Why a 410 MOU with the State Highway Administration?

The Takoma Park City Council is in the final stages of considering a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA), concerning State Route 410. But is an MOU truly necessary and helpful? A Ward 1 resident wrote in an e-mail list exchange regarding the MOU, “Sometimes it turns out that doing nothing is the lowest-impact option,” and after I replied, he offered the personal view that “we should not be assuming that the MOU, however it is written, won’t be harmful at some point in the future.” There’s a lot of truth in his observations; I agree with them and will share my two responses.

To the question, “Why do we need a 410 MOU?” and a suggestion of a chart comparing outcomes given a) no MOU, b) the MOU as currently drafted, and c) the MOU, if it were modified according to suggestions from Historic Takoma (HTI), my reply was —

I do not believe we need an MOU, but that doesn’t mean I’ll vote against it on Tuesday evening. I will consider voting for it because I see the current draft as adequate and not likely harmful and staff think it will help them.

I’ll do the chart for you:

No MOU: SHA resurfaces 410 between Park Avenue and New Hampshire Avenue. When future work is needed (signs, stormwater, utility work, signal work), there will be no protocol in place for SHA interactions with the city. This doesn’t mean the SHA won’t interact with the city and listen to our comments and requests, however.

MOU as currently drafted: SHA resurfaces 410 between Park Avenue and New Hampshire Avenue. When future work is needed (signs, stormwater, utility work, signal work), SHA interactions with the city will be guided by the MOU… and likely ignored by SHA operational staff who don’t know the MOU exists and SHA contractors who don’t care, like the ones who did the overnight patching on Philadelphia in the fall.

MOU with Historic Takoma modifications: Pretty much the same as without the modifications, but with more response time to submit comments and greater weight to comments, which would delay certain routine work and could allow the city to block certain undesirable work. 

[But] the situation is that the SHA will not [we are told] accept key HTI mods, and the council is very likely to vote in favor of the MOU without those mods.

Regarding the concern that an MOU could be harm the city’s longer-term position, I wrote —

There are 3 parts to my response: 1) 410 ownership is moot, 2) some see the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the State Highway Administration (SHA) as advantageous to the city, and 3) these MOU/no-MOU exchanges are academic because a council majority favors enacting an MOU. 

1) The following is an interpretation: At some point around a year ago, a new attorney at the SHA came on to this case and the SHA reversed position, saying the state owns, and is responsible for, the roadway even if the state doesn’t own the land. That actually make sense to me! So the clauses in the current draft city resolution, agreed by the SHA, include “WHEREAS, MD 410 through the CITY has been identified as part of the State highway system since the 1930s and the SHA and the CITY acknowledge that because some of the MD 410 right-of-way through the CITY was originally dedicated to public use and/or to the CITY…” 

2) City staff and the council like that the MOU gives a formal role to the city in work on 410. Historic Takoma is fine with accepts it, but believes the role granted is weaker than it should be, and I agree — the MOU is weaker than the written commitment we received in a letter from former SHA Administrator Neil Pedersen — but staff and a council majority think the MOU we’re now considering is the best we’re going to get. 

3) It appears that majority of the council thinks “the best we’re going to get” is better than not signing an MOU. It’s a judgment call. The MOU will likely be voted by the council, by 4-2, 5-1, or 6-0. (I haven’t decided yet how I’ll vote, and Terry Seamens may vote No.) The council will likely also vote in favor of a state-legislative request barring SHA spending for 410 construction “that will involve the addition of a new through lane for motor vehicles” (subject to wording adjustment) by a similar majority.

The matter won’t be concluded until the city council vote, Tuesday evening, February 19, 2013 and, if the vote is in favor as I expect, the SHA and city sign the MOU. Between now and Tuesday, you do still have a chance to weigh in with the council and with the state.

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