11.16.10 Roadside Conspiracies in Takoma Park

This is cross-posted with the Washington Post’s All Opinions Are Local.

Two weeks ago, a firestorm broke out in Takoma Park. It seems that the city council was about to vote on (and probably approve) a road swap with the state of Maryland. Under the deal, the state would take over ownership of Route 410 (Ethan Allen Avenue) and repair the very neglected street. In return, the city would take over Route 787 (Flower Avenue) and get almost $700,000 from the state to turn it into a “green street” with traffic-calming measures, new sidewalks and other beautification improvements. So where’s the rub, you might ask?
Well, it turns out that Route 410 is a four-lane thoroughfare outside of TkPk (where it is called East-West Highway), and only two of the lanes are inside the city. Takoma Parkers – especially those living on or near 410 — smelled a rat. Where city council members saw a great way to improve two streets, residents saw a conspiracy to destroy houses and turn the road — which, admittedly, is a bottleneck for those who simply want to get through the city quickly – into a superhighway.

The listservs lit up. Issues of policy and politics were discussed in minute detail. Terms like “eminent domain” and obscure questions of state obligations and malfeasance were examined. As follow local blogger Gilbert has observed at Granola Park, the issue has generated a great deal more heat than light. Since Gilbert has covered the imbroglio extremely well, I have only a few comments to add:

· It is astounding how quickly Takoma Parkers freaked out over something that they didn’t understand, turning the narrative from a good-faith effort to get two streets’ needs taken care of into a nefarious plot by the state and a sellout by the city. The distrust that underlies the explosion of fear is fully justified. The state (not to mention county) is hostile to cities, both under Maryland law and in actual practice. Neither entity could be expected to give a hoot about our little city and what residents think. The fact that 410 in Takoma Park is in fact a bottleneck provides plenty of incentive for Maryland to want to widen it. As for the city, it’s not so much that anyone thought it was selling us out on purpose. Rather, we consider our local government to be utterly incompetent, with plenty of past evidence to support this view (take a look at our ugly community center, which cost far more than was planned, left off the gym that was supposed to be its central purpose and is filled with stairways to nowhere).

· Takoma Park politics is dominated by its historical center. The city will rise up to protect the sanctity of that area (which also happens to house its wealthier residents). Ward 5 (where I live – the part of the city that sticks up like a finger on a map) is a foster child. It is home to the city’s poorest residents and lowest voter turnout, and most Takoma Parkers probably aren’t even aware it belongs to the city. None of the brouhaha about the road swap considered for a moment what might be important to Ward 5, until I raised the issue on local listservs. Everyone was denouncing the deal without a second thought about poor Flower Avenue. (To be fair, once I did raise the issue, a couple of key Takoma Park activists who don’t live in my ward came to our defense.)

So, where does this come out? Apparently, it doesn’t make a whit of difference whether Takoma Park owns its sections of 410: Either way, if the state wanted to widen it, it could theoretically do so. But it would be legally difficult and expensive, and unified opposition within the city could almost certainly stop it. Also worth noting is that it was Takoma Park, not Maryland, that started the negotiations, so it’s not like the state had illicit designs on 410 and tried to lure us into a trap. As for poor Flower Avenue, that gift isn’t free; notwithstanding $700k to carry out improvements, the city would be taking on future unfunded liabilities to maintain it.

At this point, a frightened city council has pulled back from the brink. The state has promised that 410 wouldn’t be widened “in our lifetimes” but won’t put that in writing, because it doesn’t want to set precedent. And we have no idea whether “decoupling” 410 and 787 will kill the deal entirely or breathe new life into it.

Stay tuned for future episodes of “As Takoma Park Turns,” best chronicled on the aforementioned Granola Park blog.

©2010 Keith Berner

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6 Comments on “11.16.10 Roadside Conspiracies in Takoma Park”

  1. Betsy Broughton Says:

    Thanks for this Keith. I hadn’t followed it and I’m glad to have this assessment.

    Fwiw, many years ago I asked someone why TP didn’t put some speed bumps on Phildelphia speedway and was told the city couldn’t mess with it since it was a piece of a state hiway. If that was/is correct it sort of confirms that TP has minimal real decision making power concerning 410.


  2. Seth Grimes Says:

    Keith, thanks. Putting aside 410, the deal left way too many Flower Avenue points unclear. I sent questions to city staff as follows, with the brief city response after that. I think these are all questions that should have been answered BEFORE the swap resolution went to the council, again regardless of concerns about 410 —

    – Does the city have an estimate of Flower Avenue “green street” costs?

    As described in the council doc,
    http://www.takomaparkmd.gov/clerk/agenda/items/2010/110110-2.pdf : “Both the City of Takoma Park and Montgomery County have expressed interest in
    improving Flower Avenue as a ‘green street’ including sidewalks on both sides of the street, crosswalks, low-impact stormwater facilities, street
    trees, on-street parking where possible, and a repaved roadway for cars, buses and bicycles.”

    – Given Montgomery County’s interest, why is county help contingent, “provided that the City of Takoma Park annexes the remaining portion of the MD 787 right-of-way and maintains the right-of-way in the future”?

    – What form would county help take? Which official spoke for the county? (“Montgomery County officials have indicated that they are supportive of helping with the Flower Avenue ‘green street’ project.”)

    – What is the city’s estimate of on-going ROW maintenance costs for all portions, state and county, that the city is not currently responsible for?

    The response I received from Deputy City Manager Suzanne Ludlow says that the city had left far too many points unclear before presenting the resolution to the council —

    “We don’t have cost estimates yet, partly because we have to see what the community wants. I am writing up the agenda item now that starts the Flower Avenue annexation process and should be able to address the various questions to the extent they can be answered.”


  3. How about an update on the project’s progress or lack thereof and the current cost estimates?


    • Keith Berner Says:

      TkPk took over Flower Ave and a Green Street project is underway. (I’m not sure of the start date or precise current status. There might be info in the City website.)


      • Yes, but hasn’t the unfortunately named Flower Avenue Green Street project gone from costing about $1 million with none of the money coming from the city to now costing $3.1 million with a substantial contribution from the city? Design work, which was supposed to be done by early 2012, still isn’t complete. Who is looking out for the interests of Ward Five?


  4. Keith Berner Says:

    Those of us in Ward 5 are looking out for our interests. (Are you on the Ward 5 listserv?) So is City Councilman Jarrett Smith. I’m in Ward 5, live on Flower Ave and strongly support the project. Apart from cost, what are your concerns?


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