City Fights for Full Interchange

The Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA) is contemplating changes to the full diamond Watkins Mill Interchange, scheduled for construction this year. The project is fully funded, but SHA cancelled bids in November without informing the City of Gaithersburg. In an internal memo, SHA staff recommended a partial interchange with only exit ramps from I-270 and no access from Watkins Mill Road to the highway, should the project go forward.

“As a city, we’re trying everything we can to get this back on track,” said Gaithersburg Mayor Jud Ashman after a Monday meeting with Maryland’s Secretary of Transportation Peter Rahn.

In the meeting, Secretary Rahn and staffers addressed why changes are being considered. “The project came in and they took another look,” said Ashman. “They want to go through a larger, more holistic process, do a study of reducing 270 traffic. … (SHA) staff is concerned that on-ramps for the full interchange would be too close to 124 on-ramps, creating a dangerous situation and traffic congestion.

“The city is skeptical (of this),” Ashman added. “This has been 15 years on the table.”

The state will put out an RFP, most likely in May, and vendor selection might take until the end of the year, Ashman said. The full Watkins Mill Interchange would not be off the table, but one of the options considered in the I-270 study.

The city heard about possible design changes to the interchange “second and third hand,” said Ashman. Montgomery County came across an internal memo from SHA staff, dated Nov. 23, 2015, that addressed possible interchange modifications, and the county alerted the city.

Designed to ease congestion at the MD 124/MD 355 intersection that currently operates at more than 25 percent over capacity and at the often congested MD 117/MD 124, the Watkins Mill Interchange was identified as a need more than 20 years ago. It has long been an economic development priority for city and county.

Both felt secure in commitments made by the state of Maryland that the full diamond interchange would be built.

Following discovery of the internal SHA memo, the Gaithersburg Mayor and City Council wrote to SHA on Jan. 11. “We are writing to not only express our dismay that we were not informed substantive changes were being considered but to strongly disagree with the findings that these changes address traffic concerns in the short term. The City is not supportive of anything less than a full interchange.” The letter notes substantial “negative economic development and vitality impacts to the City of Gaithersburg and the Upcounty area” should redesign plans go forward.

On Jan. 19, the Montgomery County Council wrote to Governor Larry Hogan and Secretary of Transportation Peter Rahn, emphasizing the state’s commitment to this project. “It has remained one of our highest State transportation priorities over the last decade. During the Transportation Trust Fund’s lean times we provided $4.9 million in County funds to allow MDOT to continue progress in designing the full interchange. The City of Gaithersburg has dedicated about 23 acres of land for the full interchange. In 2013 the State fully funded this interchange in exchange for our support of the gasoline tax increase that year. With its programing in the CTP, we have dropped it from our priorities letter, knowing that it was a ‘given.’ The news of a potential delay and down-scoping of this interchange has already caused much distress in the business community and among our Upcounty residents,” the letter states.

On Jan. 22 the Montgomery County Delegation wrote to Gov. Hogan, calling for the project to go forward as planned. The Delegation detailed economic revitalization contingent on the construction of a full interchange. These include more than 250,000 square feet of mixed use real estate, 930,000 square feet of office space, some 400 hotel rooms, a local FedEx distribution center, expansion of Lockheed Martin offices, relocation of The Humane Society of the United States’ national headquarters, and an unnamed biotechnology prospect considering a $150 million project.

Charlie Gischlar, SHA spokesperson, said Monday, “The Maryland Department of Transportation’s State Highway Administration reviewed the project and saw the potential for a change and a possible conflict with the overall corridor project. SHA continues to work closely with our stakeholders on the project.”