A sweeping plan to convert downtown Columbia into a higher-density urban center is achievable virtually as envisioned if there is a commitment to make road improvements as they become necessary, a noted traffic expert says.
Walter Kulash, a principal and senior traffic engineer with Glatting Jackson Kercher Anglin Lopez Rinehart Inc., told a task force weighing the future development of downtown that the parameters of the plan do not need to be sacrificed despite Columbia's restrictive road network.
His remarks, and those of others, largely refuted an article published Sunday in The Sun that said a traffic study by Orlando, Fla.-based Glatting Jackson concluded that Columbia's road system could accommodate little additional development, and certainly nothing on the scale under consideration.
Although the road system is not designed to handle a significant increase in traffic, Glatting Jackson acknowledges that road improvements would be necessary and assumes they would be made, Kulash said.
"Based upon the newspaper, most people would think that the traffic analysis doomed" the plan, said James D. Lano, associate general counsel for General Growth Properties Inc., the Chicago-based owner of Columbia that is considering how to develop downtown over the next several years.
He described the study as a "reality check" and said it shows that a "substantial portion" of a plan that emerged from a weeklong community charrette, or brainstorming process, in October can be implemented.
Kulash told the task force Wednesday that he believes the downtown area could accommodate:
An additional 5,500 housing units, the same figure included in a broad outline prepared by the county based on public attitudes expressed during the charrette.
Building 750,000 square feet for retail and another 550 hotel rooms. Neither represents a change from the county's broad plan.
Constructing 2.55 million square feet of office space. That is about half of the commercial expansion envisioned by the county. "When we do that," Kulash said, "things improve considerably."
The combination of restricting commercial growth and road improvements, Kulash said, would result in acceptable traffic conditions and have the added benefit of making the downtown area more "pedestrian friendly" -- a key goal of the county and the 23-member task force. Ultimately, he said, growth in residents and traffic would lead to an extension of public transit into Columbia, but he said that is years off.
Columbia's road system has a "tightly limited number of lanes going in and out," Kulash said. It has only 24 arterial lanes. "It sounds like a lot, but it's anything but," Kulash said. It is more common, even in smaller towns, to have between 30 and 50, he said.
There are bottlenecks, particularly at the intersection of Little Patuxent Parkway and Governor Warfield Parkway and the South Entrance Road and Little Patuxent.
Road improvements are critical if the plan for downtown is to proceed, Kulash said.
Lano also said that General Growth has "put traffic into the overall process" of deciding the future of downtown and always has known road improvements would be necessary.
The charrette suggested that the downtown area be developed into an urban center, with higher density and focus on pedestrian walkways and parks. The plan is expected to take at least 30 years to complete.