Bethesda Residents Push for Traffic Light at River Road Intersection (VIDEO)

UPDATED Dozens of Bethesda residents turned out for a community meeting held at Walt Whitman High School on June 7th to discuss the four State Highway Administration (SHA) concepts related to improving the safety of the River Road and Braeburn Pkwy intersection. The intersection is the site of the tragic Feb. 27th roadside accident where three members of a Whitman family were killed. MyMCMedia’s Maureen Chowdhury reports.

The proposed concepts were designed to regulate the left-hand turn from River Road onto Braeburn Parkway. The proposed plans included:

  1. Extending the River Rd. median to “close” the intersection.
  2. Installing a T-shaped island (a “Maryland T”) median strip.
  3. Installing a S-shaped island median strip.
  4. Creating a positive offset left turn lane.

Residents overwhelmingly rejected the proposed SHA’s plans at Tuesday night’s meeting and said it’s not enough.

Maryland House Delegate Marc Korman along with representatives from Rep. Chris Van Hollen’s and Councilmember Roger Berliner’s office listened while residents voiced their concerns.

Bill Kapner, a Bethesda resident who lives near the intersection, says a more meaningful approach is necessary.

“What the state has proposed is not meaningful, it’s incremental and it won’t help things. And it’s very frustrating to me that something of this magnitude has to be dealt with in such a bureaucratic way” Kapner said.

For a majority of residents, that meaningful approach is the installation of a traffic light, but SHA officials have said that traffic studies indicate the intersection doesn’t meet standards to install one.

Still, residents aren’t backing down. A petition created by Whitman High School student Melody Lee advocating for a traffic light at the intersection more than 4,000 signatures.

Christine Ladd, a resident of the Bannockburn neighborhood, says a more comprehensive plan with a light is needed.

“I think the proposals to date are inadequate because the intersection is extremely dangerous,” Ladd said. “That’s obviously shown by the terrible accident that happened in February,”  she said. “What we need there is a light and we probably need the intersection redesigned so the light can protect both people taking a left turn off River Road and also people coming from the Bannockburn school district,” Ladd said.

Richard Boltuck is a part of the Bannockburn Civic Association (BCA) and is a part of the community delegation that was created by residents to address concerns about the intersection. Botluck led the community meeting and says this is just the beginning of the process.

“The objective of the meeting was really to hear from the community and we heard. You could call this a grassroots bottoms up initiative and that’s what we need. That’s where our legitimacy and authority comes from,” Boltuck said.

Botluck took a straw vote during the meeting, where residents recommended moving the intersection to Pyle Road and add a traffic light.

“A traffic signal at a new intersection of Pyle Road and River would protect the existing crosswalk and the pedestrians as well as the car traffic. We could then close the Braeburn intersection and that would address the problem,” Boltuck said.

The community recommendations will be forwarded along to Councilmember Berliner and the regional SHA engineer, Boltuck said.

Below, is a letter Boltuck sent to local elected officials on behalf of the community delegation following the June 7th meeting.

“Dear Local Elected Leaders*,

“On behalf of the community delegation** concerned about eliminating the hazards associated with the existing River Road (MD 190) and Braeburn Parkway intersection (“the intersection”), and with the River Road crosswalk located a short distance east of the intersection (“the crosswalk”), I wish to thank you for your powerful March 1st letter of support.  It is impossible to overstate how much your support is appreciated in our local west Bethesda community.  Our delegation is comprised of representatives of Walt Whitman High School and of the Bannockburn Civic Association (“BCA”).

“As you recall, a Walt Whitman student and his parents were killed in an auto accident at the intersection on February 27th while making a left turn from eastbound River toward Braeburn while destined for the Whitman parking lot.  The community near the intersection has known for decades about how dangerous the intersection is, and has periodically undertaken concerted but unsuccessful efforts to persuade the State Highway Administration (“SHA”) to install an appropriate traffic signal so as to reduce the dangers.  Since the accident, over four thousand members of the community have signed a petition calling for a traffic signal.

“I am writing to update you about recent developments related to our current efforts.  On April 11th, Roger Berliner thoughtfully facilitated a meeting between our delegation and the SHA’s Assistant District Engineer, Ms. Anyesha Mookherjee.  Ms. Mookherjee presented several pre-engineering “concepts” that SHA is considering to improve safety at the intersection; she did not offer any similar ideas to improve the safety of the crosswalk.  A report to the community circulated by our delegation details our meeting with Ms. Mookherjee and SHA’s proposals here and the concepts illustrations may be viewed here.

“Last Tuesday, June 7th, members of the community met with our delegation at Whitman High School to discuss SHA’s concepts and to reach a community consensus about how best to address the hazardous intersection and crosswalk.  Our principle objective is to work with SHA to agree on a course forward that meets with community approval.

“Roughly 50 community members attended the June 7th meeting.  SHA’s concepts were presented and discussed.  The general approach reflected in these concepts centers on additions of new medians in various shapes to limit certain uses of the intersection, channel traffic, and improve sight lines — in one case installing a median to close the intersection entirely.  Community members agreed with Principal Goodwin that maintaining an intersection that permits turns toward Braeburn Parkway and thus serves as a back entrance to the large Whitman parking lot is important.  Otherwise, without such access, Whittier Blvd. traffic destined for or departing from the parking lot would increase by roughly 50 percent in the morning before school starts, and in the evening after school finishes.  Whittier, a residential street, is already congested to the breaking point at these times.

“It rapidly became clear during discussion that the community overwhelmingly regarded the measures reflected in the three SHA concepts that would retain partial use of the intersection to be inadequate half-measures that extend the history of minimal incremental tinkering with the existing intersection.  It was equally apparent that community members would not approve of such an incremental approach in the wake of the February 27th tragedy.

“Members indicated that the end result should not simply be somewhat safer than the current intersection configuration, but rather the problems with the intersection ought to be addressed thoroughly to achieve as much safety and utility as possible.  Moreover, community members expressed significant concern that none of SHA’s concepts would address the significant danger to pedestrians — often students who live in the Bannockburn neighborhood and use the crosswalk on their way to or from Whitman — and vehicle traffic associated with the crosswalk.  Several people described harrowing experiences slowing or stopping for pedestrians in the crosswalk, and then almost being hit from behind by oncoming traffic.  In short, community members attending the meeting generally concluded that the stand alone crosswalk and the existing intersection are fundamentally poorly designed.

“The discussion focused organically on an alternative that has been raised before, namely, closing the existing intersection and constructing a new intersection at the location of the crosswalk.  With exceptionally little dissent, attendees agreed in an informal vote to endorse this alternative.  The new intersection would involve extending Pyle Road on the Bannockburn side across River Road to meet up with the Braeburn Parkway on the Whitman side.  The intersection would be regulated by a traffic signal designed to protect cross traffic and especially left turns (such as the one that led to the fatalities in February).  Such a signal would, for instance, permit left turns on a green arrow only, thereby protecting the turning vehicle with a solid red light against oncoming traffic.  A placard and flashing yellow light would warn oncoming traffic in advance of a red light ahead to reduce the chance of rear-end collisions or red-light running.

“Because, as Ms. Mookherjee noted at our April meeting, turns are concentrated in two periods each day, before and after school, continuous cycling of the signal throughout the day is generally not necessary.  A signal cycle could be triggered by vehicles waiting in left turn lanes, or waiting to cross the intersection.  Naturally, SHA’s engineers should provide the technical details of how to design the signal once the community and SHA accept the general concept.

“The advantages associated with relocating the intersection to the current well-placed but dangerous crosswalk are compelling.  First, the traffic signal at the intersection would protect both vehicle traffic and pedestrians in the crosswalk.  Second, the Pyle Road-extension position along River Road is far superior to the location of the current intersection because it is near the peak of the hill along River Road.  Currently, drivers of westbound vehicles who crest the hill and are traveling at excessive speed or even momentarily distracted have inadequate opportunity to stop before entering the existing intersection.

“We plan, with your continued support, to advise SHA that a second meeting is now timely to allow us to present important information about the views of the school community and neighbors living in the vicinity of the intersection.  The community’s wisdom about the dangers inherent in the existing intersection provides SHA with important information that extends beyond the limited assessment it conducts in its routine checklist-style warrant studies — wisdom that has tragically proven correct.  The community is similarly aware that the hazards of the current crosswalk need to be eliminated urgently.  This information ought not be ignored.

“Although we did not publicize our June 7th meeting to the press, several reporters learned about it, attended, and reported on what took place.  These reports are here, here, here, and here.

“Again, thank you for your support.  Thank you also to Delegate Marc Korman, Ms. Karen McManus of Congressman Van Hollen’s office, and Drew Morrison of Council Vice President Roger Berliner’s office for attending our June 7th meeting.  I would be pleased to respond to any questions, ideas, or suggestions you might have.


“Richard D. Boltuck

“Community delegation (on behalf of the full delegation)”

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Maureen Chowdhury

About Maureen Chowdhury

Maureen Chowdhury is a multimedia journalist with Montgomery Community Media. She can be reached at and on Twitter at @MediaMaureen. Maureen authors the blog Sound Check on MyMCMedia.


2 Responses to “Bethesda Residents Push for Traffic Light at River Road Intersection (VIDEO)”

  1. Avatar
    On June 8, 2016 at 11:16 am responded with... #

    I absolutely agree that it makes sense to move the intersection to Pyle where the crosswalk is and add a signal. One could preserve right turns at the Braeburn intersection since they are less likely to involve deadly collisions than left turns.

  2. Avatar
    On June 11, 2016 at 10:09 am responded with... #

    Whatever perils this intersection presents, sadly, it’s not likely that they contributed to causing this accident. The collision occurred when traffic was light, the driver of the family’s car entered River Road, then fatally hesitated before attempting to cross. The oncoming car appears to have been speeding and even accelerating as it came down the hill but the acceleration may have been an attempt to avoid the family’s car, which was by then in the intersection. (This information I obtained from a key witness, a motorist whose car was behind the family’s car, waiting to turn left from River Road onto Pyle Road. My wife and I were returning from dinner in Rockville around 8:25 pm and stopped when we saw the emergency vehicles and closed-off western lanes of River. We spoke with that witness as she waited to be interviewed by investigators.) I reside in the neighborhood, have crossed there safely for years without nearly being involved in a collision. One must simply be patient, cautious and decisive.

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