It just ain’t gonna happen, he says, but he can’t promise it won’t.
The State Highway Administration head says the SHA “has absolutely no interest whatsoever in any widening of Route 410 through the city of Takoma Park.”
Such a widening would be “totally inappropriate,” said Neil Pedersen, SHA administrator. Not only would it be counter to current SHA policy, but it would be “virtually impossible” if proposed in the future. He said there was “no chance in our lifetimes,” and three generations beyond.
However, when asked if he would give the city a “legally binding agreement” that Route 410 would never be widened, he said “No,” because he can’t set the precedent.
Pedersen spoke at a city council meeting that looked and sounded much like a congressional hearing. There was a panel of somberly dressed politicians grilling a speech-parsing government official before a packed audience – the biggest crowd of peetybeeties (PTBTs – Pitchfork and Torch-Bearing Townsfolk) the council chambers has entertained in a long, long time.
For those of you who have been dozing under a pile of leaves for a couple of weeks, this special hearing came about when some citizens suddenly realized a deal was imminent to swap Route 410 to the state in exchange for Flower Avenue and $696,000 to renovate Flower. These citizens sent out an alarm – an alarming alarm – to local listserves. Fueled by partial facts, misinformation, and old resentments against both the SHA and the city council, fear spread like, . . . like, . . . rumors on the internet. Protests and complaints came pouring into councilmembers’ mailboxes and ears. The state was going to widen Route 410, they all said!
Residents were too busy polishing their pitchforks and fueling their torches to note – or credit – several facts: the SHA said in the (draft) agreement with the city that it had no plan to widen 410, the council and state delegates had focused throughout the negotiations on the possibility of widening and were assured the deal did not make it more likely, the subject had been publicly discussed starting last February, with public updates and discussions in April, June, September, and November.
The mayor, councilmembers, and state delegates wrote obsequious, sometimes self-flagellating notes to constituents trying to give them more background and inviting them to the next council meeting to hear and question the SHA administrator and to voice their concerns.
Your Gilbert, who doesn’t have to worry about your votes, can interpret frankly what your city and state representatives said between the lines, “Calm down and get your facts straight!”
Informed and Calm
The Nov. 8 council meeting was run as a kind of teach-in. Mayor Bruce Williams explained from his perspective how the issue developed. He stressed that the council never wanted to widen any roads. To the contrary, the council has sought to narrow roads and install traffic calming features, he said.
Maryland delegate (and city resident) Heather Mizeur told the assembled townsfolk how her office had assisted the SHA/city negotiations. She said she hoped the hearing would be “replacing assumptions with answers. Let’s have an informed, calm discussion tonight.” State senator (and city resident) Jamie Raskin and delegate Tom Hucker were introduced, but did not speak.
The star performer of the evening, Neil Pedersen, said that the SHA “has absolutely no interest whatsoever in any widening of Route 410 through the city of Takoma Park.” He said to do so would be “totally inappropriate.”
Pedersen said widening 410 would be “virtually impossible” for several reasons. Even if some future SHA administrator “of a different mind” were to propose it, it would need the approval of: the county executive, a county council majority, and a majority of our local state delegation. Furthermore, the majority would have to agree that the widening of Route 410 is the county’s number one priority compared to any other proposed widening.
He said there was “no chance in our lifetimes,” or in the next two-to-three lifetimes that this would come to pass.
Takoma Park’s strongest protection, he said, was the city’s historic district through which the route passes. Federal and state laws set “an extremely high hurdle,” he said, for taking property and widening roads in such districts.
The policy of the SHA, said Pedersen, is to NOT widen any state roads inside the Beltway, but to increase public transportation alternatives and traffic calming.
The offer to take ownership of 410 was not the state’s idea, Pedersen said. It was sparked by citizen complaints. Ethan Allen Ave. residents complained of their street’s poor condition to their city, county, and state politicians, as well as to the SHA.
Ethan Allen Ave. is a four block-long section of Route 410 between the eastern city border and the Carroll Ave. intersection where it veers onto that street and then onto Philadelphia Ave. Ethan Allen’s road surface is rough, potholed, and breaking apart in places. The condition is “unacceptable” said Pedersen, assuring those assembled that their “common objective” is to “find a solution to correct” that condition.
Alas, he said, the law prevents state maintenance of roads not owned by the state. A couple of years ago the SHA determined the state never acquired the land under the road – it was still owned by the city, they say. Up to that point the state assumed it owned the Takoma Park portions of the route from the ground up AND down. The last 54 years of state maintenance was a mistake, said Pedersen.
So, they stopped maintaining the road, and they told Takoma Park to take over. Takoma Park had no funds budgeted to do so. The road deteriorated as they argued back and forth. Starting early this year, they began negotiating a solution with the aid (and perhaps goading in the case of the SHA) from the state delegation. That’s when the idea of swapping Flower Ave. for Route 410 came up. At the time it seemed mutually beneficial. Then a couple of weeks ago the peetybeeties heard about it.
When Pedersen finished his testimony, the council, city attorney, and citizens began the cross-examination, er . . . questions.
It was clear from the council questions and comments that in deference to constituent pants-kicking they are stepping waaaaay back from the imminent street-swap agreement, and from surrendering ownership of Route 410. “De-coupling” the two streets was an oft-repeated phrase.
They gave Pedersen a short course in Takoma Park 101 – recounting the city’s experiences with the state, counties, and Metro which make residents wary of any agreements. “We feel besieged by counties,” said Councilmember Dan Robinson, citing development in Silver Spring to the west and Prince George’s county to the east which will increase traffic on 410, and, it is feared, pressure on the state to widen the route.
The council probed for information about possible alternative arrangements. There are, Pedersen said, portions of state roads which are owned by municipalities and have “shared responsibility.” In some cases that portion of the route technically is not a state road, but by law it must be sign-posted and marked to the same standards – and maintained by the municipality.
Robinson’s question seemed to indicate he is thinking of keeping ownership of the route and maintaining it, but getting the state to pay for it. He speculated that the city might be able to do maintenance cheaper than the SHA could, hinting that such an arrangement might be in the SHA’s interest.
Councilmember Josh Wright pressed Pedersen for a “legally binding agreement” that the city road would never be widened. “No.” answered Pedersen, he “can’t establish policy precedent.” If he did it for Takoma Park, he’d be pressed to make similar agreements with every county and municipality in Maryland.
Skeptical of SHA’s recent discovery of city ownership, Councilmember Fred Schultz pointed out that 54 years of maintenance on a road it didn’t own was a big precedent. “You have all the precedence you need” to continue doing so, he said.
Councilmember Colleen Clay stated for the sake of the peetybeeties present that many of the constituent e-mails she’s seen were “not factually correct” and contained mischaracterizations. Council negotiations with the SHA were “not a secretive process,” she said.
She said she needs more information to make a decision. She wanted to know just how ownership of the road was determined. She also asked the city’s attorney to get more information about eminent domain. And, she wanted to know just what the value of city ownership is, if any.
The city attorney Susan Silber did ask how ownership was determined. Pedersen said it was with the aid of the state’s attorney general’s office, but he didn’t know precisely how they determined it and he had no documentation with him. Silber asked a number of questions including whether the city, if it kept ownership, would then have control of the street. Pedersen said it would, though it would have to meet state road requirements. It was not clear (to your Gilbert, anyway) whether that meant the city could put down a crosswalk or install a light or traffic circle or not.
Ownership doesn’t seem to be any advantage if the state decides to take the road by eminent domain. In fact, if it tried, the city would be an unwilling party to its condemnation, concluded Mayor Williams.
Can’t Get No Satisfaction
Citizen comments and inquiries indicated that many of their questions had been answered in the long and detailed dialogue, but some clearly hadn’t absorbed a word of it, and almost all were still fearful that turning ownership over to the state was a step toward widening the road. Most were unsatisfied with the administrator’s assurances that it would not be.
Residents who live on Route 410 were in the majority of those who stepped to the podium. Three representatives from Historic Takoma, including their lawyer, spoke. They urged the city not to move forward on the current deal with SHA. A few Flower Avenue residents were on hand. They asked for de-coupling, but they reminded the council that Flower Ave. also needs attention.
Doubtless, the council will not make that road-swap deal as it stands , and whatever steps it makes will be after the patch is thoroughly checked for land mines. Questions that came up at this meeting remain to be answered, among them “where is the documentation that the city owns this road?” And you can bet, Dear Reader, your councilmember will be relentlessly reaching out to you, giving you every last detail of whatever the council is doing, explaining every nuance and implication, sending copies of all the background materials written in gray bureaucratese. And it will remind you why you stopped paying attention in the first place.
So, this makes two constituent panics in three weeks. The first one was over a housing project for the homeless. Now this one – in both cases the people who started it didn’t have facts straight, and they fed into other people’s fears and assumptions. This is how the Tea Party started.
We suggest in future if residents learn about something the council is doing that alarms them, they call their councilmember or city staff and ask for information about it before firing off an e-mail to their neighborhood discussion group. On the other hand, council could send out periodic updates that BRIEFLY outline what the council is doing and what the issues are. Oh, they send out announcements already, but they tend to be long and heavy on cultural events, not council issues. A copy of the rolling agenda would do.
What constituents and councilmembers need MOST to do is keep reading Granolapark.
Where’s that gin bottle got to?
PS. Has it occurred to anyone that who owns the land UNDER THE ROADWAY has no relevance to widening Route 410? That part is already a road. If widening is attempted it will only concern the privately-owned land TO EITHER SIDE of the street.