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Transit


Montgomery County will build bus rapid transit in four years

After nearly a decade of debate, Montgomery County wants to build a bus rapid transit line in four years, for 20% of the originally estimated cost. While it'll be a better bus service, it may not be so rapid.


Montgomery County could get this, sort of. Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

Last month, the county announced its plan to build a 14-mile BRT line along Route 29 (also known as Colesville Road and Columbia Pike) from the Silver Spring Transit Center to Burtonsville. It's part of a larger, 80-mile system that's been studied since 2008 and was officially approved in 2013. County Executive Ike Leggett wants to have this line up and running by the end of 2019, an ambitious timeline. The county also says they can do it for $67.2 million, compared to the $350 million county planners previously predicted.

How? Most bus rapid transit systems, like the new Metroway in Northern Virginia, have a separate roadway for buses that gets them out of traffic and provides a shorter, more reliable travel time.

On Route 29, the county envisions running buses on the shoulder between Burtonsville and Tech Road, where it's basically a highway. Further south, as Route 29 becomes more of a main street, the county would turn existing travel lanes into HOV-2 lanes for buses and carpools. For about three miles closer to downtown Silver Spring, buses would run in mixed traffic. This setup allows the county to build the line without widening the road anywhere, which saves on land and construction costs.


Map from Montgomery County.

The line would have other features that can reduce travel time and improve the current bus riding experience. Each of the 17 stations would feel more like a train station, with covered waiting areas, real-time travel info, and fare machines so riders can pay before getting on. At some stoplights, buses would get the green light before other vehicles. Buses would come every six minutes during rush hour, and every 10 minutes the rest of the time.

County officials estimate that 17,000 people will use the service each day by 2020 and 23,000 people will ride it each day in 2040. The line, which would be part of the county's Ride On bus system, would replace express Metrobus routes along Route 29, though existing local bus routes would remain.

Montgomery County would cover half the cost of building the line, while the other half would come from the US Department of Transportation's TIGER grant program for small-scale transportation projects. In addition, the grant would include money for sidewalks, bike lanes, covered bike parking at stations, and 10 bikesharing stations along the corridor. The county will find out if it's won the grant money this fall.

The project could give Montgomery County somewhat better transit now

This plan could bring better bus service to East County, which has been waiting for rapid transit since it was first proposed in 1981. The Metrobus Z-line along Route 29 is one of the region's busiest, with over 11,000 boardings each day, but riders face delays and long waits.

East County lacks the investment that more affluent parts of the county enjoy, and so residents must travel long distances for jobs, shopping, or other amenities. Residents suffer from poor access to economic opportunities: according to the county's grant application, 30% of the area's 47,000 households are "very low income." County officials hope that better transit could support big plans to redevelop White Oak and Burtonsville.

While not having dedicated transit lanes makes this project easy to build, it also makes it hard to provide a fast, reliable transit trip. Enforcing the HOV lanes will be hard, especially south of New Hampshire Avenue where the blocks are short and drivers are constantly turning onto Route 29 from side streets. And without dedicated lanes in congested Four Corners, buses will simply get stuck in traffic with everyone else, discouraging people from riding them.

The route also includes two spurs along Lockwood Drive and Briggs Chaney Road, each of which serves large concentrations of apartments where many transit riders live, but would force buses on huge, time-consuming detours. One possibility is that some buses could go straight up Route 29 while others take the scenic route. But that's basically how the existing bus service on the corridor already works.

This could make the case for rapid transit

This might be a temporary solution. The county and state of Maryland will continue planning a "real" bus rapid transit line that might have its own transitway, but that could take several years.

In the meantime, the county needs to build support for better transit. BRT has broad support across the county, but many residents are still skeptical. Supporters and opponents alike have been confused and frustrated by the lack of information on the county's progress in recent months.

By getting something on the ground now, Montgomery County can show everyone how BRT really works sooner, rather than later. Despite the shorter timeframe, it's important to make sure this service actually improves transit, and that residents actually know what's going on.

Development


Montgomery County isn't really waging war against suburbia

Some Montgomery County residents are accusing county officials of waging a "war against suburbia." But the county isn't coming for your single-family house, no matter who tells you otherwise.


Bethesda residents protest the Westbard plan. Photo by Sonya Burke on Twitter.

Last week, about 70 protesters from Bethesda demonstrated outside the Council Office Building over the Westbard Sector Plan, which would redevelop a cluster of 1950s-era strip malls off of River Road into a small-scale town center with new shops, parks, and up to 1200 townhomes and apartments. The council is set to approve the plan tomorrow.

Holding signs saying "suburban not urban," the group shouted down Councilmember Roger Berliner when he tried to address them, calling him "corrupt." Berliner, who represents Bethesda, had successfully convinced the council to reduce the amount of allowable development in the plan, which effectively limits building heights to six stories.

The group, called Save Westbard, is led by Jeanne Allen, former Republican state delegate candidate and charter school advocate. In an email blast two weeks ago, she called the Westbard plan "Orwellian" and says Berliner's "visits to Cuba and China influenced" his support for developing the area.


One of the shopping centers in Westbard today. Photo by Todd Menhinick on Flickr.

She argues that the county wants to "destroy" wealthy suburban neighborhoods like hers, overcrowding the roads and schools, and possibly changing the culture of her community. "Suburbs breed generous people," she says. "They have community meetings and fundraisers in their homes (on streets where people can park)...take care of one another's kids (who can play in yards)...suburbs have a purpose."

Is the county really at war against the suburbs? Save Westbard released a document called the Westbard Papers containing emails between county planners and attorneys for Equity One, one of the major property owners in Westbard, though they don't reveal anything illegal. And Allen refers to three-year-old comments from Councilmember George Leventhal (though not about Westbard) in which he calls the suburbs "a mistake."

Except in reality, Leventhal is talking about the spread-out nature of some suburban places, which forces people to drive really far for work or shopping, resulting in lots of traffic and pollution. He's not making a value judgment about suburbs, but instead acknowledging that some kinds of suburban development have negative costs.

"We see the substantial separation of residential areas from commercial areas from industrial areas from retail areas as a mistake," he says. "Because the very thing that was so marvelous when Olney and Gaithersburg and Wheaton were laid out in the 1940s and 1950s is now killing our planet. We can't afford to drive as much as we do, we have to change our land use patterns, our transportation patterns...Our heirs will blame us for our failure to do that. It's one of the culprits in climate change."

It's possible to have suburban neighborhoods where you can have a big house with a yard and still be able to walk to things. You only have to go about two miles east of Westbard to Chevy Chase to see what that looks like. That's why Montgomery County wants to focus development in aging commercial areas like Westbard, or Chevy Chase Lake, or White Oak. The county is built out, and investing in these areas gives current residents access to more things without having to sit in traffic, while accommodating future population growth.


Rendering of the Westbard redevelopment from Equity One.

There are many current Westbard residents who agree with Leventhal and Berliner that having new shops and amenities within walking distance is a good thing. The Citizens Coordinating Committee on Friendship Heights, which represents nineteen neighborhoods and condo buildings in the area, supports the Westbard plan, calling it a "compromise of different interests," including the developers and some residents who wanted less development.

Another petition circulated by Equity One includes signatures from 182 neighbors who support the plan. "Westbard is a highly affluent area of Montgomery County," reads the petition, "yet its streets are not pedestrian-friendly, its residents shop at an unsightly retail center surrounded by a sea of asphalt, it's service workers can't afford to live there, and its natural resources are among the county's worst."

And there are the people who have yet to live in this community. While looking for a job after graduate school, I worked out of the Westbard Giant giving out samples for a local bakery who sold cakes there. I got to know some of the people who worked there, and discovered that few of them lived in Montgomery County, let alone in the neighborhood. These are the people who have to drive long distances to work in Westbard, which is one of the most expensive parts of an already expensive county. The county's plan for the area would set aside 15% of new housing units for lower-income households, allowing some people who work here to live there as well.

Leigh Gallagher's recent book "The End of the Suburbs" might freak out any Westbard resident who likes the suburban aspects of their community, But Gallagher's argument is that suburbs aren't actually going anywhere, particularly affluent ones with good schools that are walkable. It bodes well for Westbard, but it doesn't mean that Westbard, or anywhere else, isn't totally immune to change.

Roads


Montgomery's traffic tests for new developments encourage sprawl, but that could change soon

Montgomery County is expected to gain 232,000 new residents over the next 30 years. Currently, Montgomery's traffic tests measures whether development leads to people driving faster rather than whether development leads to more people driving. Reforming this practice could help discourage sprawl.


Under the current system, development like this one in Silver Spring, where it's easy to walk around, doesn't get credit for reducing how often and how far people drive. Photo by Dan Reed on Flickr.

Montgomery County is currently updating its four year "growth plan", known formally as the Subdivision Staging Policy (SSP). The SSP governs everything from school infrastructure needs to the amount of taxes developers pay for new projects.

While any number of those issues have a huge impact on guiding growth, it's hard to say any are more important than revising how Montgomery tests the way new developments impact traffic.

Here's how Montgomery currently tests traffic

The test Montgomery County uses measures just car speed at intersections. Incoming development, whether located in dense areas or not, is projected to generate X amount of car trips, and therefore create Y amount of car delay at intersections.

The test does not take into account the number of people walking, biking or busing-- it assumes that a project a block from a Metro station will produce the same amount of car traffic as a project in Clarksburg. If a project is found to create an "unreasonable" amount of traffic, developers have to pay to mitigate the impact----even in an area where many folks may not drive.

Currently, a single occupant car is valued the same as a bus carrying 80 passengers. Even though a dedicated bus lane could carry vastly more people than a lane of single occupant vehicles, that bus lane would fail current traffic tests because it hurts the speed at which single occupant vehicles can drive.

In real terms, this often means a developer paying to widen a road in order to pass a traffic test-- an outcome that's inherently contradictory to Montgomery's transit and environmental goals. We're rewarding sprawl and making infill development more difficult.

Evaluating car delay ensures we aren't looking at all the possibilities for moving the most people-- we're just looking at how to move single-occupancy vehicles the fastest. These tests prize car speed over increased mobility options, rewarding development that is far from urban centers. Why build a new grocery store in Downtown Silver Spring, which would require a traffic mitigation payment for a failing intersection, when you can build one five miles away near the highway and pass your traffic test with flying colors?

In fact, the type of traffic tests Montgomery uses has been called the "Transportation Planning Rule Every City Should Reform". Focusing solely on automobile congestion has the strange effect of making transit improvements like bike and bus lanes look bad but road widening look good.

The county is considering another way of doing things

The good news is that the Montgomery County Planning Department is considering adopting less auto-centric traffic evaluations. A possible solution might be using the Vehicle Miles Travelled (VMT) standard, which measures how many miles residents are actually driving-- not just speeds at arbitrary intersections.

VMT takes the total amount of vehicles being driven on a daily or annual basis and divides it by the total number of miles being driven. For example, 10,000 vehicles each travelling an average of 15 miles per day, would result in 150,000 vehicle miles travelled per day.

By attacking traffic tests from this angle, we can set goals to decrease the amount of car trips residents take. Montgomery could set a goal of reducing VMT by 10% over ten years, and evaluate how future development fits in with that vision.


Building near transit and retail can mean people won't need cars at all, but that doesn't show up with Montgomery's current testing system. Photo by Dan Reed on Flickr.

To appreciate the difference, imagine CVS plans to build two new pharmacies in the county, one in Downtown Silver Spring and the other in Germantown. Under the current system, both projects would be projected to generate the same amount of new trips using a standard formula.

Because Silver Spring is already more densely developed, those new trips would be added to roads that are likely already failing from a car delay perspective, forcing the developer to fund costly "mitigation" efforts. In less developed Germantown, those same trips are unlikely to cause any intersections to "fail" the car delay test, so no mitigation is required.

VMT ends the incentive to build in less dense areas, many of which are far from transit. It provides a holistic look at mobility options in an area.

This is about equity for residents, too

The current test is inherently unequal, giving priority to single occupancy vehicles and completely overlooking those who are transit reliant (by choice or by necessity). This is especially important, as study after study shows transit access is a huge indicator of someone's odds of being socially mobile.

This issue is even more important when we consider that Montgomery saw the most significant increase in poverty of any jurisdiction in the DC region. Inequality of mobility leads to inequality of opportunity.

If we want an equal county, measuring traffic in a way that encourages inclusive growth, not just destinations that can be reached exclusively by car, is certainly an important step.

Can you get involved? Yes!

You can help be a part of the change. The Montgomery County Planning department is currently producing their staff draft of the growth policy. Send the planning board emails, write them letters, make your voice heard.

Tell them: "I am a transit reliant Montgomery County resident. Every day, I am confronted with both the positives and negatives of our transit infrastructure. Far too often in planning meetings, or County Council hearings, the voices of people who actually need transit are not in the room. We need better approaches to how we grow."

If we want a county that is more walkable, and inclusive we need to make our voices are heard. The fight to change our traffic tests should be a rallying cry for environmentalists, progressives and transit advocates. This is a critical opportunity for Montgomery to fufill its reputation as a bastion of progressivism.

Pedestrians


You don't have to push this button to cross the street

If you walk to a corner and see a button to activate the walk signal, you might need to push it. Or you might not. It might only be there to activate a chirping noise for people with vision impairments. Unfortunately, there's no way to tell.


Connecticut Avenue and N Street in DC. Photo by David Alpert.

Some intersections keep "don't walk" signals lit during both red and green phases of a traffic light unless someone pushes a "beg button"—technically an "actuated pedestrian push button"—before the light turns green.

The sign on the picture above clearly implies that that's what will happen when people wanting to cross the street push the button.

But the button actually has nothing to do with the walk signal. The walk signal comes on whether you press the button or not.

What the button does is turn on a loud chirping noise that speeds up when the walk signal begins. The misleading signs have appeared in large numbers in DC, Montgomery County, and elsewhere over the past year, on local roads and state highways.


Unless you can't see the sign, pushing this button won't help you cross Bethesda Avenue. Photo by the author.

Why is this?

Federal guidelines, known as the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD), authorize only certain standard signs for pedestrians. Among them are several variants for buttons that control the walk signal, but no sign for buttons that merely activate the audible signal for people with visual impairments.


Image from the Federal Highway Administration.

In downtown Bethesda, chirper buttons have appeared in large numbers over the last half year, all accompanied by the standard sign. Frequent passers-by soon recognized that the sign conveyed a falsehood, and now, few people push the button.

From my observation, it has become more common for people to simply cross streets wherever and whenever they feel safe. The streets seem no less safe.

Highway agencies take great care to ensure that signs meant for drivers are accurate and unambiguous—and doing so helps keep all who use the roads safe. Pedestrians, as these pushbutton signs illustrate, get very different treatment.

By taking such a nonchalant attitude toward those on foot, traffic engineers implicitly recognize something their profession refuses to officially admit: Drivers in the wrong place endanger others, but pedestrians do not.

Transit


To save Maryland's second oldest tree, the Red Line moved

You probably didn't know that Maryland's oldest tree is Metro-accessible. It could have easily been sawdust without a shift in the Red Line.


The Linden Oak at center-right. The Metro viaduct at far left. Image from Google street view.

In the late 1970s, Metro planners moved the proposed alignment of the Red Line just south of Grosvenor station to fly above the median of Rockville Pike (MD 355) instead of running along the eastern side. That shift was to save what was then the second-oldest tree in Maryland, the Linden Oak.

In 2002, Maryland's oldest tree, the Wye Oak, died at the ripe old age of 462 when it was felled in a thunderstorm. The death of that tree promoted the Linden Oak to oldest tree in the state. Today, the white oak is about 300 years old.

The tree's champion was Montgomery County councilwoman Idamae Garrott, who successfully fought to get the proposed Metro tracks moved west.

Today, the Red Line tracks make an odd curve to the west after emerging from the subway and crossing the Beltway. After passing the Linden Oak, the tracks bend eastward to end up on the east side of Rockville Pike. Along the way, passengers on the right side of a northbound train can catch a glimpse of a tree older than the country.

Politics


Why Montgomery County school board is the race to watch in 2016

Montgomery County school board elections are usually pretty sleepy. But as the county's once-vaunted schools struggle to serve a more diverse population, the "achievement gap" is causing this year's race to heat up.


Montgomery County students marched to protest the achievement gap, which is an election year issue.

Montgomery County Public Schools has grown rapidly in recent years, but has also become more segregated by race and class. Student performance is slipping, particularly in schools with a concentration of minority and low-income students. School officials have been reluctant to address the problem or even admit that it exists.

Schools make up half of the county's $5 billion annual budget, and the teachers' union's coveted "Apple Ballot" endorsements have had a big influence on local elections. But that's changed as the school system's performance has slipped. Jill Ortman-Fouse won a seat on the board in 2014 after campaigning to reform the system; three months later, superintendent Josh Starr resigned when he realized a majority of the board no longer supported renewing his contract.

Meet the candidates

There are three open seats this year, but two of them have two candidates, who will both go on to the general election in November. But a three-way race has formed for the at-large seat between incumbent Phil Kauffman, retired principal Jeanette Dixon, and former teacher and student board member Sebastian Johnson. One Montgomery, the school equity group I helped start, interviewed all three. (Full disclosure: we've endorsed Johnson.)

Kauffman, lives in Olney and was a PTA activist before joining the board in 2008. His wife teaches at Blake High School, which both of his daughters also graduated from (more disclosure: I was friends with them in high school). He ran as a reformer in 2008, calling for greater transparency in budget decisions and changes to the middle school curriculum. At the time, he said the school board was too cozy with the superintendent and needed to be more independent. Two terms later, he defended keeping Starr as superintendent, and as president of the board in 2014, he joined Starr in threatening to cut programs for high-needs students if the school system didn't get a $15 million budget increase.

Dixon, who lives in East County, is familiar with the challenges facing the county's majority-minority, high-poverty schools. She was principal at Paint Branch High School (and before that, my principal at White Oak Middle School) before retiring three years ago. Since then, she's been an outspoken critic of the school system and proponent of big ideas. At a League of Women Voters forum on the achievement gap last fall, she said that students should be allowed to attend any high school in the county, regardless of where they live.

In January 2015, she published an open letter blasting Starr, calling him ineffective and saying he only cared about "protecting the MCPS brand." The letter may have helped turn public support away from him. (Inside sources say Starr has been quietly campaigning against her, calling her "dangerous" for the school system.) She's refused endorsements from elected officials, but has a long list of testimonials from faculty she's worked with and former students.

Johnson argues he can provide a new perspective to a board where members are often shut down for going against the grain. At 27, he's by far the youngest candidate, and describes himself as proof that schools can close the achievement gap. A former teacher and student member of the board, he grew up in a single-parent household in Takoma Park before attending Georgetown, Harvard, and the London School of Economics.

The Takoma Park resident talks about the "intersectionality" of schools and factors outside the classroom, pointing out that students can't learn if their families can't afford health care or stable, decent housing. He wants more "wraparound services" like health centers at schools, while increasing minority student access to the county's largely segregated magnet programs. He hopes his existing relationships with county councilmembers can smooth the often adversarial relationship the board has with other county agencies.

Here's the outlook

While Kauffman and Dixon have long histories in the county, and Dixon may most reflect voters' frustration, it seems like Johnson has the most momentum. He's raised over $20,000 (though his campaign stresses that most donations are small), an anomaly when most school board races are won for half that and incumbents barely raise money at all. He's gotten endorsements from several elected officials, including county councilmembers George Leventhal (who he once interned for) and Nancy Navarro (who he served with on the school board), and state delegate Marc Korman.

Kauffman's tried to pull support from his two black opponents by getting endorsements from black electeds like County Executive Ike Leggett, state delegate Al Carr, and county councilmember Craig Rice. But Rice has also publicly made glowing remarks about Johnson, saying, "We need more young people like Sebastian to step up and keep our county moving forward." Board of Education member Judy Docca, who also endorsed Kauffman, donated money to Johnson's campaign.

Normally, the Montgomery County Educators Association (the teachers' union) endorses the incumbent, almost guaranteeing their reelection. But they didn't endorse Kauffman or anyone else, suggesting that the union's members are split.

That may reflect a broader disagreement about the school system. Kauffman's supporters (like Starr's supporters) might argue that while things aren't perfect, the current leadership is doing a pretty good job. Dixon's and Johnson's supporters have a growing body of evidence to say that Montgomery County schools aren't doing enough to serve an increasingly diverse student body. If the 2014 election is a sign, this argument might be gaining ground.

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