Greater Greater Washington

Posts by Ben Ross

Ben Ross was president of the Action Committee for Transit for 15 years. His new book about the politics of urbanism and transit, Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism, is published by Oxford University Press. 

Purple Line: It's not the cost, it's the country club

Maryland governor Larry Hogan may cancel the Purple Line because he says it's too expensive, but given his sudden announcement last week of lower highway tolls, that's clearly just an excuse. The real obstacle to building the light rail line is the pressure of a few well-placed opponents, chief among them the Columbia Country Club.


Columbia Country Club in 1919

Back when the Purple Line was a new idea, I had the chance to shake hands with then-governor Parris Glendening. I grabbed the opportunity to say a few words about the project. Glendening's answer? "Get the country club to take two strokes off your score if you hit a trolley car, and you've solved the whole problem."

Almost 20 years have gone by since then, and the situation has not changed.

If the Purple Line dies, cost will be the excuse rather than the real reason. The project's current financing plan calls for only $288 million in state outlays during construction. This is a very modest amount of money for a major transportation facility—the price of two highway interchanges. The savings that Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn has identified will make the number even smaller.

Over the six years of construction, Maryland will spend less on the Purple Line than on last week's toll cuts. The toll cuts, targeted to benefit big trucking companies and owners of beach houses, will cost $54 million a year.


The financing plan for the Purple Line. Image by Ronit Dancis.

Everything else in the light rail construction budget is money that the state loses if it doesn't go ahead. $1.6 billion comes from the federal government, $900 million as a grant and $700 million as a low-interest loan under the TIFIA program. The state has already spent more than $200 million, and Montgomery and Prince George's Counties will kick in at least that much.

The loan, of course, will have to be paid back after the trains start to run. At an interest rate of 2.73%—what Fairfax pays on money it borrowed last December for the Silver Line—the payments will be $36 million a year for 30 years. If the Purple Line's private partner gets $12 million a year in profit and return of capital—a generous return on an initial investment of $81 million—the total will be $48 million. This is still less than the ongoing cost of the toll cut giveaway.

So what would make Governor Larry Hogan, whose slogan is "Maryland is open for business," think of canceling a project that business badly wants? It is certainly not the merits of the arguments against it, which have been thoroughly debunked.

In politics, wealth and influence can be more persuasive than facts and logic. Columbia Country Club, whose golf course lies on both sides of the railroad right of way the Purple Line will follow, has long been a favored haunt of Washington power brokers. The club only reluctantly abandoned its 25-year struggle against light rail in 2013, and after last year's election a team of lobbyists was assembled from its membership to renew the fight.

In January, Governor Hogan came to Bethesda for a fundraiser where club members raised $47,000 for his political committee. Three top members of his staff later sat down with the club's golfer-lobbyists to hear their objections. Neither the governor nor his staff have been willing to meet with Purple Line supporters, and—with a decision just days away—the governor has not even bothered to take a look at the Purple Line's route.

Make no mistake about what is happening. No one here is balancing competing public policy priorities. Either Governor Hogan already understands the Purple Line's vast economic benefits, or he doesn't care enough to find out. The decision he makes next week will be a straight-up choice between insider influence and the public good.

Correction: An earlier version of this post had a typo that said $700 billion as a a low-interest loan under the TIFIA program, rather than $700 million. We've fixed it.

Consumers say they like trains. Why don't economists care?

One of the most basic tenets of standard economics is that consumer choice dictates the market. Yet in discussions about transit, many economic analyses seem to throw consumer preference out the window, insisting that riders' preference for rail over bus doesn't matter, or is imaginary.


Photo by Joshua Daniel Franklin on Flickr.

Opponents of rail projects often argue that trains are a waste of money because buses provide the same benefits for less cost. That's incorrect on technical grounds, but it also ignores the factor of consumer preference.

The great virtue of markets, mainstream economics asserts, is that they compel producers to make what the "sovereign consumer" desires. Each individual buys what he or she wants and isn't forced to accept what someone else thinks they should want.

But as I recently discussed in more detail in Dissent magazine, transportation economists often ignore a basic premise of their own discipline, and dethrone the sovereign consumer.

Be complete and be honest

Unlike their colleagues who study ordinary markets, transportation economists don't try (as they could) to measure consumer preference and weigh the costs of meeting it. Instead, they tell commuters who yearn for trains that their preferences are mere emotion and myth.

Telling consumers they're wrong to feel the way they do is extremely unusual, and transportation economists' insistence upon doing so undermines honest economic assessment of transportation proposals. Most commuters have options, and every freedom to put their preferences to practice.

This is not to say there aren't economic advantages to buses. Of course there are. Buses are generally cheaper, so cities can use buses to run more transit routes to more places than they could on a rail-only system. That's a genuine benefit. It matters, and it's why we'll always have dozens or hundreds of bus routes for every rail route.

So economists are correct to assert that buses can offer great value. But the fact that buses are great on their own terms does not mean consumer preference for rail can be left out of economic analysis.

A trade pact might change local land use decisions in a big way

A key principle of land use in the United States is that homeowners can often veto new buildings on nearby land that other people own. A trade agreement that's currently in the works could have a huge impact on that long-established system of local control.


Hand shake image from Shutterstock.

The Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) is a trade pact that would change the rules for investments and trade among its signers. It's currently in behind-closed-doors negotiation among 12 countries, including the United States, Australia, Canada, Japan, Mexico, and Singapore. Other countries could join later.

A recently leaked draft of the TPP gives investors from member nations the right to sue when a decision by a local government "interferes with distinct, reasonable investment-backed expectations."

Panels of private lawyers chosen by the investors and the federal government will meet to decide the suits. If the investors win, the federal government must reimburse them for the loss of future profits.

Critics of the TPP argue that it could gut environmental and health regulation. They point to the past history of trade agreements to back up that concern. The TPP's backers, on the other hand, assert that the treaty only bans arbitrary or discriminatory actions.

No matter who turns out to be right about that, the pact is likely to undermine local oversight of land use.

The TPP goes against the spirit of American land use law

Homeowners' power to influence development—what I call "suburban land tenure" in my book Dead Endis an entitlement that most people in the United States take for granted. But it is just the sort of local decision-making the TPP seeks to curb.

Trade treaties aim for decision-making that is stable, predictable, and rational. US land use regulation, on the other hand, bends to meet the often capricious desires of the neighbors. Local officials turn to hard-to-pin-down concepts like "compatibility" and "historic significance" to justify their responsiveness to constituents.

Whatever one thinks of this arrangement, its linguistic evasions are unlikely to satisfy panels of trade lawyers meeting thousands of miles away, under rules that don't even guarantee the local government the right to speak.

Consider this hypothetical case, which is also utterly routine: A foreign landowner proposes a new city building. Neighbors petition for a "historic" designation for the house now standing on the property, and the preservation board approves, blocking new construction. Meanwhile, there are no petitions or designations for nearby houses similar in age and architecture. Is the landowner entitled to compensation?

Or let's say the master plan for an area near a Maryland Metro station calls for 15-story buildings. The zoning allows such tall buildings only if the planning board approves the design; otherwise property owners are limited to three stories. A foreign landowner applies to build a 15-floor building, but neighbors protest against the height of the structures and the planning board cuts the size to nine floors. Will the landowner get the value of the square feet he wasn't allowed to build?

A lot depends on the treaty's details, but we aren't privy to those

It's hard to say exactly how the TPP would affect land use regulation in these and other cases. Wording for the agreement isn't final yet, and that will certainly influence how arbitrators rule in the future. But if Congress gives trade negotiators "fast track" authority, the public will have no say in what follows. Negotiations will stay behind closed doors, and Congress won't be able to change provisions it doesn't like.

Once the pact goes into effect, amendments will require a unanimous agreement from all the countries that signed.

Even after the TPP passes, it will take years for the legal issues to play out. What will happen then if foreign landowners are winning large financial payments from the federal government? Will foreign developers refuse all compromise with local zoning boards, knowing that rejection wins them the same profits as approval? Will the federal government interfere with local zoning decisions that could provoke a large payout? Will domestic builders demand the same rights as foreigners?

You don't have to be a fan of current land use practice to object to this transfer of power. All too often, zoning laws empower affluent minorities at the expense of the larger community. They outlaw the lively urban neighborhoods that more and more Americans want to live in.

The cure for these ills is more democracy, not less. Land use regulators should answer to the entire electorate, not to small groups of influential landowners and not to unaccountable tribunals that put the interests of big money ahead of the common good.

When a safety campaign blames victims it's counterproductive

The region's highway agencies have begun their annual Street Smart campaign promoting road safety. Unfortunately, many of the ads undermine safety by blaming the victim, and advocating the misconception that pedestrians are mere obstacles to cars.


Advertisement that blames the victim. Image from Street Smart.

In this year's version of Street Smart, roadside posters designed for visibility from fast-moving vehicles depict pedestrians as sad-looking young people with car tire tracks across their faces. Although some of the ads do target driver behavior, many wrongly imply that it's pedestrians' responsibility to avoid being run over by inattentive drivers.

Don't blame pedestrians for bad road design

One such sign adorns a bus shelter on Sunnyside Avenue, in Beltsville.


All other photos by Jeff Lemieux unless noted.

Smaller print at the bottom of the sign, which you can only read if you're on foot, adds insult to injury. It advises pedestrians to "Use crosswalks. Wait for the walk signal," the implication being that crosswalks are the only place you can cross the street.

But getting to the nearest traffic light with a crosswalk requires walking an extra 1,500 feet, an unreasonable distance on foot. Instead, bus riders who get off at this location walk across four lanes of traffic to reach businesses on the other side of the road.

Even though there's no marked crosswalk, this is perfectly legal and necessary behavior. Maryland law allows people to cross the street anywhere unless there's a traffic light at both adjacent intersections. Pedestrians have the right of way at intersections and marked crosswalks; drivers elsewhere.


Sunnyside Avenue in Beltsville.

Combine the unsafe street design with the victim-blaming ad and the implied message becomes clear: Pedestrians aren't welcome to use Sunnyside Avenue, and it's their fault if they die trying. The only thing bus riders learn from the ad is that getting to the stop could kill them.

That's not useful public education. It tells drivers not to watch out for pedestrians, and it discourages walking. Heeding these messages will make streets less safe and more congested.


Sunnyside Avenue.

This year's campaign isn't the first time Street Smart has run bizarre ads. Ads in 2011 seemed to suggest pedestrians are a bigger danger to cars than vice versa.

Hopefully future campaigns will avoid this pratfall. It really shouldn't be that difficult.

Whether they live close in or far from the city, people travel about the same number of miles on transit

Transit in the DC area is not just for urbanites. Residents of counties farther from the center of the region ride as many miles per day on transit as those who live closer in.


Daily miles traveled per household. Table from COG report on cycling and walking.

Some drivers and and politicians in exurban counties complain that their counties' gas taxes are paying for urban transit riders. In reality, it's just the opposite: denser areas subsidize the long-distance travel that sprawl requires.

Only a small part of transportation revenue (22% in Maryland) comes from the gas tax. And drivers get most of that back because gasoline is exempt from sales tax. Most money spent on roads comes from taxes on income, real estate, general sales, and automobile sales and registrations. These taxes don't go up if you drive farther.

The above table comes from a new Council of Governments report on cycling and walking. The report used data from the agency's 2007-2008 Household Travel Survey to calculate the daily distance traveled per household by each means of transportation.

By this measure, transit gets the most use not in DC or Arlington but from residents of Prince William County. They ride 6.6 miles per day; Montgomery is second at 6.4. DC clocks in at 5.6 and Arlington and Alexandria, at around 4.5 miles a day, are behind Fairfax and Frederick Counties.

It's not that the region's outer reaches aren't automobile-dependent; residents of exurban counties do 90% of their travel by car. It's that spread-out land use patterns make them travel farther and force them to use cars for most trips.

When destinations are far apart, people take fewer trips on transit. But each trip is longer, on average, and the total distance on transit is about the same as closer in.

The high driving rate in the DC suburbs does not make transit unnecessary. It only proves that the more highways you build, the farther people have to travel to get anywhere. The last thing we should be doing is forcing even longer trips.

The Intercounty Connector's traffic is light so far, but the road's future is still unclear

Planners routinely overestimate how much traffic will grow in the future in order to justify new highways. Usage of the Intercounty Connector is still growing but it looks like the ICC, too, will get less use than planners thought.


ICC traffic levels, in vehicle miles traveled per year. Image by Claire Jaffe.

At first glance, traffic on the ICC seems sparse, and as many journalists report, drivers are taking far fewer trips on the road than predicted. But the trips are longer—about 9½ miles on average, compared to the 6½ miles forecasters expected. Also, the road's initial "ramping up" phase, which is when traffic grows rapidly as drivers learn about a new highway, has not yet ended.

Shifting forecasts

The total miles traveled on a road in a year, which engineers call vehicle miles traveled (VMT), takes into account both the number and length of trips; VMT gives a more accurate measure of traffic density than looking at the number of trips alone. ICC forecasters, like the journalists, focused on trips rather than VMT, but we can tease some VMT approximations out of their reports:

  • In 2004, when the state decided to build the highway, planners foresaw VMT equal to 433 million miles in 2030.
  • A more detailed study in 2006 predicted 325 million VMT in 2020 and 390 million in 2030.
  • In 2009, after construction began, estimates went down further to 278 million in 2020 and 319 million in 2030.
From numbers in the state toll authority's financial statement for the twelve months ending last June, I calculate that VMT in that year was about 195 million. If traffic increases at the rate the forecasters expected (and the just-opened connection to US 1 adds 7% more VMT), it will reach 281 million in 2020 (the upper green line on the graphic above). While that would fall short of pre-construction forecasts, it would at least match the estimate from 2009.

No matter the forecast, the ICC is seeing less usage than planners expected

But it doesn't look like things are headed that way. When they made their models, planners assumed that the overall use of motor vehicles would grow. Data shows that this trend ended about 10 years ago, both in Maryland and elsewhere, and there's not much to say it will start back up. Without long-term increases as part of the projection, the future level of ICC traffic drops to a steady 241 million miles a year (lower green line). That's substantially below all the forecasts.

The range of possible outcomes is even wider than those two numbers suggest. If the initial ramp-up, whose duration is very hard to know beforehand, continues longer than expected and automobile use resumes its historic growth, future traffic might meet the early forecasts.

That, however, is not what's been happening lately. If anything, the ramp-up is coming to an end more quickly than the forecasters predicted. Moreover, if affluent homeowners leave the outer suburbs and new residents who can't afford tolls move in, traffic could peak short of 241 million VMT and then decline.

Even at best, the ICC's tolls will repay only a third of its construction costs. If, as seems probable, traffic on the ICC falls short of the 2009 forecasts, it will need even bigger subsidies. Before Maryland spends more money on toll highways, it should give its projections a second look.

If Maryland kills the Purple Line, it's asking for a $650 million parking bill

If Governor-elect Larry Hogan chooses not to build the Purple Line, he will sock Maryland taxpayers, commuters, and businesses with a huge bill they don't expect. Building parking garages for drivers who would otherwise take the train would likely cost over $600 million, much of it public money.


Bethesda's $64,000-per-space garage under construction. Photo by author.

Parking is expensive, and in the built-up areas where the Purple Line would run, there's no empty land; new spaces would have to go in garages above or below ground.

If there's no Purple Line, more people will leave home in cars, and more parking will be needed at their destinations:

  • Purple Line planners predict that people will take 9,850 new trips on the train that start from their homes. Altogether, they forecast the Purple Line attracting over 29,000 new one-way transit trips each day.
  • With an average of 1.1 passengers per car, canceling the light rail line will create a need for 8,955 additional parking spaces at whatever destination people making home-based trips arrive at.
  • 3,018 of these trips will terminate in downtown Bethesda and Silver Spring, where new parking has to go underground. 4,796 will end elswhere in the inner suburbs, where above-ground garages are the norm.
Montgomery County is now paying $64,000 per space for an underground garage and $53,000 per new space for a parking structure. At these prices, the cost of this destination parking will be $447 million. This does not include parking for people who travel to D.C. or Virginia, or the value of land used for parking lots in outer Maryland suburbs.

Without the Purple Line, downtown residents and students would need more parking space

Cars have to go somewhere at the end of their trips too. The Purple Line won't cut the cost of parking at single-family homes, but apartments and dormitories will need more parking without it.

A rough estimate is that two thirds of the 2,479 new transit riders who live in Bethesda and Silver Spring will live in downtown apartments, and of them, half won't own cars if they don't drive to work. If the Purple Line doesn't go in, new apartment buildings will need more underground spaces, at a cost of $48 million.

Students are not included in the planners' count of home-based trips. University of Maryland administrators expect the Purple Line to greatly improve transit access, and they need to use space currently occupied by parking lots to expand the school itself. As such, they have decided to ban on-campus parking by resident students. The ban will eliminate the need for 2,889 parking spaces, but it's unlikely to go into effect without the Purple Line. If the Purple Line goes, Maryland will need a new parking garage—an expenditure we can estimate at $153 million.

The parking spaces all these drivers will need are going to cost a lot

The cost of all these garages adds up to $648 million. Government funds will pay for parking for University of Maryland employees and students and public garages in Bethesda and Silver Spring. These could add up to as much as half the total.

The remaining cost of the Purple Line for Maryland and its counties, after subtracting federal aid and money already spent, is $1.3 billion. If Maryland shortsightedly cancels this project, the state wouldn't just throw away immense benefits in livability and economic development. It would see half of the supposed cost savings vanish into parking garages.

Clarification: The original version of this post listed 9,850 as a number of trips that start from home on the Purple Line. This is the number of new transit trips (trips that would otherwise be taken by car) that start from home, not the total number of home-based trips on the line.

Chevy Chase grasps at straws in the Purple Line fight

The Town of Chevy Chase has run out of coherent arguments in its fight to keep the Purple Line away from its borders.


The Purple Line in Maryland. Rendering by MTA.

With a Republican administration arriving in Annapolis, endangered shrimp-like creatures are no longer in fashion. So in a series of blog posts this week, former Chevy Chase mayor David Lublin focuses instead on the project's finances. He makes two main points in his criticism of the Maryland Transit Administration's plans for the Purple Line: that the state will turn to private partners to help fund it, and that the state expects it to carry more passengers than other light rail lines around the country.

But these are strengths, not weaknesses.

Lublin's claim that the project is weak because it uses a public-private partnership (P3) has things backwards. The project's merit is why the state chose it as the vehicle for P3 funding. Maryland could afford to build the Purple Line with current revenues, but it needs money for other transportation projects.

The total of the road and transit projects around the state is more than what the state can finance within its debt limit. Under Maryland law, P3 financing doesn't count against the limit because it is not paid back out of taxes. (In this case, fare revenue will repay the investors.) The state selected the Purple Line as a vehicle for P3 financing rather than some other facility because it judged that it would be unusually attractive to private investors. This judgment has proved correct, demonstrating the project's financial soundness.

Compared to other transportation projects, the Purple Line is the best investment Maryland can make

Maryland faces serious budget pressures, but that does not mean it can or should stop building transportation infrastructure. Over the next six years, the state plans to spend $7.2 billion on capital projects through the State Highway Administration, and $6.2 billion on transit through MTA and WMATA.

The state relies heavily on county governments to prioritize transportation investments. In 2013, following the increase in the gas tax, MDOT announced funds for replacing the Nice Bridge, a project that will cost $1 billion to serve an estimated 37,000 cars per day, because that's what Calvert Charles County prioritized. MDOT also funded design for the Thomas Johnson Bridge, estimated to cost over $800 million, because that's what Calvert and St. Mary's Counties wanted.

In Montgomery and Prince George's alone, there are dozens of road widening and interchange projects in the pipeline that collectively cost billions. In Montgomery, there are at least eight interchanges, including the Georgia Avenue/Norbeck Road interchange ($142 million), the US-29/Fairland Road interchange ($148 million), a new interchange at I-270/Newcut Road ($138 million), and four more interchanges on US-29 that will cost an additional $500 million. In Prince George's, officials have plans for an interchange at MD-4/Suitland Parkway for $150 million, and for seven interchanges on Indian Head Highway totaling $606 million.

Ten interchanges cost as much as the state's share of the Purple Line. Which of these will create more access to jobs and stimulate more economic development? Prince George's and Montgomery know the answer, and for many years their leaders have identified the Purple Line as their transportation priority.

Lublin claims the Purple Line's projected ridership is inflated, but that's not true

Lublin's second claim is that Purple Line proponents have overestimated its ridership. For this argument, he relies on a blog post by the well-known light rail critic Randal O'Toole, who asserts the Maryland line won't carry any more riders than others around the country.

O'Toole doesn't look at the specifics of the state's ridership forecast—which, as I showed recently, is probably too low rather than too high—but instead relies on general observations about the route. These range from very dubious ("no major job centers" in Montgomery County) to irrelevant (the average density of the built-up sections of the county, including Germantown and Olney) to just plain false (he says many University of Maryland classrooms are not within walking distance of a future station).

Even worse, O'Toole gets the numbers completely wrong. He says the final Environmental Impact Statement forecasts 46,000 riders a day in 2030; actually, it says there will be 69,300 in 2030 and 74,160 in 2040. Similarly, he misquotes the draft EIS36,000 rather than around 65,000 (the route the state later chose is a hybrid of alternatives with forecasted ridership of 62,600 and 68,100).

Based on O'Toole's analysis, Lublin infers that fare revenues will fall short of estimates. He then throws in a complete red herring, asserting that Baltimore bus fares will pay to run the Purple Line. It would have the same degree of truth, and be just as misleading, to say that car registration fees paid in Garrett County finance the free courtesy van at Martin Airport east of Baltimore. Maryland collects revenue from air, water, and ground transportation throughout the state into a single trust fund. All regions contribute, and all benefit.

David Lublin is not a stupid person, and he is familiar with the Purple Line ridership forecasts. While he served on its council, Chevy Chase paid consultants a lot of money to critique the state's numbers. If the arguments in his recent blog posts are the best he's got, that speaks volumes about the weakness of the case against the Purple Line.

New Maryland toll lanes will lose money

New toll lanes that opened Saturday on I-95 promise to be a financial debacle for Maryland. In all probability, the tolls won't bring in enough money to pay the extra cost of building toll lanes rather than widening the highway without tolls.


I-95 express toll lanes cross the Baltimore Beltway. MdTA rendering.

Over the next six years, the state expects tolls to bring in about $5 million a year after subtracting the costs of toll collection. The official forecast is that traffic on I-95 will grow 1% per year and that much of the added traffic will wind up on the toll lanes, resulting in net toll revenues will reach nearly $10 million in 2025.

But since 2006, traffic volumes on I-95, like elsewhere in Maryland and around the country, have been flat. The revenue growth predicted for the 2020s is hardly something to bank on.

Dividing a highway into parallel toll and free lanes is expensive. Ramps, dividers, medians, and toll collection equipment all run the bill up. In 2003, when Governor Robert Ehrlich decided on the widening project, construction cost estimates came in at $370 million for free lanes and $645 million for toll lanes, a difference of $275 million. Planners eliminated some ramps to save money, but the project's total price tag still soared to $1.08 billion. No one recalculated the extra cost of building pay lanes, but it surely wound up well north of $200 million.

The Maryland Transportation Authority, which operates the state's toll roads, pays interest rates of 4% and up on long-term bonds. That means $5 million a year in revenue will pay back less than $125 million of capital costs. Even if the hoped-for traffic growth materializes and revenue grows to $10 million a year after 2025, it won't cover the extra costs of tolling.

This dismal financial picture comes as no surprise. It came up all the way back in 2006, and Greater Greater Washington examined it in more detail last year.

Why did Maryland ever undertake such a project? Since the tolls won't cover the extra construction costs that they require, tolls are clearly not a way to raise money. What toll lanes do accomplish is to push most drivers off the pay lanes and onto the crowded free lanes. That might be acceptable if the toll lanes paid for themselves, but in this case it's the majority that's getting stuck with the bill, subsidizing an affluent minority.

The difference between the project's tiny revenues and vast cost will be made up from tolls on facilities like the Harbor Tunnel and Bay Bridge, where everyone has to pay. These are Lexus lanes where Corolla drivers make the car payments.

Montgomery throws more money at unneeded parking

Montgomery County is about to spend tens of millions of dollars on a 395-space parking garage in Wheaton, even though more than 500 parking spaces sit empty in a Metro garage a block away.


Bethesda's $80,000-per-space garage under construction. Photo by author.

The new garage would sit northwest of the Metro station, beneath a mixed-use development that will house several county agencies along with retail stores and 200 apartments. The county will own the garage and office building, while the apartments will belong to the developers, StonebridgeCarras and Bozzuto.

County Executive Ike Leggett announced the complex financing arrangement for this multi-phase project last month. The developers will build a 12-story office building, the garage, and a public plaza for the county.

In exchange, they'll get $102 million in cash as well the land in Silver Spring where the Planning Board currently sits and the rights to use county property in Wheaton for the 200 apartments. They'll build 360 apartments on the Silver Spring parcel, and in both locations, they must include more affordable dwellings than ordinarily required.

When I asked, a spokesperson for the county transportation department did not provide a dollar value for the Silver Spring land or Wheaton building rights. The county spokesperson also would not break out the cost of the garage, but at a typical underground parking cost of $50,000 or more per space, it's likely that Montgomery County is spending at least $20 million on the garage.

The garage will have 383 public parking spaces plus 12 reserved spaces for Planning Board higher-ups. The county has not estimated revenue from the garage, as decisions about hourly rates and the number of long- and short-term parking spaces have yet to be made.

Unused parking spaces are nearby

Meanwhile, a Metro parking garage with more than 500 empty spaces sits close by. In fact, the 977-car Wheaton garage is actually closer to the development site than it is to the Metro station. Under a court order issued when the transit agency condemned land for the garage, it is open to non-Metro riders as well as riders.

This is hardly the first time the Montgomery County Department of Transportation has shown a ravenous appetite for expensive parking garages. Two years ago, in Silver Spring, the county opened a 152-space underground garage around the corner from a public garage that's mostly empty. In downtown Bethesda, where the existing parking is only 72% occupied, the county paid more than $80,000 per parking space for a soon-to-open 900-space garage. And at the White Flint conference center, the county plans to spend $21 million for a garage it will hand over to a private operator who charges $15 a day.

Opaque finances and money wasted on unneeded parking are a blot on projects that do a lot of good for Montgomery County's urbanizing downtowns. With the county suddenly short of money, now is not the time to repeat in Wheaton the expensive mistakes made in Bethesda and Silver Spring.

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