In Frederick’s new Age of the Entrepreneur, “small business” defines the size of the workforce but not success.
By Christina L. Lyons
Photography by Andrew Murdock
Before Sean O’Keefe graduated from law school in 2009, he was among millions of young people across the U.S. worried about their future. The nation was two years into a recession, and O’Keefe’s earlier plans to enter real estate law and join Frederick County’s development boom seemed, well, unrealistic. “There was almost no hiring” of lawyers nationally and in Frederick, he laments.
Two years earlier, Timika and Gregory Thrasher of Frederick were just starting a family and working long hours at full-time jobs but insisting on keeping their home spotless and allergy free. Friends teased them that they could run their own cleaning business and make a fortune.
Meanwhile, Middletown native Erik Boettcher was an Army corporal deployed overseas, constantly spinning potential inventions through his mind, hoping they might somehow lead him to a successful business startup.
An Enterprising Environment?
Since the beginning of the economic decline in 2007, lawmakers and economists have sought ways to encourage individuals like O’Keefe, the Thrashers and Boettcher to revive small business as the “backbone of America.” Once a thriving town of “tanning and canning,” Frederick itself has seen the success of independent, family-owned businesses ebb and flow with the nation’s fortunes over the centuries. Local business and real estate struggled following the Civil War, during the Great Depression and coinciding with the arrival of two shopping malls in the 1970s — with periods of rebound in between.
In recent years, the recession and grim job market have led long-term professionals to consider independently marketing their skills locally, while younger generations view self-employment as a more secure foothold in the wake of the scandalous demise of the multibillion-dollar Enron Corporation, collapse of the banking and housing industries, and the federal bailout of AIG. “As people see corporations are not distributing their profits equitably, more and more will say we want to be in charge of our own destiny,” says Francesca Contento, president of the Alliance of Small Businesses, a membership organization focused on networking support for small businesses in the county.
It’s hard to determine which way the trend is going locally for startups and how it compares to national studies that show an overall drop in the number of small businesses between 2008 and 2010. Beth Woodring, senior consultant with the Small Business and Technology Development Center in Frederick, says collecting exact numbers is difficult, but her analysis of U.S. Census data shows a 2.1 percent drop during that time period. “There is no way to determine how that shift occurred, however, so I would be reticent to say it indicates a particular trend,” she warns. The Frederick County Chamber of Commerce would like to say the trend is going the other way, as its members have increased from 760 to 1,050 since May 2010, with 84 percent of them representing small businesses.
Many factors have converged to make the timing — and the place — right for enterprising individuals in this area. City and county planners have long promoted the Frederick area for its ideal location at the interchange of three major highways and the driving distance from Washington, D.C. and Baltimore. Decades ago, they sought to alter its “bedroom community” reputation, and in the past 20 to 30 years, an increasing number of people have opened shop (some have closed and were replaced by others) downtown.
Ask longtime downtown business owners about the reason for their success, and they will point first to the Carroll Creek project that commenced after a 1976 flood washed through 100 acres of downtown and sent businesses fleeing. Early stages of the effort included burying power lines; executing a $65-million flood-control project (one that began in the 1980s); relocating the courthouse, city hall and the Weinberg Center for the Arts; paving areas along the creek and luring in unique restaurants and independent retailers. The project’s conception drew controversy due to its size, cost and — according to some opponents — the potential to destroy the beauty of the downtown area. But city officials plowed forward.
“When you look at Frederick you are looking at a place where the overall health and quality of the downtown has improved dramatically over the last 30 years,” says Cindy Powell, who started Needles & Pins 20 years ago. Her shop’s establishment followed the investment of Bert Anderson, a native Texan who arrived in Frederick more than 40 years ago and subsequently developed Shab Row and Everedy Square on East Street.
Local lawmakers also have invested in such growth industries as biotechnology and other advanced technologies. Government spending in the region makes contracting business possible and provides some insulation from the economic downturn (however, watch out for those looming federal budget cuts). With the expansion of Fort Detrick and its resident National Cancer Institute labs, as well as Frederick Community College, “a lot of trends are coming together,” says Ed Robinson, a New York native who is president of the Entrepreneur Council of Frederick County and founder of the management consulting business Capacity Building Solutions, Inc.
Robinson says it was “mostly a quality of life move” when he settled both his home and his business in Frederick by 2005 with the goal of doing 50 of his business withi 30 minutes of his front door. He recognizes many people make such a choice “once they get to a certain age and have kids … I don’t know if it’s a yearning or an interest in small-town America.”
Population and Performance
Consider the population spike. The 2010 U.S. Census showed 233,385 residents in the county, an increase of 19.5 percent since 2000 (195,277 residents) and 55 percent since 1990 (150,208 residents). The state projects a population increase to 339,700 residents by 2030. Industry and government spending, improved schools and lower housing prices spurred this growth.
In fact, many small business owners are relative newcomers to Frederick, with some originating from as far away as California and Texas. And they, alongside some native residents, are creating a hotbed of entrepreneurship that includes artisans, technical experts, inventors, communication specialists, service specialists, nonprofit enthusiast and various other professionals.
Some welcome the change; other longtimers resent it. During the 19th century and in later decades, some residents frequently discouraged plans that might attract newcomers and disrupt their quiet neighborhoods. Several times, they even rejected the establishment of a rail line through downtown Frederick, but finally conceded.
“Communities, just like organizations, need an influx of new blood to keep things going, to inject new energy,” Robinson says. “It’s natural for generations to have difficulty letting things go — to resist change — when they have people coming in like myself who made the move here totally for the quality of life and the possibilities here.” But, he insists, “That balancing act of keeping Frederick something special and introducing the new is really being managed nicely here.”
But what about O’Keefe, the Thrashers and Boettcher?
O’Keefe found a way to blend in. Facing the grim job market in 2009, he set out on his own, walking the main street of his native Middletown until he found a suitable place he could afford to rent and hang a sign a quaint house with white siding and green shutters and trim where (perhaps by chance?) a real estate business also resided. O’Keefe Legal Services, LLC offers something he discerned was scarce in the region and presented potential for stability: wills, trust and estate planning. He got his first customer from his church before he had even set up his office.
The Thrashers’ “green cleaning” company was just showing signs of success in 2009 — with two years under its belt. Timika and Gregory continued to maintain their full-time jobs at Potomac Edison and a local mortgage company while caring for their 15-month-old baby. However, the couple followed their friends’ advice that local businesses would hire office cleaners who use environmentally-friendly solutions. The two filled the garage of their Frederick home with supplies and diligently worked nights and weekends while relatives watched the baby and, later, two more children. Thrashers Cleaning Service now has 20 accounts and about a dozen staff members. Timika — who spent her early childhood in New York — sees the real and near possibility of focusing full time on the business.
Boettcher, who now holds the rank of sergeant and lives in Urbana, hopes to find customers among th growing Frederick population — and ideally well beyond the county’s borders — for his invention, Neubrew, a tea cup that permits steeping with no mess, burns or spills. The father of three young boys (ages 5 and younger) is married to a Texan he met during his deployment in Germany; Boettcher is currently awaiting his full patent. In the interim, he has launched a “crowd funding” website with plans to unveil hi product locally this summer. He envisions turning a healthy profit by the time he retires from the service in three years.
How to Succeed in Small Business
One of the biggest challenges to starting a new business is not just determining whether you can succeed but how. Despite the high-profile debates among federal and local lawmakers about new or potential incentives to make success more likely, there’s obviously no guarantee, but Frederick is full of entrepreneurs who have made their business dream a working reality.
Beth Schillaci, president and founder of VillageWorks Communications Inc., learned the basics of Internet technology at a startup acquired by Netscape. After she and her husband made Frederick home 15 years ago, she launched a business out of their basement, initially building websites for businesses and expanding her services as technology advanced. She now brands herself as a social media-marketing specialist for small businesses and “solopreneurs.” Over time she has both expanded and contracted the size of her company.
“When I started my business, I was led to believe that I needed to appear larger than I was or people wouldn’t take me seriously,” she states in her blog. Schillaci began to hire employees, but as they decided to move on and she tired of the distractions of management, she decided to return to her passion: helping small businesses. Now she uses contractors as needed and a membership at Cowork Frederick for office space explaining, “It’s time to embrace our smallness.”
But Schillaci warns: “As a small business, you are not necessarily going to go make a lot of money. It’s that lifestyle decision you make … that you want to have the flexibility to get your daughter on the bus … that you get to choose the 80 hours a week you work.”
Powell’s niche business, focused on a craft that has waxed and waned with technological and demographical changes, faces her own challenges keeping clientele walking through her quilting store’s doors. “You have to be willing to make the commitment. It is 24-7. You never stop thinking about it. You never stop worrying about it,” she says. “If you’re willing to commit to trying to make it long term … you need partners who are willing to work with you.” And she says you have to be willing to put your own money back into the business.
As a former full-time executive director of The Community Foundation of Frederick County, Powell also feels strongly about being engaged in the community. She runs community service projects such as a collections for Advocates for the Homeless families and donation of quilts to the police department to provide to babies and children.
Robinson, in his role as president of the Entrepreneur Council of Frederick County, says “first-time entrepreneurs have a naive view of entrepreneurship … Once they taste it, they don’t want to eat the meal for too long.” Typically, they drop their venture after five years, having gotten in too far by hiring too many employees, or simply dropping the struggle. He states on his website blog: “I am a firm believer in persistence and determination. Many people give up just before things are about to break their way. However, it never makes sense to go off a cliff simply because it is there.”
Address for Success
Although today’s technology helps you to escape the confines of the office cubicle and set up your own shop at home, sometimes that basement corner or small extra bedroom-turned-office can feel a little lonely or isolated, leaving you craving that water cooler conversation. And while the neighborhood coffeehouse may offer a stimulating atmosphere, not everyone who stops in for a mocha grande is there to focus on the daily grind. So where can you go for the flexibility and freedom of working in your own office while being able to interact with colleagues in a professional environment?
A growing network of collaborative work spaces in Frederick County — and across the nation — provide the self-employed, the small business owner, the starving artist and the remote worker an avenue for networking, advice, low-expense office amenities or traditional professional veneer. Each of the owners of these entities knows their space fits the need of a specific type of worker or business, and they often refer potential clients to one another (so don’t feel slighted if you visit one and are redirected).
Cowork Frederick opened in September 2012 in a refurbished old house downtown at 122 E. Patrick St. Its hardwood floors, front parlor room with fireplace, back kitchen with windows and patio lend a homey feel. Upstairs, you find a large, window-lit conference room equipped with modern conveniences like a projector and speakerphone. Down the hall are private phone rooms and individual offices. Yes, there are bathrooms where you can even shower after biking in to work.
Glen and Julia Ferguson, who relocated to Frederick a few years ago, modeled the idea after a concept initiated by software engineer and developer Bryan Neuberg in San Francisco. They sought to use recycled and earth-friendly materials while mixing the historic look with a “cool eclectic feel.”
You can join for an hour or two to test it out, or you can come one to five days a month to meet with clients or hold classes. There are also part- or full-time options for those seeking a more regular office base. Membership allows you to use any room (with an agreement to clean your own dishes). The free-flowing use of space, the Fergusons and its founding members combine to provide a sense of community and permit a spontaneous exchange of ideas and expertise.
At Cowork, you’ll find social media specialists, a product developer, a writer, software coder, an architect and a World Bank employee, among others. And, at various times, you may see the work of local artists around the building (the Fergusons offer them a place to showcase their work for free). “It’s not so much the place. It’s the people,” notes Glen. There are pros and cons to that statement; while collaboration is welcome, consideration of others’ work and time also is encouraged. “You have to be comfortable. But you also have to be able to get things done.”
The Business Factory of Frederick is located in a vacated factory building at 801 N. East St., Suite 6-A, near 8th Street in Frederick. It houses several offices near the front reception area; in the back, behind a wide open space with foundation floor and an unfinished, high ceiling, memories of the town’s industrial past echo in the space. This is where General Manager Peggy Richman, who opened the facility at the start of 2013, envisions artists’ workspaces and shows. Meeting rooms, classrooms, kitchen and a storage area are also present. Richman patterned the Business Factory in part on designs of collaborative workspaces at Affinity Lab in Washington, D.C. She aims for a local flavor with a heavy emphasis on nonprofits, artists and decorated spaces with locally refurbished items, such as a chicken feeding tray that serves as a business card holder. Richman offers a range of membership options, but she insists on collaboration and camaraderie among members. Potential clients not only interview her, but she interviews them and gauges whether they will fit into the mix and be willing to support nonprofit causes. “I want to know if you are willing to engage and be part of this community,” she explains.
Kenneth and Lisa Engelke, who recently launched Strategic Ecosystems, provide on-site IT support. Thrashers Cleaning Solutions uses the space to store its cleaning supplies and conduct employee trainings, while also providing cleaning services for the Business Factory.
Regus is a multinational corporation that created its own office space in Westview Village on Buckeystown Pike, just off I-270. It offers the modern feel of a professional corporation complete with receptionists, private offices for one to three workers, a shared conference room and kitchen.
You don’t even have to clean your own coffee cup! Team leader Julie Bain Miller (who hails from Colorado) ensures that she and her assistants meet your every need. Want your phone calls answered in such a manner that clients think they are calling a large business, rather than a cell phone that rings in your living room with the echoes of the television or children fighting? No problem. “If you want a corporate image and have someone walk in and say, ‘Wow!’ — we fill that image,” Miller says.
Regus operates five other locations in Maryland with sights on four more. Frederick was an ideal location, she states, because of Fort Detrick, government contractors and various other businesses in the county. Regus opened the Frederick location in September 2012, and within five months, its 42-office facility was half full.
Whether you rent an office for three months or three years, you gain access to space not only in Frederick, but in any of the centers around the world. Or, the space can simply serve as your professional business address while you operate out of your home. Miller will even have business cards made for you.
The Frederick Innovative Technology Center, Inc. at 401 Rosemont Ave. in Frederick, opened in 2004 as an incubator to help encourage and support innovators across the county. And, in other ways, businesses are becoming more intertwined with one another. Members of the groups listed above — as well as their hosts — also are members of, or work with, the Frederick County Chamber of Commerce, the Downtown Frederick Partnership, SCORE and the Entrepreneur Support Network (which itself offers leads to a variety of other networks and partnerships) and many other avenues for doing business.
Don’t want, or can’t afford, to pay to join any of these? In 2011, Francesca Contento started the Alliance of Small Businesses, a place where approximately 30 members have started to learn about resources in the county and state, exchange ideas and frustrations, and study examples from business leaders in the area. Contento, a former employee a Freddie Mac who operates an independent student exchange service, hopes to find other ways to help them succeed. “I’m trying to focus on small business. Many are at-home folks who can’t afford a pricey membership to a partnership or make weekly commitments,” she says.
Learn more about some enterprising entrepreneurs in the community.
By Linda Norris-Waldt
Photographs by Erick Gibson
It was early 2011. The economy was a full two years out of the recession. Local business indicators such as permits, housing starts and payroll were still trending down, and a new Board of Frederick County Commissioners with a “get-’er-done” attitude had just been inaugurated. Four commissioners from the five-member board were determined to make good on their campaign promise of reducing government regulation on business to promote jobs and growth. Up went the highway signs at the county line declaring, “Frederick County: Open for Business.”
Welcome to the age of “Business Friendly” county government.
Although some critics charge the current administration with bringing about a radical 180-degree shift in regulatory policy, the movement to take the bureau out of county bureaucracy began almost 10 years ago with some basic changes in the system. But you could say the gradual march of progress snowballed at a meeting held Nov. 20, 2010 by county department heads in the basement of the Market Street building where developers, builders and tradespeople go for permits and meetings. They packed the room that morning, having been invited to come vent complaints and make suggestions about the process. Why did this happen now, and what gave them hope that things would change?
“It boils down to trust and confidence,” says local real estate developer Jim “Big Fitz” Fitzgerald. “What’s the difference between then and now? Leadership before  at the commissioner level didn’t inspire confidence — confidence that when you submit an application for something, it will be attended to in a prompt and courteous fashion. And trust that there will be no hidden agenda.”
This is a story of perception and priorities, and how strongly they influence the way people do their jobs — as well as the way the community views changes in direction.
A Culture Change
“Business Friendly” as a concept originated more than a decade ago when Frederick County leaders initiated Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) meetings. These were meant to bring together customers and employees from different county and state departments whose signatures were required for building projects to move forward. The intent was communication — but it didn’t always happen.
“Before [the new board], the TAC was hit or miss, a few agencies would come but it was not a priority,” observes Permits and Inspections Department Director Gary Hessong. “Today, now everyone is there. Many times an agency’s comment may affect another agency’s review, and if we can bring it all to the table at the same time, it solves problems that might have taken weeks. We can advise the applicant, and it helps our process be more predictable.”
Jan Gardner, who served on three previous county commissioner boards, was surprised when she was told about Hessong’s assessment of the TAC’s early failure to improve communication and efficiency. “We never heard about this, or gave any directives one way or the other; we just assumed these meetings were well attended and effective,” she says.
The business community had been invited for monthly meetings with Hessong, she says, and in 2002, the Office of Economic Development began its monthly Monday morning business retention visits, bringing staff and sometimes commissioners regularly into local businesses to take the temperature of the business mood on a more regular basis.
Gardner says that during her tenure Frederick County launched the Fast Track permitting system for high potential new businesses and projects, and moved all the permitting agencies to one location at 30 North Market St. to make it easier for permit applicants to do business. “We were the ones who put in software so that applicants could go in and look at the status of their permits …. I would often find out that the applicant was the one who hadn’t provided something that was holding the process up.”
Upklash Kumar — who was then manufacturing and site lead for Life Technologies Corp., a global biotech company which worked with the 2006-2010 Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) to expand and add 100 jobs to its Frederick plant — praised the Fast Track system and Gardner. But he was also critical of Gardner’s fellow commissioners and the overall attitude in the past. “I don’t think big business was appreciated as much as it is right now,” Kumar says. “The current group recognizes that we bring higher paying jobs — with less likelihood of being farmed overseas. We bring families that will live here.”
Gardner and one of her consistent allies Janice Wiles, the director of citizen land use/environmental watchdog group Friends of Frederick County, insist the past commissioners had good intentions but received a bad rap. “The last board had spent massive amounts of time working on smart growth and good planning; there is only so much time in the day,” Wiles says. “They didn’t do the focus in this area because they hadn’t gotten to the implementation of the business growth strategies that were put into the plan.”
Kevin Demosky, who heads the Water/Sewer and Solid Waste Division, held another one of the business focus groups this fall. It brought out about 25 civil engineers and other interested businesses. The priority on having a dialogue with business user groups is much higher for employees now than it was with the last board, he notes. “I don’t think we weren’t business friendly under the last board, but now we have that direction” from the current leadership. However, he fears the change in direction is misunderstood by some in the community. “Perceptions are dangerous; and the perception may be that we’re being pro-development, when it’s really me trying to be pro-helpful.”
Others agree. “The attitude is better and how we are received is better,” says Rick Masser, the county’s chief environmental compliance inspector. “Now it’s a totally different story; if you can help people at the counter with something like you were taught in the way you were brought up, in the old style, we feel we can do it. We’re there to help people, not put up roadblocks.”
Business Friendly … for Whom?
Skeptics question whether the current outlook benefits all businesses. “I love the objective about expanding job opportunities and small businesses; facilitating that is a good thing,” says Wiles. “But a lot of policies that have been put in place are favoring one industry over others. [The BOCC is] facilitating things for developers to be able to do things quickly, such as the changes to the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance [APFO], and when you do things mainly for one industry, that’s when it becomes a bad thing.” She points to the county’s Business Friendly Action Items (BFAI), which she calls a “developer’s wish list,” that include among its 234 items:
- Revised Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance: This ordinance had put potential developments to the test of crowded schools, intersections and other growth problems. It required developers to wait before proceeding if they failed the test, but now allows developments to move forward if the developer pays an upfront school mitigation fee. The BOCC also gave itself authority that only the planning commission had before to waive or approve APFO failures, which can now be negotiated into Developer Rights and Responsibilities agreements.
- Forest Resource Ordinance: The BOCC removed requirements for replacement of forests felled for development.
- Stream Buffers: The BOCC relaxed the required amount of footage of land set aside as buffer, allowing more housing lots in future developments.
Commissioner Blaine Young, who has championed the BFAI list, says listening to the development community’s ideas was the only way to restart the construction industry.
“It’s a fluid process,” he says. “When Frederick County was building 2,500 homes a year, of course you have to put those rules and regulations in place. But when the economy is bad, sometimes you have to loosen this up when there’s no activity.” It’s only a temporary economic measure, he claims. When housing sees a reboot, at what he called a “delta” of 1,250 to 1,500 homes a year, “then it’s time to look at policies and procedures to put in the infrastructure that we need for that pace.”
The pace still appears to be some time off. Building permits, according to the Department of Planning’s Annual Report, were at 533 in 2011 (full 2012 figures were not available) — slower during the BOCC’s term than they were “in 2008 when the recession was at its height” at 562, the report states. Residential lot recordation continues to decline from 2010, with only 157 lots recorded in 2011. Commercial and industrial construction activity dropped from 2010 levels to 666 permits in 2011.
Other actions by the BOCC have worked to the detriment of small businesses, says Hilari Benson Varnadore, a former county employee and sustainability advocate. “Look at the loss of Dave Helmecki, the Business [Commercial] Recycling Coordinator,” she says, referring to the layoff of a position that worked with small and large “brick-and-mortar” businesses to help increase their bottom lines through waste diversion and recycling.
The loss of the Small Business Revolving Loan program, which provided start-up microloans for businesses too small to secure loans, was another non-business friendly move, she believes. The current BOCC cut the program, citing the payback default of several of its participants.
Gardner says the current BOCC’s lack of support for the Frederick Innovative Technology Center Inc. (FITCI) is puzzling in light of the “business friendly” claims. FITCI’s budget was cut to 33 percent of the $100,000 it received during the year the current board took office. “Real small business jobs were created from that incubator,” she says.
Gardner is also concerned that the shift of so many fees and taxes, such as the excise tax paid by builders for new construction that used to fund roads and bridges, leaves all taxpayers covering the cost of new development, not those who benefit from the construction. “The general taxpayer is now paying for development out of the general fund. And when you look at building permits — which have not gone up — at the end of the day it leaves the burden with the general coffers.”
On the contrary, asserts Young. He explains that the shift in financing will eventually result in an increase in jobs and bring more income tax revenue into the general fund, thus actually easing the higher burden on taxpayers. “There was an impact on the general fund, but we felt the creation of jobs, and the growth of the piggyback tax and property taxes, will offset that,” he adds.
The local job market has yet to rebound, even if Frederick County’s unemployment rate of 5.3 percent is better than surrounding counties. In 2007, when the recession began, there were 96,471 Frederick County jobs; that total was 91,420 last year, a decrease of 5 percent. The number of businesses was up 6 percent, however, to 6,134.
Predictability and Perception
Chuck and Paula Fry are Point of Rocks farmers who fell in love with the idea of a farm-based ice cream parlor when they heard about the concept at the National Ice Cream Retailers Association Convention in 2010. “This is better than any agricultural preservation you could have,” he says, pointing to the Holstein-spotted floor, gleaming Plexiglass ice cream cases and family-style seating in the parlor, which they swore in 2011 they would build before the current BOCC leaves office. “We knew we’d never have gotten our approvals with the last board, and you don’t know who’s coming with the next one.”
When they first proposed the concept two years ago, their vision of an attractive, enclosed ice cream parlor where families could stop for a treat even in winter didn’t fit the Zoning Ordinance, which limited them to a 350-square-foot farm stand. “There wasn’t even room for them to make and store the ice cream they wanted to sell,” recalls Colby Ferguson, agricultural development specialist for the Business Development and Retention Division.
With Ferguson’s help, a new zoning classification was put into the ordinance in 2011 that allowed Rocky Point Creamery to build a 1,500-square-foot commercial facility in the agricultural zone — as long as more than 50 percent of the product is made on-site, keeping the farm in the picture. Even so, Fry says he would never have predicted that it would take a year to negotiate bouncing back and forth from agency to agency.
Ferguson is praised in Frederick County business circles as a realist and pragmatist who gets things done. He is also symbolic of the bridge between perception and reality, pointing out that shortly after he was hired in 2006, his job’s focus was on how to accommodate the changing agribusiness landscape. “Working on improving the business climate began two boards ago,” he says. The zoning ordinance changes happening in the past two years have been the evolution of years of work in bringing agritourism to the table, even if the perception gives credit to the current BOCC due to the rollout of some of the projects that result from the changes.
The wish for most county government employees to serve has always been there, he says, and anything that helps them to do that better by improving the atmosphere and perception of the work county employees do is empowering. “I don’t do this for the money; I came to this job because I like to solve people’s problems,” he says. “Now, my job is easier. They tell me what their dream is for their business, and I help them get it done.”
Could Allowing Public Transit Buses to Use I-270’s Shoulders as Bypass Lanes Ease Traffic Congestion and Commuter Woes?
By Gina Gallucci-White
Photographs by Troy Dean
As the sun creeps up over the horizon, many Frederick County roads are already filled with commuters. While work hours for most people don’t begin until 8 or even 9 o’clock, the workday begins extra early around here, especially if being on time is essential. As the vehicles converge onto the U.S. 15/I-270 corridor, speedometers, however, are barely moving. Traffic routinely is at a standstill during rush hours.
Tim Davis, Frederick’s transportation planner, estimates that more than half of the city’s residents commute down I-270 each day, traveling to Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, and Loudoun County, Virginia, to work. But how many combined hours and days of life are wasted sitting on the road? What if there was a way to regain some of these lost hours of travel time?
Those thoughts were echoed last December when Frederick city Alderwoman Carol Krimm was en route to a Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments Transportation Board meeting with Davis. As the two made their way down I-270, they began to kick around the idea. “Why haven’t we discussed using the shoulders?” Krimm remembers asking. “I said, ‘Why don’t we talk about it?’”
While attending the transportation meeting, Krimm found an ally in Arlington County, Virginia’s Christopher Zimmerman, a member of the transportation board. He described his experience with a Bus-Bypass Shoulder (BBS) during a visit he made to downtown Minneapolis. When an appointment ran late and Zimmerman needed to get to the airport quickly, locals told him to get on a bus. “He said, ‘Are you nuts? It’s rush hour.’” Krimm recalls.
Taking their advice, Zimmerman discovered firsthand how a BBS worked. As traffic stood at a standstill, the bus moved to an unoccupied lane and sped past. “It got him to the airport lickety split,” Krimm says. “He was so impressed by it.”
And so was Krimm when Zimmerman provided her a copy of the 91-page Transit Cooperative Research Program report on bus use of shoulders. “I started reading it,” she says. “Every question you could think of was answered.” Krimm took the idea of a Bus-Bypass Shoulder to local groups, including the Frederick Area Committee for Transportation (FACT) and the Frederick County Transportation Services Advisory Council (TSAC).
Bringing the Buses to I-270′s Shoulders
Local and regional officials have begun mustering support for a plan that would permit public transit commuter buses to drive on the existing shoulders of I-270 during the workweek’s highest periods of traffic volume — a type of HOV (high-occupancy vehicle) lane for buses. The concept known as “Bus- Bypass Shoulder” (BBS) or “Bus On Shoulder System” (BOSS) has been in use in Seattle, Washington, D.C.; Miami, Florida; Atlanta, Georgia; Columbus, Ohio; Canada and European cities for more than 10 years.
“It would relieve congestion as a temporary solution to traffic problems around Frederick,” says Frederick County Commissioner Kirby Delauter. “The shoulders are rarely used and could be implemented just in peak usage times like 6 to 10 a.m. and 2 to 6 p.m.”
The proposal targets the 11-mile southbound lane running from the Monocacy River Bridge to the beginning of the three-lane southbound section north of the Md. 121 Interchange. Northbound traffic would have a 9-mile ride beginning at the Md. 121 Interchange to the north of the Md. 80 Interchange.
The bypass option would allow bus passengers to avoid the bottlenecks during their commute. “It’s a real win for folks who take advantage of Transit,” says Ronald Burns, Frederick County traffic engineer. Depending on the time of day, he estimates the time savings could be up to a half hour in length.
In addition, a shoulder lane can help move traffic along better, says Frederick County Commissioner C. Paul Smith. The shoulder lane added several years ago to southbound U.S. 15 beginning at the Rosemont Avenue exit and leading into the Patrick Street exit “was a gigantic improvement” for increased traffic flow, he notes.
The proposal was one of several Fiscal Year 2013 county projects that were suggested as priorities to help relieve congestion and improve traffic safety. Frederick officials presented the proposal to the Maryland Consolidated Transportation Program for consideration, and the priorities list was submitted at the end of April. They hope a feasibility assessment can be performed to determine if the BBS would be possible.
Thinking Traffic Safety
Traffic safety was one of the most common concerns noted in the Transit Cooperative Research Program report. Would there be conflicts at the on- and off-ramps? Could motorists no longer pull off the road onto the shoulder? When attempting to avoid a collision or debris, would the shoulders now be off limits to motorists?
Those issues can be minimized, according to the report, by using the lanes only during peak hours when traffic is slow, conducting additional bus driver training and placing signage along the lanes.
“Safety has to be paramount,” Krimm says.
Frederick County Division of Fire and Rescue Services Director Thomas W. Owens has not seen specifics regarding the proposal but, in general, is not overly concerned with the concept of using the shoulder lanes for commuter bus traffic during peak periods. Before taking his current position in February 2010, Owens served as fire chief for Fairfax, Virginia, for eight years, where the use of shoulder lanes has been a common practice on I-66 for many years.
While the shoulder lanes in his former jurisdiction were not exclusive to bus use, the shoulder essentially added a fourth lane to the interstate during peak use times. “Even with all vehicle use in Fairfax, fire and rescue experienced no significant issues than when providing service to other lanes of traffic,” Owens says.
“The key to the successful use of shoulder lanes lies in the signage and lane control systems put in place as well as making sure there are still designated emergency pull-off areas provided in specific areas,” he says.
Cost and Infrastructure Assessments
Each transportation planning project starts out with an equation: Does the benefit outweigh the cost?
Many Frederick residents would probably like to have a Metro Red Line stop in Frederick, but the cost of construction would be too much, says Davis. He notes that bus routes offer flexibility for changes or additions when compared to rail transit.
Currently, the shoulders cannot handle the size and load of the buses, Burns says, noting the shoulder’s dimensions of 4 feet on the inside and 10 feet on the outside. He estimates the upgrades to the current shoulders could cost several hundred million dollars. Additional Park and Rides would be needed, along with more buses and increased awareness of the Transit option to residents. “It’s not going to be cheap,” he says.
But Krimm argues, “In comparison to building new lanes, it would be lower.”
Traffic congestion is much more than a commuter problem; it can also be an impediment to conducting business, says Richard “Ric” Adams, President and CEO of the Frederick County Chamber of Commerce. The group advocates the importance of transportation improvements and stresses the need to elected officials for making the upgrades a priority.
“Addressing traffic congestion on I-270 will help Frederick’s employers and employees connect better with the D.C. Metro region,” he says. “New businesses will appreciate that they can move their goods and services around the area with ease.”
Morning commuters who stood waiting for the Maryland Transit Administration’s (MTA) 991 bus to take them to the Shady Grove Metro station say they would welcome any plan that improves their daily ride. Many recall times when highway congestion forced the 55 passengers on the bus to sit in traffic along with everyone else, and many agreed that using the shoulder as a bypass would be a real boon to their travel time as well as make that form of public transportation more attractive to potential riders.
Commissioner Delauter has not heard from constituents regarding the proposal, but “being in the business of building roads, it just makes sense for a temporary solution,” he says.
Krimm, on the other hand, has had several constituents approach her recently, voicing their support for a BBS. They tell her about missing sports activities and time with their families because they are struck in traffic on I-270.
“People are still waiting for public officials and transportation planners to ease congestion,” she says. “This is a way that would not be as cost prohibitive. … It works in other places. Why can’t it work here?”
What the Commuters Are Saying
Larry Jones Frederick – Bus commuter for 9 months (just relocated from Chicago)
“I work for the government, which encourages us to take public transportation by providing lists of the services and compensation. The buses are comfortable, clean, and the drivers are respectful. I enjoy letting someone else drive while I catch up on the news and sports on my iPhone — or sleep.”
Pat MacConnell Frederick – Bus commuter for less than 6 months
“My employer, Marriott, is very supportive of the transit services. So far it’s been good; there’s only been one absent bus, and since I commute by myself, it saves me a lot on gas — plus I usually spend my time reading.”
Deborah Jennings Emmitsburg – Bus commuter for 4 ½ years
“I thought about driving but traffic starts backing up on U.S. 15. I like the bus, although I have been left behind because it was too full. Buses also get stuck in traffic, but at least I’m not driving. I think the shoulder bypass lane would be good for buses.”
Dave Fulton Frederick – Bus commuter for 7 years
“I’ve tried driving and the MARC train, and the bus is really the least expensive and most convenient transportation. I’d say the results have been mixed. There have been some breakdowns and not enough buses. I’ve been left behind a couple of times and had to take the next bus. They’ve become stricter about not letting you ride while standing when the bus is full, too.”