March 21, 2017

Maryland Senator Chris Van Hollen On Bethesda Intersection: “We Need Transparency”

By Avery Kleinman

Rep. Chris Van Hollen at a 'Inside Politics' event in March 2013.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen at a 'Inside Politics' event in March 2013.

For nearly a decade, Bethesda, Md. residents have lobbied the State Highway Administration to improve safety at the intersection of River Road and Braeburn Parkway, which is frequented by the nearby Walt Whitman High School community. The neighborhood’s fears were realized in February 2016, when three family members died in a crash on the way to a school play.

The tragedy revitalized efforts to make the intersection safer and caught the attention of Maryland’s elected officials. I spoke with Senator Chris Van Hollen about the issue and the lack of significant action he sees coming from the Maryland State Highway Administration.

Kojo Show Producer Avery Kleinman: Along with several of Maryland’s other elected officials, you sent a letter last week to the State Highway Administration about the River Road intersection. Why did you send that letter and what information are you seeking?

Senator Chris Van Hollen: Because while the state highway administration has taken some small steps, we need to move faster on bigger measures and much more quickly. For example, for some time, we’ve pushed to have this area designated as a school zone so they could set a lower speed limit. They promised an answer way back and it’s way overdue. So, there’s a lot of frustration building in the community and for those of us who represent the community that things are not happening quickly enough.

Kleinman: Have you been hearing a lot from the community about this issue?

Van Hollen: Yes, we’ve been hearing from families throughout the community and of course families that use the high school, and what we’re hearing is a high degree of frustration. After all this was the site of a terrible tragedy just a little more than a year ago and the State Highway Administration needs to act with much greater urgency to fix the problem.

Kleinman: And I know that representatives from your office have been attending community meetings regarding this intersection and how to make it safer. More generally, why is the issue of interest and so important to you?

Van Hollen: Well because this is an issue of life and death and we saw what happened when nothing was done. Even before the terrible accident more than a year ago, folks in that neighborhood have been calling for common sense safety measures, those calls were ignored, we then saw this terrible tragedy and we need to act with urgency to prevent any further tragedy. People need to stop dragging their feet, while some measures were taken, small steps, we need more urgent action.

Kleinman: Right, I was going to ask you what is your opinion so far of the actions taken by SHA but it sounds like you kind of said that, just that things are going too slowly.

Van Hollen: Well they’ve taken some small steps and those are important but on the larger issues regarding both the intersection, the roadway intersection, as well as the pedestrian crossing, as well as the designation as a school zone, we’ve seen very little action. We need to have action that is as urgent and fits the need and the risk.

Kleinman: The death of three people last year that you referred to– that drew greater attention to this intersection. But community members had already been working for nearly a decade to try to make it more safe, and they ran into trouble getting accident data from the state because of a law, a federal law, known as Section 409, which allows states to keep information secret if it could potentially be used in the future to sue the state. I was wondering what are your thoughts on that law. Do you agree with the thinking behind it? Do you think states should be able to keep information about road safety secret from the community?

Van Hollen: No, I don’t. I think we should eliminate all barriers to important safety information. We need transparency. With transparency comes greater accountability. It’s important that the public have access to information has a bearing on the safety of the roads that they are using for themselves and their families.

Kleinman: And what do you think this nearly decade-long ordeal says about the bureaucratic process in Maryland?

Van Hollen: Well, it’s a sad statement on how there seems to be little urgency in reacting to safety issues. Because even before the tragic accident that left three people dead more than a year ago, the community had been crying out for action to make this intersection safer. And despite calls from many of us, that fell on deaf ears. We should never have to get to the point where we have a tragedy in order for people to do the right thing. And now we have a high degree of frustration because even after a tragedy things are moving too slowly.

For more background on the Bethesda crash that spurred neighbors to rally for safer roads, listen to the recent Kojo Nnamdi Show on-air segment and check out a crowd-sourced map of the region’s dangerous intersections.

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