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In Montgomery's transportation budget, wider streets are "pedestrian improvements"

As Montgomery County asks the state to spend more on transit within the county, its proposed budget pours money into sprawl-inducing highways instead, while calling road widenings near schools and Metro stations "pedestrian improvements."

Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

Last week, County Executive Ike Leggett sent his proposed $1 billion transportation budget for 2015-2020 to the County Council. It adds new money to build two $100 million highway segments, Goshen Road in Gaithersburg and the 8000-foot-long Montrose Parkway East near White Flint, and lets environmental studies for the even more expensive extension of Midcounty Highway continue.

But many transit, bike, and pedestrian projects have been delayed. The proposed BRT system will get a $10 million state planning grant, but no county funds. The $80 milllion south entrance to the Bethesda Metro station, which the County Council previously funded over objections from the Department of Transportation (MCDOT), was left alone.

Bicyclists get a speedup in construction for a bike path on Needwood Road, required under the terms of a state grant. But the money comes from slowing down work to complete the far more important Metropolitan Branch Trail. Bike projects on Bethesda Avenue, Frederick Road, and Seven Locks Road are delayed too.

MCDOT learned long ago that cars-first policies had to be disguised with lip service to transit and pedestrians, and this budget continues that tradition. While new roads are the first category in the current six-year budget, the new budget lists them after transit.

At first glance, the proposed transit and pedestrian budgets seem large, but this is a mirage. The numbers are inflated with items that belong elsewhere. The county calls a $70 million dollar garage for school buses and park maintenance vehicles a mass transit facility. Road widenings around new schools, previously classified as road projects, are listed as pedestrian improvements this year. Buried in the budget for a new Metro entrance at Medical Center is the cost of a turn lane a block away at Jones Bridge Road.

Montgomery County's ped/bike budget will pay for a turn lane onto Rockville Pike at NIH. Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

A telling example of MCDOT's attitude is how it justifies spending money on bike lanes in downtown Bethesda. The county planning board made us do it, agency officials say. The bike lanes must be built before development can proceed beyond a certain point. There's no thought that they might serve a transportation purpose.

In recent years the County Council has shown increasing willingness to challenge MCDOT's priorities. The council funded the $80 million south Bethesda Metro entrance in 2008 and repeatedly fended off requests to reverse that decision. Two years ago, it put off construction of Goshen Road and Montrose Parkway East and budgeted for the Capital Crescent Trail instead.

But MCDOT still clings to the traffic engineering doctrines of the 1950s. The one completely new big project in the budget is yet another upcounty highway, a segment of Observation Drive whose price tag is likely to wind up north of $50 million a mile. The Bethesda Metro entrance stands as the only major county-funded transit construction project.

The time has come to reject once and for all the discredited idea that wide highways are a cure for traffic congestion. The council should zero out all spending on upcounty highways and end the pernicious practice of forcing developers to widen roads. All of the county's scarce transportation dollars are needed to correct the expensive mistakes of the past with better transit and a street network that works well for pedestrians and cyclists, not just for drivers.

Ben Ross was president of the Action Committee for Transit for 15 years. His book about the politics of urbanism and transit, Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism, is now available in paperback. 


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Are you sure they're proposing this to the MoCo Council and not VDOT?

by Jasper on Jan 21, 2014 11:33 am • linkreport

Jasper, why would you assume that it was proposed to VDOT when it is a Montgomery County proposal?

by tom on Jan 21, 2014 12:57 pm • linkreport


I assume because this is something we would expect out of VDOT, and not quite so much out of MCDOT.

by Kyle-w on Jan 21, 2014 1:23 pm • linkreport

Kyle-w, Montgomery County does have a high population like VA and can support highway expansion and rapid transit expansion however I am not confident that BRT would be the right direction in terms of transit due to the fact that they can expand heavy rail subways in the area that will definately occupy more people.

by tom on Jan 21, 2014 1:49 pm • linkreport

Kyle-w, Montgomery County does have a high population like VA and can support highway expansion and rapid transit expansion however I am not confident that BRT would be the right direction in terms of transit expansions due to the fact that they can expand heavy rail subways in the area that will definately occupy more people.

by tom on Jan 21, 2014 2:14 pm • linkreport

Please disregard last message.

by tom on Jan 21, 2014 2:15 pm • linkreport

@ tom:why would you assume

sarcasm, tom.

by Jasper on Jan 21, 2014 4:02 pm • linkreport

Once again the Montgomery County pays lip service to transit while continuing business as usual. This has to be a combination of a recalcitrant MCDOT bureaucracy and torrents of developer cash to county politicians.

by Steve on Jan 22, 2014 12:08 am • linkreport

Steve, no that's not it. It's more about common sense. As long as population continues to grow, and other jurisdictions continue to build roads and rapid transit then Montgomery County will do the same thing which is build/widen roads and expand rapid transit to accommodate the growing population in Montgomery County. With the population and approximate location to near DC and VA, Montgomery County can not be biased towards transit or highways it has to include both in order to be successful.

by tom on Jan 22, 2014 11:30 am • linkreport

@tom. Opening up more farmland and forests to development does not allow the county to keep pace with other counties, except in the sprawl race.

by Steve on Jan 22, 2014 12:36 pm • linkreport

And the pollution race.

by Steve on Jan 22, 2014 12:36 pm • linkreport

It's interesting to notice that, while Interstate highways are rarely built anymore, suburban surface arteries over the years have been widened and widened to the point where the additional pavement resulting from those "improvements" probably exceeds what would have been built for the cancelled Interstates. Instead of one or two huge slashes in the landscape (the Interstates), we've gotten dozens of fattened arteries all over. And guess what: They're hideous, car-directed, anti-pedestrian, and anti-urban.

by Arnold Berke on Jan 22, 2014 2:46 pm • linkreport

Steve, the last time I checked Montgomery County is not a wilderness in the middle of Africa or Farm Country in the middle of Alabama so I'm not following the sky is falling excuse just to stop supporting important Highway and Rapid Transit projects in Montgomery County.

by tom on Jan 22, 2014 7:08 pm • linkreport

I think most people think that Montgomery County will continue to be a suburban community for the foreseeable future even though there will be massive urbanization along the transit corridors. There will always be a debate whether to spend more money on transit or new/improved roads. Even DC spends far more on roads/bridges than it does on any transit or pedestrian facility. I think Leggett is going for a right mix. Many of these roads have been due for 20+years and some like Chapman Avenue and Montrose Parkway support development of urban centers. I think the only mistake in this budget is not funding construction of the much-needed M-83 project which will open up Northern Montgomery County to the ICC/I-95 corridor and boost economic development efforts in various projects associated with the I-270 turboeconomic corridor

by Cyrus on Jan 22, 2014 11:13 pm • linkreport

Here here! Why not give us some link at the end of the article to an easy way to email powerful parties about this? We need a way to take action!! I pay a ton of taxes to MoCounty and am disgusted that they aren't funding more things that are important to me like bike lanes and new metro improvements.

by Avocado on Jan 23, 2014 12:48 pm • linkreport

Here is an action alert about this:

by David Alpert on Jan 23, 2014 12:56 pm • linkreport

Avocado, selfish not

by tom on Jan 23, 2014 5:21 pm • linkreport

A pedestrian was hit by a Ride On bus at the NIH bus station yesterday [Thurs] afternoon.

by Capt. Hilts on Jan 24, 2014 11:46 am • linkreport

David Alpert, um why does that website have options for people to comment from other jurisdiction that should have nothing to do with Montgomery County or any of the transportation planning for Montgomery County. This raises a Red flag issue for CSG....

by tom on Jan 24, 2014 2:49 pm • linkreport

Capt. Hilts, is the pedestrian ok?????

by tom on Jan 24, 2014 2:50 pm • linkreport

David Alpert, um why does that website have options for people to comment from other jurisdiction that should have nothing to do with Montgomery County or any of the transportation planning for Montgomery County. This raises a Red flag issue for CSG....

And the alternative is that you don't put down jurisdiction, and then all the haters complain that the effort was tainted by "outsiders." This method lets decision makers know who's who.

by MLD on Jan 24, 2014 3:22 pm • linkreport

MLD, then that raises the question; is Montgomery County controlling the transportation decision making or is Montgomery County being controlled by outsiders that should have nothing to do with Montgomery County.

That is a very big issue if its being controlled by people that do not live in Montgomery County. They need to worry about their own county and state instead of sticking their noses in other jurisdiction that they do not have associations with.

by tom on Jan 24, 2014 5:20 pm • linkreport

thats just a standard web form. Of course anyone can send anything to anyone online.

Generally though pols who ignore their constituents tend not to be long in office.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Jan 24, 2014 5:49 pm • linkreport

Why is the assumption that an interest in another county's transportation policy comes out of malice?

I want safer streets everywhere. So naturally I want that in Montgomery County (whether the one in Maryland or the one in PA, VA, NY, etc). Trust that someone wants the best for MoCo and isn't scheming to somehow ruin the county for some sort of unspecified gain.

by drumz on Jan 24, 2014 5:51 pm • linkreport

drumz, then why is this same anti-highway effort not being pushed in Fairfax County, Prince William County and Loudoun County where there are in process of widening I-95(HOT Lanes), I-66 widening, building the tri-county parkway, and converting Ffx County Parkway into an a limited access freeway. If I'm not mistaken aren't they extending the metrorail subway to Loudoun County and if soo then where is the outcry from the CSG about the list of Road/Highway projects in Loudoun County that will make driving through there more comfortable...

by tom on Jan 25, 2014 2:45 am • linkreport

Oh ok. The grand conspiracy against MD being instituted by everyone. Never mind.

by Drumz on Jan 25, 2014 11:24 am • linkreport

Great analysis. I'll point out though that the Needwood Trail is important because without it, cyclists and trail users can't get from the end of the ICC Trail to the trailhead of the Rock Creek Trail 0.3 miles away without riding on a dangerous road. You have two major trails -- dead-end trails -- with a gap in between. Obviously the Met Branch Trail is more important than just about any other trail in the county, but we can't stop work on every other project while waiting for the county to get it's act together and fund it.

by Jack Cochrane on Jan 25, 2014 4:12 pm • linkreport

@tom: um, those of us who live in those counties are fighting pretty hard against those idiotic projects. you must not have been paying much attention to have missed that.

by Mike on Jan 27, 2014 7:59 am • linkreport

ACT/CSG fight against sorely needed Upcounty transportation projects, especially M-83, sadly shows an absolute lack of understanding of Upcounty mobility dynamics. This blissful "ignorance" of a few, and selfish interest of one large Upcounty property owner who hardly pays any property tax (and their active lobbying of County Councilmembers with support of ACT and CSG) is holding hostage the investments County needs to make in Upcounty for those of us pay property taxes and have paid lots in transportation impact taxes.

99.99% of these people do not live in our communities and do not experience what over 300,000 residents has to endure each and every day. It is easy to sit in their own little "bubble" in Takoma Park, Silver Spring, or Bethesda, and say that folks out in Germantown, Clarksburg, Poolesville, Damascus, Goshen, etc. should abandon their cars and get on these fictional buses, the financial viability of which should be questioned from a fare-recovery standpoint. I do not see these folks using transit whenever they come up to our communities - they all seem to get around nicely in their single person "transit" car.

Upcounty is not just a nice place for folks Downcounty to come and cut their own Christmas tree or enjoy some of our rural charm or play soccer at SoccerPlex, or have a nice bike ride or camp out at Little Bennett Regional Park or dump on. Sure, we all could move to Downcounty, but everyone needs to understand that County master plan land use recommendations already in place have consequences, and a "complete" transportation infrastructure is key to achieving the necessary balance. Any attempts by the County Council to step back from these long standing commitments based on the theories of those who do not live in our communities cannot be supported.

I have nothing against transit, bikes, or peds, and in fact continue to lobby for meaningful transit and bikeway projects in Upcounty. Denying us the same transportation options enjoyed by those in Downcounty is absolutely ridiculous. No one in Upcounty is saying that Purple Line should not be built because there are enough roads in Downcounty or close down East-West Highway because people can depend on Purple Line. It seems the same folks who cry foul about the environmental impacts of M-83 have no problem with Purple Line. And I don't hear those who complain about the cost for M-83 out there in front of the Silver Spring Transit Center every day or write pieces about this White Elephant sucking in money in Silver Spring.

Given the cost of any transportation infrastructure these days (for example, a basic interchange and a "transit center" now costing about $200 million), M-83 even with the added costs to mitigate all the environmental issues opponents have identified, is a good bargain.

Those still holding a grudge against M-83 should go and find something else to do, especially after the County Planning Board in November rejected th Planning Staff recommendations and intense lobbying efforts of ACT/CSG, and recommended the master plan alignment of M-83 to MCDOT. It is also important to note that this M-83 alignment is strongly supported by many Upcounty residents and organizations such as the Clarksburg Civic Association, Coalition for Upcounty, Greater Goshen Civic Association, some in Montgomery Village, and the City of Gaithersburg.

by CE on Jan 29, 2014 11:29 am • linkreport

I agree 100% with CE's assessment of the situation in the upcounty. A substantial and growing percentage of Montgomery County's population now lives in the upcounty area. Yet past Germantown, we are stuck on the same single lane roads available to Abraham Lincoln, with are no bus, transit or bike routes in existence as alternatives. It is too easy for down county residents, with numerous four to six lane roads, buses and the Metro within minutes of their residences to lament the building of new road capacity in the upcounty. How would they like to tear up a few lanes of their six lane arterials to re-plant the trees that will be lost to M-83? Trees that, by the way, grew up on open farm land since the route was designated for the road 50 years ago. Upcounty residents are waking up to the fact that they are being treated as second class citizens when it comes to spending on all forms of transportation infrastructure. The County Council better wake up before the upcounty voters start thinking, "I'm fed up and I'm not going to take it anymore."

by GreyD on Jan 29, 2014 1:13 pm • linkreport

I visit UpCounty pretty regularly these days.

It reminds me of when I lived in Virginia Beach - folks built houses around the Navy's fighter jet runway, then they complained that there were planes flying over their houses.

So, developers build huge townhouse tracts in the middle of a field in a rural area served by a two lane road and folks say "hey! I'm living in a large housing tract in a rural area served only by a two lane road!"

I hope they get some transit.

by Capt. Hilts on Jan 29, 2014 1:15 pm • linkreport

@Capt. Hilts ~ I don't know which part of Upcounty you visit regularly these days, but Welcome! I hope you are spending some money when you are up here and helping our local businesses. I too hope that we get some meaningful transit.

Granted that you have the right to express your opinion, I don't know visiting Upcounty regularly makes anyone an expert in what is going on here in Upcounty. Case in point is the argument you present. In fact, for much of Upcounty, especially for Clarksburg, the opposite of what you state is true.

For example, the Clarksburg master plan as adopted by the County Council in 1994 (well it has only been 20 years and we are still talking about it. Again, as someone who hasn't weighed in on the ongoing Ten Mile development circus, the last couple of days of Council worksessions have been quite interesting) was supposed to be a planned community with adequate road, transit, and trail infrastructure. And M-83 that has been on area master plans since early 60's is an integral part of not only Clarksburg, but also East Germantown, Goshen, Montgomery Village, Gaithersburg (just like Great Seneca Hwy to the west side of I-270). The Corridor Cities Transitway (CCT) that is supposed to serve Clarkburg is still stuck on paper on somebody's desk, and per current MTA plans will not even reach Clarksburg (COMSAT is the Phase 2 end of the line station). With the CCT alignment now messed up to serve GSSC, no one in Clarksburg is enthused about a 52 minute or so ride from Clarkburg South to Shady Grove, when one can get on their car and even with the mess on I-270, can drive down to Shady Grove in about 30 minutes! And CCT currently only has planning money for Phase 1 to Metro Grove; no design/construction money for Phase 1 (close a billion?) and more importantly no love for Phase 2 (another billon?). The story is the same for the MD 355 North BRT line that is being shoved around from Rockville to Germantown (Oh, another billion?).

So, who is responsible for the mess up here? Is it the County Council who adopted these plans which are supposed to have "transportation-land use balance" with all the nice little road/transit/trail connections (but now has some revisionist attitude when it comes to M-83), but continue to rake in millions in transportation impact taxes from all the new construction and property taxes from all new residents, but wouldn't have the gumption to do what is right OR is it the hapless residents who brought these houses based on the legal documents that County put out?

I hope folks who have nothing to do with Upcounty will just simply go away and stop messing with our lives. If you do not want to help, please don't hurt. I hope given the hard reality re transit, ACT/CSG would stop selling CCT and MD 355 North BRT as some sort of a magic bullet to counter M-83. These transit options, which no one wants and will have minimal functional utility to Clarksburg/Upcounty residents, will run into billions to implement and several millions to operate each year (with possibly a fare-recovery of 25%?). In addition to M-83, there are many meaningful transit projects that can be implemented in Upcounty that will benefit all, not just one property owner.

by CE on Jan 29, 2014 5:23 pm • linkreport

To Capt. Hilt, Thanks for visiting! Please bear in mind that the developers only build where the County approves the plans, such approval being based on Master Plans that include adequate roads and mass transit options. The problem is that although the houses have been built, the roads and transit are not even specks on the horizon. The patience of home buyers who purchased based on a reasonable expectation of transportation infrastructure in the foreseeable future is wearing thin.

by GreyD on Jan 30, 2014 11:24 am • linkreport

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