Our Politics In the People's Republic column usually runs on Tuesdays, but due to the public debate surrounding Monday's city council meeting, Steve Davies wrote a column to explain the complex ideas around the SHA's possible takeover of Rt. 410.
Community listservs have been alive with debate over the proposed road swap between the State Highway Administration and the city, a subject I've discussed twice, most recently in last week's column. With what amounts to a public hearing on the matter scheduled for Monday night at the council chambers, Takoma Park Patch thought it would be a good idea to put as much information as possible on the topic in one place.
Discussion of the swap – the city gets part of Flower Avenue and about $700,000 to repave and prettify it, while the state agrees to fix up 410 before assuming complete ownership of it in TP – will begin about 8 p.m. and feature SHA Administrator Neil Pedersen.
First off, although I certainly was accurately reflecting the prevailing view of the city council, I nonetheless may have been too hasty in writing that the council had "laid to rest" the "hoary myth" that if the city owned any part of Route 410 (as it does now), "it could effectively thwart state plans to widen the road."
Better wording might have been: "The council did its best to dispel as myth the notion that city ownership of any part of Route 410, including the subsurface, would effectively thwart state plans to widen the road."
Why back off? Well, only because I bumped into County Council member Marc Elrich at the co-op, and he had a decidedly different view on the matter. He said that when he was on the city council (before becoming the number-one vote-getter among all the at-large county council candidates last week), the legal advice they were given was, hold on to whatever ownership you have of 410, because it's an obstacle to any future plans to widen the road.
Elrich said he has posted something on one of the listservs, but I haven't seen it. In any case, he said he he was wary of making a deal with the state, and said SHA, which has promised to fix up 410, does not need to own the entire road to do so. Quite simply, he said he doesn't trust SHA. There was no malice in his tone; I think it was just the experience of seeing residents' concerns overridden by government, even when those concerns are valid and well-documented (Google "Science City, Gaithersburg, Rockville" for more).
Nonetheless, the current city council appears more inclined to believe that ownership of 410, whether it's a few portions or the whole stretch that runs through Takoma Park, won't amount to much protection if the state wants to take some front yards and realize its long-held dream of widening the road.
Williams, as he did at the council meeting Nov. 1, offered some compelling reasons why the state might not want to tackle the project.
"If the State wanted to widen 410, there are protections in place in our Master Plan, and through our Historic District," Williams said in a message to listservs. "The cost to acquire properties would be huge–and governments at all levels don't have enough money to fund crucial services, let alone spend exorbitant amounts to throw people out of their houses and destroy vibrant communities. If for some reason, governmental leaders in the future–far in the future–were to decide that they needed to widen 410, they could take the land needed to widen it by eminent domain, whether the City owned it or not."
Williams actually did lay to rest a myth (also propagated here) that the North Central Freeway project in the 1960s would have widened 410.
"A long-held belief among many in the city is that our ownership of parts of 410 stopped the efforts in the 1960's to put the North Central Freeway thru, as mentioned above. It is instructive to note that the proposed route of the North Central Freeway did not coincide with any of 410–it cut right through residential neighborhoods a block or more from 410, and Philadelphia Ave/Route 410 would have continued to exist. The state and/or federal government would have condemned lots of residential property to make that proposed road happen, but it wouldn't have touched any City-owned portions of Route 410."
Councilman Josh Wright (Ward 1) also wrote a long email on the issue. "I believe the decision … all comes down to whether you think the City owning parts of 410 would provide a significant obstacle [to widening] separate from all the other obstacles…. This depends on your perspective on eminent domain law. If the State were to try to widen the road, I would think it would try to do so from New Hampshire to Fenton (otherwise they would still have a bottleneck) and the State would have to take a large number of houses (by my estimation over 200, costing more than $100 Million)."
That would spark a "huge legal eminent domain fight with all of the residents in and around those houses and be very costly. That is true whether the City owns parts of the road or not." But Wright said, "The question is, does the City owning the road and the fight it could raise over the State taking the portions of the road it owns add to that battle in a significant enough way? Based on the legal advice we have received so far it appears it does not. Based on the advice we have received it appears it would be actually easier for the State to take the road from us than to take a resident's house. I have asked for further research on this legal question and I can be convinced otherwise by people on this perspective. I believe the cost and political battle over taking all of those houses would be a battle that the State would have no interest in undertaking now or in the future."
Councilwoman Colleen Clay told Williams in an email that he quoted, "If the state has the political will and the funds to purchase the property, they may do so at any time, regardless of ownership, unless the property is owned by the federal government. Neither the city nor the county may pass any law impeding the state's use of eminent domain."
Among issues for debate, she said, are the costs to maintain 410, if the city retains ownership. "Those costs can be significant as the road is heavily used by non-Takoma residents. If we cede ownership to SHA we will lose direct control of permitting for any road/sidewalk cuts, as well as control of the crosswalks."
Williams, however, disagreed on the permit issue. "We don't have direct control of permitting now–the State already has that control."
Councilman Dan Robinson (Ward 3) said he had "changed [his] stance on the proposed deal." Robinson now wants to see the negotiations "de-coupled" and "have the state give us a one-time payment to take over responsibility for Flower. We can do better than they have done." Second, "keep ownership of our parts of 410 and have the State pay us for two things on an ongoing basis: a) pay for the maintenance of their portions of the road – we'll fix those portions for them and thus have our costs covered. They can use Federal funds for this; b) pay for maintenance caused by non-local traffic. These payments would defray costs for the remainder of the roadway. Because we can fix roadways for far less than they can, their payment for this maintenance can be quite
low for them.
"This solution allows us to keep control and relieves the State of the responsibility of repair," Robinson said. "It encourages local maintenance. The discussion in the past has revolved around these issues, but has not approached the issues in a direct way."