The Little Falls Parkway pilot project that narrowed a four-lane stretch to two and has been the subject of a lawsuit has become permanent with a 4 to 0 vote with one abstention Thursday by the Montgomery County Planning Board.
Planning officials said the “road diet” made the parkway safer without creating major slowdowns.
“In this particular case, data definitely confirms that Little Falls Parkway between Dorset and Arlington functions well from a traffic perspective with two opposing lanes with no significant travel delays or backups just like Sligo Creek Parkway and Beach drive, which carries similar traffic volumes,” said Michael F. Riley, director of the Montgomery County Department of Parks, part of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC) at the Thursday meeting. “Our recommendation makes the road safer for pedestrians, cyclists and motorists consistent with our strong Vision Zero objective and the county’s strong Vision Zero objective.”
Little Falls Parkway in Bethesda is a 24/7 open parkway with two of the four lanes open for recreation and the other two lanes open to vehicular traffic. The board’s vote approved the number lanes between Arlington and Dorset Avenue from four lanes to two. The change would incorporate turn lanes, shoulders, a median at the Capital Crescent Trail crossing, and a median between the travel lanes where feasible, according to a news release from Montgomery Parks.
The pilot project was launched in June 2022 to address concerns with cut-tough traffic in adjacent neighborhoods associated with the weekend closures of Little Falls Parkway in Bethesda while retaining space for recreation on the parkway. Montgomery Parks initiated a study to determine whether two lanes between Dorset Avenue and Arlington Road could accommodate traffic.
In February, Kenwood Citizens Association filed a lawsuit against the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission and the Montgomery County Planning Board alleging they failed to get the proper approval to reduce the parkway’s size from the National Capital Planning Commission. The lawsuit alleged that reducing the number of lanes would be detrimental.
There has been increased opposition towards the Little Falls Parkway road diet aside from the participants in the lawsuit. According to Kyle Lukacs, trail planner with Montgomery Parks, although the public input they received via email included 230 proponents, it also has 155 people opposed. There are a couple of community petitions, one advocating for open parkways which has gained nearly 2,000 signatures, and another against the pilot project which has gained around 4,000 signatures, according to Lukacs’ presentation at the Board meeting.
Some opponents claimed that an issue with the pilot project is that the no one was using the open parkways for pedestrians and cyclists but at the meeting, Lukacs said the average numbers of daily users is 544.
A question that has been raised throughout the project regarded emergency response, according to Andrew Tsai, Montgomery Parks engineer.
“There was testimony presented about the inadequacy of a two-lane road for emergency response, which has been contradicted numerous times by both county fire rescue as well as park police,” Tsai said. “Since the public hearing on March 30, we have reaffirmed with both fire rescue as well as park police that the divided two-lane configuration fully meets both operational and travel access requirements.”
According to the release, traffic counts were conducted on Little Falls Parkway between Arlington Road and Dorset Avenue during May, July, September, and December of 2022 and showed the parkway functions well with two lanes of traffic and the traffic calming improves safety for all road users, including pedestrians and cyclists.
Montgomery Parks will now work on the permanent design and then construct the roadway enhancements after obtaining necessary approvals, according to the release.