Greater Greater Washington

Traffic tests confound Montgomery council

Montgomery County has tried several times to find a working "adequate public facilities ordinance," rules that aim to ensure new buildings don't jam up roads. They've never succeeded, and a new version won't either.


Photo by Google Earth.

At a County Council meeting Monday, legislators struggled with another proposed revamp of the law, which the county DOT originated and the Planning Board endorsed with some changes. This version would junk rules the county adopted 5 years ago, which supplanted a law from 2003, which replaced yet another system of regulation that preceded it.

None of these rules got rid of traffic jams because all share the same fundamental flaw. They measure how fast cars move, rather than whether people can get where they want to go. If the supermarket is 10 miles away, and it takes 15 minutes to drive there, you pass the test. If the supermarket is 1 mile away, and it takes 5 minutes to drive there, you flunk.

There are 2 ways to get new construction approved under this sort of test. One is to locate the building far from everything else. The other is to build new highways or widen old ones. This is a recipe for more sprawl, more asphalt, and more driving. Rather than relieving traffic congestion, it makes more of it.

The proposal now before the Council, called Transportation Policy Area Review or "TPAR," doubles down on this failed strategy. It would create a new pot of money, collected from developers who build in areas with congested roads, under the control of the county's car-centric, highway-loving Transportation Department. In addition, the proposal would still require developers to widen nearby roads if intersections back up.

Edgar Gonzalez, the department's number two, told Councilmember Hans Riemer that passing the legislation would commit the county to a long list of controversial road projects, especially the hotly-disputed Midcounty Highway extension. The legislators were divided Monday over whether they should tie their hands in this way.

Riemer and George Leventhal argued that the County Council should retain flexibility in making spending decisions. Nancy Floreen, on the other hand, insisted that money from the road congestion tax should only be spent to move cars. She pointed to a bicycle bridge over Veirs Mill Road, funded under the current law, as a misuse of funds.

Marc Elrich, who has long considered "free-flowing" automobile traffic a paramount objective, initially agreed, saying he was "sort of where Nancy is on certainty of where money is spent." Elrich later backtracked somewhat, saying that improved transit could be a better way to keep cars moving than new highways, but he reiterated his belief that sidewalks and bus shelters should not substitute for road-building.

A companion tax on developers that would fund added Ride-On bus service is also before the council. Sharp questioning from Roger Berliner established that this tax would not, as claimed, put autos and transit on an equal footing.

Gonzalez and Planning Board chair Françoise Carrier conceded that the level of transit service the proposal defines as "adequate"a bus every 20 minutes in rush hour and every half hour the rest of the dayis nowhere near good enough to compete with driving. It is simply what is achievable without straining the county budget.

The debate over who should determine spending priorities comes just months after the Council overruled the Transportation Department and deferred 3 highway projects to pay for a new Bethesda Metro entrance and a bike trail. Since then, the county bureaucracy has done little to gain public confidence. The debacles of the Silver Spring Transit Center and the Woodmont Avenue road closing in Bethesda suggest that now is not the time for legislators to lessen their oversight.

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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. 

Comments

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Well said. The current incarnation of the MCDOT is like the Caliban to the Council's Prospero. (Referring to Shakespeare's The Tempest).

They just don't ever quit trying to do the wrong thing. The second you take your eye off of them is when they do something destructive.

by Cavan on Oct 10, 2012 3:57 pm • linkreport

At the end of the day, it is about money. We have to have a balanced transportation program, because, obviously, a large number of our residents do not live in urban areas. Insofar as no one else anywhere has the traffic tests we do, the question is what is the fair way to raise the funds we need to provide the infrastructure our residents deserve. Easy to say, hard to do! Stay tuned.

by Nancy Floreen on Oct 11, 2012 9:00 am • linkreport

I think this statement by Ben makes the point:

"They measure how fast cars move, rather than whether people can get where they want to go. If the supermarket is 10 miles away, and it takes 15 minutes [40 mph] to drive there, you pass the test. If the supermarket is 1 mile away, and it takes 5 minutes [12 mph] to drive there, you flunk."

If how fast cars move is the sole criteria, then of course the "answer" is to build more and more roads; this will also allow/encourage people to live farther and farther out. But, this really is not a long-term solution to our congestion problem; it simply MAKES people TOTALLY dependent on their cars.

But when we build new facilities (jobs, stores, restaurants) closer to where people already live, people will have an OPTION of how they travel --- car, bus, bike and walking. But without options, people MUST use cars for each and every trip and we end up with what we’ve got now --- traffic, traffic, more sitting in traffic.

by Tina Slater on Oct 11, 2012 9:43 am • linkreport

Nancy,

I would argue that it's the opposite. That most maryland residents live in the urban areas. If you look at the density numbers at least. The urban form may not be classic (like how the city looks in DC or Baltimore) but in the people living close together sense.

by drumz on Oct 11, 2012 10:01 am • linkreport

Adding to Tina's point:

If you fail the test (e.g. cars not moving fast enough), then the only solution allowed is to add supply via widening roads.

On the one hand, it's all on the supply side - there's little management of demand (nor a mention of the most effective demand management tool - pricing). The other factor is that all travel demand is assumed to be locked into their current mode choice.

If the goal is to add capacity, then add capacity via modes that have the ability to accommodate that demand (e.g. transit - much higher potential capacity than a lane of road).

It's easy toss out platitudes about a 'balanced transportation system,' but the details of what that means matter.

by Alex B. on Oct 11, 2012 10:14 am • linkreport

To be fair, Councilmember Floreen seems (check the Examiner article on the Purple Line) to be advocating FOR adding transit capacity (notably the Purple Line and the BRT system, in order explicitly to enable new development as well as add capacity) I'm not sure how that fits with the specifics of the congestion tax, but perhaps CM Floreen could better address that.

One issue is that while adding density at better locations will relieve congestion county wide, it may add congestion in the specific area where new density is added. This is an issue we face in Fairfax as well. To me that argues not so much for either segregating the money to roads only (when that road money ends up feeding the laundry list of road projects) or for spreading it across roads, but using it to address the issues of the specific locale whether by adding road capacity (ideally not by widening roads but by filling in the grid as FFX is doing in the better aspects of Tysons) or by adding locally focused alts. County wide projects - whether big new transit projects, or laundry list roads, are probably more appropriately paid for by county wide taxes (again, I am thinking of the controversies in FFX wrt to Tysons)

by AWalkerInTheCity on Oct 11, 2012 10:35 am • linkreport

"spreading it across modes"

by AWalkerInTheCity on Oct 11, 2012 10:35 am • linkreport

Montgomery County's Dept. of Transportation doesn't seem to be aware of the shift in the public's preferences on transit and living spaces. It's as if the past 20 years didn't happen. Their policies will ensure that those changes don't happen. Join the 21st Century!

by Capt. Hilts on Oct 11, 2012 1:05 pm • linkreport

If Ben's reporting is correct, then all of us in MC should be concerned. MC policies need to be flexible and dynamic, rather than a 1-size fits all. Bethesda and Silver Spring are totally different communities than the rural parts of MC. This is precisely why MC should not have standardized policies for transit, housing, etc., given the immense differences that exist in different parts of the county.

On a related note, I agree with the comments about MC's DOT - this is an organization that never met a road it didn't want wider. You'd think just across the DC border that MC would embrace bicycling, public transit, and other urban modes of travel (including perhaps more sidewalks to walk), but the minute you cross that border it's like you've entered the Nebraska DOT.

by TC on Oct 11, 2012 9:33 pm • linkreport

The complicated TPAR test does recognize a difference between "urban", "suburban", and "rural" policy areas, as they have different levels of service that are considered acceptable for vehicular, and transit travel. The Urban policy areas require the most frequent transit, and allow for the most congested roadways. The suburban policy areas require transit at lower intervals to be acceptable, and require slightly less congested roads, the rural policy areas do not require transit, and require congestion to basically not exist. How MCDOT goes about spending the money collected when a development exceeds the set minimums is less clear. The only benefit is the minimum level of service for transit it higher in the "urban" policy areas.

by Gull on Oct 12, 2012 11:59 am • linkreport

Montgomery County, on the whole, is a forgettable suburban dump. Bicycling through it is a needless struggle. The roads are laughable!

MoCo is a classic American story: they cant do anything right. The population is composed of arrogant, affluent imbeciles (the black folk are in their jails...go look that claim up...)..

The traffic will only get worse! I love it!! A (car) ride out Rockville Pike is hysterical and damning. Would ANYONE have WANTED that disgusting road, those corporate shops, that traffic -- the sheer OVERWHELMING ugliness of it??...

AND, like a little child, they dont have CLUE about what to do...

And yes, MoCo is anti-bike. Esp. the Police. Naturally...

by Michael on Oct 14, 2012 10:29 am • linkreport

Nancy Floreen's comment questioning use of this money for the Rock Creek Trail bridge over Veirs Mill Road is at 1:41:10 of the total 2:32:54 audio of the worksession. To listen to it yourself, go to http://www6.montgomerycountymd.gov/csltmpl.asp?url=/content/council/ondemand/index.asp . In the list at the bottom, expand the "Committee Worksessions" bar by clicking on it and find the correct worksession in the list that appears. The correct list item is labeled "PHED" for Oct. 8, 2012 (not "PHED 10-08-12"). Then you click on the word "Audio" in the list entry. That brings up a nifty video window but it has only audio. If it shows video or doesn't talk about "policy area" tests in the first minute, you have the wrong link.

by JC on Oct 15, 2012 11:10 am • linkreport

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