Tag Archives: M-83

M-83 Supporters Get a Win

By Adam Pagnucco.

Back on November 3, David Lublin wrote that the County Council had placed the planned Upcounty highway M-83 “in the freezer.”  We agree with that take with one addition: if and when M-83 comes out of that freezer, it will be ready to serve.  That’s because instead of killing the road, the resolution passed by the County Council has preserved it for a future county government to build.

To understand what has happened, one has to consider the goals and challenges of road supporters and opponents.  The supporters want to fund its construction.  That’s tough because the road will cost roughly half a billion dollars and the county is reducing its annual issues of general obligation bonds to trim future debt service.  Opponents want to remove the road from the county’s master plans.  They believed they had a chance to do that since six Council Members said they opposed M-83 during the 2014 elections.  But that has not happened.

The council’s resolution, passed on Halloween, did not implement the agendas of either side.  Its action language is worth reading word for word.

The County Council for Montgomery County, Maryland approves the following resolution:

  1. The Council supports expanded capacity on I-270, the Corridor Cities Transitway, Bus Rapid Transit on or near MD 355, and improvements on MD 355. These improvements will provide significant, immediate relief for Upcounty residents. These improvements align with our economic development strategies, providing the broadest and most diverse benefits, and minimize impervious surface, stormwater runoff, carbon emissions, and other environmental impacts.

  2. The Council directs the Montgomery County Planning Board not to assume additional road capacity from the northern extension of Midcounty Highway when calculating the land use – transportation balance in future master plans, including but not limited to the upcoming Gaithersburg East Master Plan and the Germantown Plan for Town Sector Zone. This step ensures that any new development allowed under these plans does not rely on the northern extension of Midcounty Highway, while retaining the right-of-way for this extension in these plans.

Road supporters did not like the omission of M-83 from the list of projects supported by the council.  They should have no argument with the idea of not including M-83’s capacity in calculating infrastructure needs for future development.  That could help prevent the road from filling up immediately after it’s built (if it’s built).  But the last sentence referring to “retaining the right-of-way for this extension” is a big win for supporters of M-83.

Why does this matter?  A casual perusal of land ownership maps from the State Department of Assessments and Taxation shows massive county land holdings in the vicinity of M-83’s preferred alternative.  Identifying every one of the dozens of parcels owned by the county and county-affiliated entities there would be a time-consuming research project.

A sample of county-owned land for M-83 near Watkins Mill Road and Great Seneca Creek.

Instead, we asked the county Department of Transportation’s project manager for M-83 how much of the right-of-way for the road’s preferred alternative was currently owned by the county and state.  We received this response.

Dear Mr. Pagnucco:

Thank you for your interest in the Midcounty Corridor Study (M-83) project.  Per our preliminary assessment, approximately 60% ROW for M-83 has been dedicated or reserved and another 24% is in parklands owned by the County’s Parks.

Should you have any questions, please contact me.

Best regards,

Gwo-Ruey (Greg) Hwang, P.E.

Capital Projects Manager

That’s right, folks – the county and Park and Planning together control 84% of the right-of-way for M-83 right now.

Why does this matter?  Let’s remember the history of the Intercounty Connector.  The highway had been in master plans for decades.  As of 1997, the county and state owned more than half the right-of-way for the ICC.  The following year, Governor Parris Glendening announced he was killing the project and later told the state government to sell part of its right-of-way.  But the state did not sell off all its right-of-way and in fact purchased some of it after Glendening’s announcement.  Continued state ownership of the ICC’s right-of-way made it much easier for Glendening’s successor, Governor Bob Ehrlich, to reverse his decision and begin construction.

So it may be with M-83.  The county’s holdings of right-of-way for the project may be even greater as a percentage of its acreage than the state’s holdings of the ICC were a decade before its construction.  The resolution by the council explicitly calls for “retaining the right-of-way” in the master plans, suggesting that the county’s holdings will not be sold.  And the road has not been removed from any master plans, a key goal of opponents.

M-83 supporters should have hope.  M-83 opponents should beware.  Both sides have a lot of work to do in next year’s elections.

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Council Places M-83 in the Freezer

By a 7-2 vote with Nancy Floreen (D-At Large) and Craig Rice (D-2) opposed, the Montgomery County Council approved a resolution sponsored by Councilmember Hans Riemer (D-At Large) telling the Planning Board to ignore that the controversial M-83 road in making future plans.

The controversy pits Upcounty residents against smart growth and environmental opponents of new roads. Many Upcounty residents in communities like Clarksburg would love to see the long promised alternative route to their communities built in order to alleviate excruciating traffic. Environmentalists and smart growthers think that new roads promote the use of cars and sprawl.

Compromise or Just Spin?

The resolution is being presented by Riemer as a compromise because it keeps M-83 in the Master Plan but tells the Planning Board to act as if it will never be built. Nancy Floreen outlined the politics of spin surrounding this resolution in explaining her “no” vote:

There is nothing in here that says we are going to build M-83. So that is a win for the environmentalist, I guess. And, there is nothing in here that says we are going to build M-83, which is a win for the UpCounty.  I suppose, I should be happy about this because we leave M-83 on the master plan for the future, which is a good thing. But, because we are doing something that is designed to fuel public perception one way or the other, I think it is just plain irresponsible. It is a gratuitous slap in the face to the people who relied on the master plan. And for the people who are opposed to it, it continues the argument ad infinitum.

Indeed, the resolution in amenable to being messaged in a variety of ways to different audiences. Environmentalists and smart growthers can be told it all but kills the road for the time being. M-83 supporters will be told that it’s still in the Master Plan and that the anti-road people aren’t happy for this reason.

Road Opponents Carried the Day But this Street Fight Continues

Riemer, an M-83 opponent, is deeply misguided to the extent he believes that the sop of maintaining M-83 in the Master Plan will appease road supporters. They’re not fooled. The “it’s a compromise” argument only annoys because it comes across as disingenuous to people who wanted this road built yesterday.

Marilyn Balcombe, President and CEO of the Gaithersburg-Germantown Chamber of Commerce, is campaigning for at at-large seat on the County Council and making this an issue:

[T]o invoke the Paris Climate Agreement for any project that someone may disagree with is a very slippery slope. . . . Does this proposed resolution mean that we are never building any more roads in the County?

Not a bad substantive policy question in this election year.

Politically, the impact of this issue remains unclear. It’s a great way to rally Upcounty residents who want the road. But how many vote in the key Democratic primary?

Environmentalists are indeed are unhappy that the county didn’t just kill the road outright. Another county council can take the road out of the freezer and thaw it out. They have a lot of support Downcounty but it’s more diffuse pro-environmentalism rather than opposition to this particular project. Can they rally people beyond the small set of usual suspects to oppose the road?

A more likely strategy is that environmental and smart growth groups endorse against pro-M-83 candidates but mention other more compelling issues or general concerns about climate change in their messaging to voters.

Time to Get Off the Pot

While Riemer presents the resolution as a compromise that leaves all unhappy, another way to see this decision is that they decided not to decide. Often, waiting is a good decision. In the case, however, it has the strong whiff of kicking the can down the road to no purpose as the major fact we can expect to change is that traffic will get worse.

The “solution” that our elected officials voted for is really no solution at all. If councilmembers are against the road for whatever reason–the environment, smart growth, the lack of funds–they should just tell the people by killing it. Similarly, supporters should demand a resolution that actively prepares for it and be ready to explain how they will fund it.

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