel times for Metro commuters and separate some pedestrian and bicycle traffic from vehicle traffic on the pike.
But at an estimated cost of between $48 and $58 million, funding for the project still remains unclear. $20 million in federal funds is penciled in for the project through the federal Defense Access Roads program. But even more uncertain is the fate of a $300 million federal appropriation intended for transportation improvements near BRAC-impacted military hospitals.
Planning staff recommended to the planning board that should funding remain uncertain, the elevators should be prioritized over the pedestrian tunnel because it would have the largest impact in reducing the number of pedestrians and bicyclists crossing at grade. But some residents of the area advocated for options that would allow non-Metro commuters to more easily cross the street, increasing walkability in the neighborhood.
"People who don't want to wait for the elevators or people who are not using the Metro are just going to cross at grade," said Deborah Michaels, a resident of the neighborhood and a member of the Coalition of Military Medical Center Neighbors.
Richard Hoye, of the Action Committee for Transit, advocated for the elevators to be prioritized. "Providing enhanced access to and from the Medical Center Metrorail platform through a direct elevator connection from the east side of [Rockville Pike] will provide the most improvement in pedestrian travel time, disability access, increase transit usage and provide a much needed improvement in Metrorail passenger safety," Hoye said.
The Planning Board voted to transmit the planning staff comments to the county Department of Transportation and to include issues raised at the presentation. DOT will next present the study findings to the BRAC Implementation Committee on Dec. 21.