Study finds transit route would have minimal environmental effect

State agency analyzes three changes to Gaithersburg project

December 01, 2010|By Katherine Shaver, The Washington Post

Routing a proposed transitway closer to the Kentlands and two major developments planned for Gaithersburg would have minimal environmental impact because trains or buses would run along or down the middle of existing roads, according to a new state study.

The Maryland Transit Administration analyzed three changes to the route long planned for a Corridor Cities Transitway to better serve people who will live and work in the homes, stores and offices planned for the Crown Farm and "science city" developments west of Interstate 270 near Shady Grove Road.

The new route also would put a station closer to the Kentlands Square Shopping Center, which could someday be redeveloped into higher-density homes and shops, officials said.

The route would run closer to farm buildings that could be declared historic and would destroy up to nine acres of forest and less than an acre of wetlands, the study found. Impact to wildlife habitat would be minor because the area is largely built out. Rerouting the transitway to avoid the former farms would leave the new jobs and homes planned for them farther from transit stations, the study found.

"The alternate alignments have very little impact on the natural environment," said Rick Kiegel, the state's project manager on the study.

The project's environmental impacts have never been considered a problem but were required to be analyzed under federal law. However, the question of whether a transitway would attract enough riders in sprawling upper Montgomery County to justify its construction cost of up to $1 billion has been considered its weak point.

Plans to create a $10 billion scientific research center in Gaithersburg could triple the number of jobs in the area to at least 60,000 and, with the 9,000 new housing units also envisioned, would create the kind of density a transitway needs, local planners say. Much of the development could not go forward until the transitway is built.

The proposed Corridor Cities Transitway would run 14 to 16 miles between the Shady Grove Metro Station and the Comsat building south of the Clarksburg Town Center. It would aim to take drivers off heavily congested I-270 through upper Montgomery. A busway is estimated to cost $533 million. Light rail is estimated to cost nearly $1 billion.

Following a public hearing on the environmental study Dec. 15, local officials expect Gov. Martin O'Malley to decide the transitway's route and whether it would be a light rail line or express buses in their own lanes. The Montgomery County Council has endorsed light rail.

"This shows there are no environmental impediments to the alternate alignments," said Marilyn Balcombe, president of the Gaithersburg-Germantown Chamber of Commerce, which has pushed the transitway. "For us, it's the last hurdle we needed to get over to go forward."

Environmental groups have been critical of another state plan to ease I-270 congestion by adding express toll lanes. However, Jack Cahalan, spokesman for the Maryland Department of Transportation, said the state is focused on building transit first while continuing to plan less expensive I-270 improvements, such as new interchanges that would be built to accommodate any future widening. Adding lanes to I-270 would cost about $3 billion, he said.

Tight budgets could hurt the transitway's chances. State transportation officials are seeking federal money to build a light rail Purple Line between Bethesda and New Carrollton and a light rail Red Line in Baltimore. Transit analysts have said it would be highly unusual for a state to win federal money for three transit projects at once.

Balcombe said the chamber prefers light rail but would support bus rapid transit if necessary.

"I think the community is starting to understand that [light rail] may not be an option with the resources we have in the state," Balcombe said. "If the choice is to wait 20 years for light rail or get bus rapid transit in three years, we'd take bus rapid transit hands down."

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