Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Notes: Emerson Town Hall with Council Member Jen Terrasa (Dec. 2015)

Howard County officials were the invited guests at Emerson's December 2015 Town Hall in the Emerson Clubhouse. Featured were:

  • Kathleen Donodeo, Transportation Planner in the Howard County Department of Planning and Zoning
  • Jen Terrasa,  Howard County Council Member for District 3
  • Kate McLeod, Special Assistant to Ms. Terrasa

The primary topics for discussion were transportation issues (including the lack of public transportation in Emerson and traffic), the status of infrastructure improvement local projects (primarily the Stephens Road bridge and sidewalks), school funding, and zoning and development. 

Public Transportation

A major issue raised by the residents of the Park View at Emerson Senior Living Center was the lack of accessible public transportation for the senior citizens living there. Many do not own a car and are unable to walk long distances to the existing bus stop on Stephens Road.

(In fact, only one elderly resident was able to attend because the others could not reach the meeting.)

Transportation promised by officials 6 years ago has not materialized, and the residents lack transportation to go shopping for groceries and other goods, and to reach doctor's appointments and other destinations. 

A paratransit service that provides rides twice a month (at a cost to the County of $37/ride) is not sufficient.

Possible solutions offered by the officials (with the caveat that funding has not been identified) were:
  • Existing bus service, which presently only reaches the east side of Emerson on the other side of I-95 from Park View, could potentially add a loop that would take it down Gorman Road to Skylark Boulevard, and from there to Winterson and Palace Hall.
  • This route would reach the maximum ridership with the least impact on the bus schedule.
  • The route would not reach Park View but would bring the line within a quarter mile and qualify residents for ADA service for the elderly.
This solution would be expensive, however, as the buses currently have difficulty making their 1 hour  headway today. A third bus would need to be purchased, increasing the cost of the line by 50%.

Operating costs are largely covered by appropriated funds from the County budget, as the fares do not make a significant contribution.

Ms. Terrasa indicated that this was good timing for raising the issue with the County Executive, who is the only one who can add funding in the County budget. She suggested that Emerson contact his office.

Other ideas suggested included incorporating service to the new Walden Woods Over-55 community on Gorman Road, and also trying to combine service with potential service to JHU APL (Johns Hopkins Road) and Maple Lawn (whose residents want access to the Laurel MARC Station, perhaps via MD-216).

It was also suggested that the issue be raised again with The Shelter Group, which operates Park View, and explain to them that transportation twice per month is not sufficient.

Miscellaneous transportation topics were also discussed:
  • Bus routes haven't changed in 20 years, and the County hopes to do a full analysis in 2016, to include holding discussions with travel planners in the various counties. Traffic patterns were very different when the routes were established and the buses are always running late because of the large increase in traffic.
  • It isn't clear that any kind of bus service to the office buildings in Emerson would be successful, especially if it only stopped there once per hour.
  • Tangentially, there has been some discussion of a shuttle loop in Downtown Columbia.
  • With regard to noise abatement for the buses on Stephens Road, the transportation authority plans to replace the diesel buses with electric buses.
  • Small optimizations to local roads that would help congestion (and help the buses keep on schedule) are not the responsibility of DPZ, but they can be suggested on Tell Hoco
    • Examples: Right turn lanes on Gorman at the intersection with Skylark Boulevard, and Gorman Road heading east at the intersection with Stephens Road, could ease bottlenecks expected to get worse as Wincopia Farms and Walden Woods come online.

Infrastructure and Congestion

Ms. Terrasa provided an update on the project from Howard County's Department of Public Works (DPW) to raise the Stephens Road bridge out of the flood plain and add sidewalks on both sides of the road:
  • Sidewalks are expected in mid-late 2016, maybe slipping to Spring 2017. Sidewalks will also run over the bridge.
  • BGE has their part done, and funding has been obtained, but now real estate services has to get the rights of way. There are 21 owners (or perhaps parcels), though it may be that only a few are single-family homes (the rest may be HOA plats).
An Emerson resident asked about the impact of the current review of the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance (APFO) in Howard County, which looks at the cost of new development on roads and schools. 
  • APFO is how Howard County controls growth.
    • For example, schools are not closed until they reach 115% capacity. 
    • Some want to raise this to 120%, while others want to lower this figure to 105%-110%.
  • This is the first time APFO has been reviewed in 10 years. The original goal was to have the citizen-led committee finish their work by December 1, but the review has been very thorough so they are spending more time.
  • The Howard County Council is not involved yet, but it will come to them.
    • The committee's recommendation goes first to the County Executive, who will then turn it into legislation which then goes to the Council.
    • Either the Executive or the Council can introduce the legislation for debate. To move it forward, the Council can amend or pass it.
    • The Executive can then either sign the bill or veto it, and if The Council disagrees they can override.
The resident asked how the school district could add temporary facilities and unilaterally reduce the overcapacity figure. This led to a discussion of how Howard County schools are managed:
  • Policy is set by the School Board, which is a separately elected body. 
  • The Howard County Council has no direct control over the School Board. The Council cannot control the budget except for the bottom line.
  • Howard County Delegate Atterbury has proposed legislation at the State level to elect Howard County School Board members by region, instead at-large (across the entire County) as is done today. 
    • This would potentially make the School Board more responsive to concerns in this area, as the closest Board member today lives in Swansfield in the Village of Harper's Choice, which is nowhere near North Laurel.
    • Voting on this bill is in the next session of the Maryland Legislature which starts on January 13, 2016 and ends 90 days later.
    • There will be another public hearing of the Howard County delegation in February.

Traffic Issues
  • In response to a question, it was stated that there is no stop light at the intersection of Gorman and Skylark because when the developer of Wincopia Farms did their testing, no requirement was identified.
    • Several in the audience felt that some kind of traffic mitigation is needed there. There have been a number of accidents along the farm road portion of Gorman.
    • Ms. Terrasa said that it would help her office make the case if accidents are reported to her (as was the case when they sought improvements on Vollmerhausen Road), especially since Howard County Police sometimes do not report single-vehicle incidents as "accidents" in their statistics.
    • Residents reported that there have been unreported accidents of a school bus, and the school crossing guard was almost hit. Ms. Terrasa promised to take action on this safety issue.
  • A request was made for "deer crossing" signs along Palace Hall, which has lots of woods.
  • A comment was made that if Knott Realty is able to open the new Emerson Commons North section of the office park that it will also significantly increase traffic. 
  • On a positive note, the new firehouse in Savage has cleared up the route for fire engines.
  • Parking Issues:
    • Emerson President explained that Emerson has had some success working with the fire marshal to assess every street to make sure that emergency vehicle can get past parked cars.
    • One broader issue is that developers can put in roads as narrow as 16 feet. The fire marshal does not sign off on new developments.
    • There are roads where trash trucks cannot get through.
    • Ms. Terrasa stated that unlike the School Board, the Department of Public Works (DPW) is fully under the Council's control, and they can help if necessary.
      • The fire marshal is presently trying to decide how long of an area on each street should be marked, and on which side. This is a big job because it is a large area.
      • One issue is the cost of marking them. The County is looking at only putting in signs, Emerson HOA is considering funding the painting of curbs 15 feet around fire hydrants.
    • There was discussion of parking problems involved with pickup and drop-off at the schools.
      • There have been issues with people parking in yards and becoming confrontational.
      • It was commented that even though for events such as concerts staff is asked to park in the fields to leave room in the lots, cars are parked along residential streets and potentially blocking access by emergency vehicles.
      • The Council can send people out with the Transportation Department to assess traffic.
        • The issues mainly occur on bad weather days, when people drive kids to school rather than letting them walk.
        • The Council cannot change school policies but can work with them on items such as making sure the schools clear snow from pathways.

Area Development

Finally, Ms. Terrasa was asked about redevelopment of the Route 1 Corridor.
  • Corner of Whiskey Bottom Road and Route 1:
    • She wants this to be a gateway to the community, that should beautify the area.
    • The land now owned by the County will be sold because the current administration has a different view of the County's role in making this happen.
      • She would have liked to see them buy some of the other adjacent properties as well.
    • She added a rider to the decision to allow the sale because she wanted its role in developing the community to be a consideration, and not just have it sold to the highest bidder.
    • When the RFP goes out, there will be a committee to evaluate each proposal on not only the money offered, but also the impact.
  • One question is how do we inspire commercial development in this region
    • The commercial development in the middle of Route 1 is inadequate and lacks parking
    • Ms. Terrasa has someone studying how to incentivize commercial development, and they are looking at ideas from other communities
    • A comment was made that with thousands of office workers in Emerson, they will need places to eat and shop
    • The All Saints Road area nearby needed redevelopment. Ms. Terrasa had hoped it would be purchased and fixed up, but this didn't happen. 
      • As an aside, someone comments that the police substation there was moved to North Laurel Community Center.
      • Ms. Terrasa agreed that it was good for the All Saints Road area, but they couldn't afford to have it in both locations.

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