Posts about Roger Berliner
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.
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" 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.
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.
Four members of the Montgomery County Council asked county officials to stop dragging their feet on bus priority, and implement or at least evaluate some fixes as soon as possible.
In a recent letter, they praise the Montgomery County Department of Transportation (MCDOT)'s work on Ride On, but criticize its unwillingness to pursue bus priority in the short term.
They ask MCDOT to work with state officials and WMATA to find high priority intersections ripe for signal priority or queue jumper lanes that would help buses avoid delays in traffic.
WMATA has been promoting ideas around bus priority for a number of years now. Quite simply, buses spend a fair amount of time in traffic, and that time costs a lot of money. Some of the growth in operating costs comes from more time in traffic. If buses can move more efficiently, it saves on costs and also improves the bus ride for everyone.
Traditional traffic engineering measures intersections and roads based on numbers of vehicles. If changing a signal timing would let more vehicles traverse the intersection, classic traffic engineering says make the change. But we really should be counting people. If one bus has 50 people and a change would help it move faster than 20 cars, giving the bus priority is the right move.
Montgomery County's DOT, notoriously one of the least progressive in the region, has been resistant to this thinking. When activists suggested a few intersections for signal timing, signal priority, or queue jumper lanes, MCDOT pooh-poohed them all but didn't suggest any alternatives of their own.
At a recent county council hearing on transit, MCDOT officials said that any of these fixes would "have to wait" until the county implements a comprehensive Bus Rapid Transit system, like the one being pushed by Councilmember Marc Elrich.
The council disagrees. In a letter to MCDOT and WMATA officials, councilmembers Hans Riemer and Nancy Floreen (at-large), council president Valerie Ervin (district 5, Silver Spring/Takoma Park), and Transportation, Energy, Infrastructure & Environment committee chair Roger Berliner (district 1, Bethesda/Potomac/Chevy Chase) asked MCDOT in effect to get off its butt and start doing something.
They ask MCDOT, Maryland State Highway Administration, and WMATA to generate a list of the highest priority intersections for bus priority fixes, to evaluate the possibility of changes, release that information publicly in a way that residents can review, and to generate a policy to guide such changes.
Kudos to the council for stepping up on this issue. Montgomery County is often one of the most progressive counties on many policies, but its transportation officials need some prodding to pursue solutions beyond just focusing on moving cars. They should take this letter to heart and get their staff, and the buses, moving.
I've found the Montgomery County Council frustrating. On important issues around growth, development and transportation, many councilmembers don't take much of a stand and vote in unanimous or near-unanimous numbers even on controversial and vital issues.
Many seem to prefer finding a consensus where they can vote unanimously or nearly-unanimously, regardless of the merits of that consensus. The I-270 battle was a good case in point, where advocates' opposition to SHA's plan got the Council to postpone a vote, then meet for a work session to agree on a compromise, which passed unanimously. As a result, most members avoided ever having to really stick up for or against something.
The County Council needs a strong advocate for Smart Growth and sustainable transportation issues. That would likely be Hans Riemer, if he is successful in his bid for one of the four at-large seats. Hans is a longtime Smart Growth proponent and an active member of ACT. He set out clear and excellent positions in his interview with Cavan.
The four incumbents are all definitely superior to the rest of the challengers besides Riemer. Those incumbents each have their pros and cons.
Marc Elrich has been a strong proponent of a Bus Rapid Transit network, pushing the idea tirelessly and making it a signature issue. However, he's also the strongest defender of traffic-based tests that in effect hinder walkable development.
Nancy Floreen pushed through the White Flint plan, one of Montgomery's biggest opportunities for meaningful transit-oriented development, and opposes the traffic-based tests that Elrich likes. On the other hand, she also opposes most rules that would limit development in rural areas far from transit. She generally advocates building in the county and is less discerning about what or where.
George Leventhal has been a leader in the fight for the Purple Line, and for transit in general in the county. Yet he also strongly supported widening I-270, and basically favors any transportation project of any kind in any location. Duchy Trachtenberg has been good on the environment and transit issues as well and not a road booster, but hasn't shown as much leadership on growth and transportation issues generally.
I'd recommend Montgomery residents (like my in-laws) vote for Mr. Riemer and decide among the other candidates based on the other issues, like schools, budgets, labor relations and many more. If you're not sure of some of the candidates, it's also fine to vote for only two or three. Leaving a blank or two on the ballot makes the votes you do cast count even more, as the top four total vote-getters win the seats.
Two district seats are also contested, which happen to be the two that had Montgomery's greatest development debates in the last few years. District 1 includes Chevy Chase, Bethesda and Potomac, and has significant numbers of residents who oppose the Purple Line and/or White Flint. Roger Berliner, the incumbent, has championed both projects a good future for his area despite the short-term political risk. Meanwhile, his challenger, Ilaya Hopkins, has chosen to throw her lot in with the antis. Mr. Berliner should be reelected to prove that anti sentiment doesn't drive Montgomery politics.
In District 2, the suburban and rural northern part of the County, former Planning Board Chair Royce Hanson is the best choice for the open seat. He's been a strong proponent of Smart Growth on the Planning Board, and was largely responsible for the Agricultural Reserve, the large belt of (mostly) protected land at the County's edge, much of which is in that district. His support for the sprawl development at Gaithersburg West was more of a disappointment, but his multi-decade track record warrants your vote.
The other district members, Phil Andrews, Nancy Navarro, and Valerie Ervin, do not have primary challengers.
Montgomery Council Chair Nancy Floreen (at-large) argued passionately at a hearing Tuesday for relaxing the "adequate public facilities" rules that are standing in the way of walkable development at White Flint that has widespread community support.
I wrote about the absurity of clinging to a traffic model that says communities cannot function without wider roads, when our cities such as DC are living examples to the contrary. Floreen pointed out another such example: Rockville.
"Is the City of Rockville in balance?" Floreen said. "It doesn't use this test and it's a neighbor of Whtie Flint. Why let 9 Council members define this? ... We're using the wrong standards."
Barnaby Zall said that 30 seconds is what stands in the way of the County approving White Flint. The County Executive wants to prioritize the speed of traffic through White Flint above creating a great place there, and County Council staff were unable to make the plan work with the existing, broken metrics.
In this particular case, many people in the community support the plan. And for many Councilmembers, including Floreen, that makes a big difference.
Floreen said (as transcribed by FLOG:
I love the White Flint Plan. Because the community defined what it wanted and said the community character is what matters most. I have come to say that's how you should find out what matters.Based on comments, Councilmember Marc Elrich (at-large) seemed most hesitant to change the rules, while Councilmember Roger Berliner (District 1, which include the area) and Duchy Trachtenberg (at-large) support approving the White Flint plan.
I will lie down in the middle of Rockville Pike if you make the intersection at Strathmore any bigger. People can't walk across Strathmore because of the speeds drivers think they're entitled to. ...
We're letting the wrong standards drive us. I can't explain the difference between 30 seconds and 40. People who live within WF want to see some real improvements.
Yesterday, the Montgomery County Council's Transportation, Infrastructure, Energy and Environment Committee voted to recommend Alternative 7, which would widen I-270 to 8 regular lanes and two or three reversible HOT lanes. Councilmembers Nancy Floreen (at-large) and Roger Berliner (Bethesda/Chevy Chase) voted for the option, while the third committee member, George Leventhal (at-large) was not present.
Alternative 7 is projected to cost $3.88 billion. One argument highway boosters are making to the County Council is that all the money will just come back in tolls on the HOT lanes. They argue, therefore, that we couldn't spend the $4 billion instead on transit improvements, such as better commuter rail service to Frederick, light rail from Rockville to Gaithersburg and Germantown, and other possibilities.
However, the SHA's own numbers don't bear that out.
According to ACT, SHA projects the toll lane traffic to only move 2 0-1 mph faster than the free lanes. Obviously, almost everyone would choose to pay nothing over paying something to only gain a tiny bit of speed. Therefore, the tolls would have to be extremely low to keep a reasonable volume of traffic in the proposed lanes. With such a low toll, the road can't possibly come even close to paying back its $4 billion price tag.
Even if the road were free, triggering enormous sprawl out to the County line and into Frederick County, increasing auto-dependence, traffic and pollution throughout the County, and driving economic growth away from the parts of the County that most need it would only harm Montgomery. It's time for the Council to finally say no to more car lanes and more sprawl and choose a different path before it's too late.
In March, Councilmember Marc Elrich called the Council's support for the ICC a "mistake." It will take a severe health toll on residents along its route. 270 already exists, but adding more cars and more traffic will deepen the health cost to residents along the corridor and elsewhere in the County. Montgomery can't afford another mistake.
Montgomery County Councilmember Roger Berliner (D-District 1) has proposed adding an additional Metro station near the existing White Flint station. Mr. Berliner proposed the station to enhance the pedestrian-oriented infrastructure for the upcoming suburban-to-urban retrofits in the new White Flint Sector Plan and to address the expected traffic from BRAC. He noted that a new station would cost much less than all the road widening SHA plans around the National Naval Medical Center.
"To the extent to which we have an existing infrastructure that we could advance that would be of the highest quality, I think that's worth a good look," Berliner told the Gazette. The amount of land that is within walking distance of transit almost doubles when two stations are within walking distance of each other compared to when they are farther apart. In the specific case of the White Flint Sector Plan, that would double the amount of residents and amenities that the infrastructure could support.
While it would be wonderful to establish a corridor similar to Rosslyn-Ballston, this proposal also represents a shift in thinking about how to plan for BRAC. While hosting the National Institutes of Health and the Navy Medical Center create planning challenges for the county, they also provide large numbers of jobs. More new residents will move to to Montgomery County as those facilities grow. In previous decades, planners would widen the existing roads, build more roads at the rural fringes of the county, then approve more subdivisions. More undeveloped land gets paid over, more impermeable surfaces are created, more animals lose their habitat, and our nation spends even more money on gasoline.
Berliner's vision represents a break from previous decades. Rather than building more roads, a Metro station would support more housing within walking distance of a Metro station just a few stops from Medical Center. While more tax-paying residents help the County financially, the vision also helps the environment by avoiding paving over acres of undeveloped land. It also won't require the new residents to spend income purchasing, maintaining, and fueling up personal automobiles.
Montgomery County facing similar challenges to those Arlington County faced forty years ago. Arlington fought so hard to use the Orange Line as a planning tool because it was running out of undeveloped land within its borders. If an urbanized jurisdiction can't grow, it can't expand its tax base. If it can't expand its tax base, it faces insolvency in the long term. Since Arlington County couldn't grow out anymore, it had to grow up in selected places.
Currently, over 30% of the county's tax base comes from the Rosslyn-Ballston Corridor, 8% of the county's land area. Montgomery is much larger, which delayed this process by decades, but it's now approaching on the horizon. Tysons, too, is hitting a wall in how much economic activity it can support, which is why Fairfax leaders are so eager to build the Silver Line.
Not only would Councilmember Berliner's vision provide conditions for a more environmentally sustainable living arrangement for thousands of future Montgomery County residents, it will improve the county's fiscal situation in the short term. By establishing a corridor and planting the seeds for achieving an economically self-sustaining critical mass in a new human-scale walkable urban place, it will also create another place for the county to focus its long-term growth. By having environmentally and economically sustainable long-term growth, the county will be fiscally solvent in the long-term.
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