Monday, June 29, 2009

Is This Smart Growth? Part One

The new Adequate Public Facility Ordinance (APFO) proposed by the Planning Department staff would provide new incentives for development around transit stations. That’s smart growth by anyone’s definition. But the proposal would also encourage development around strip malls and in Upcounty areas far from transit and would throw in the towel on congestion in many parts of Downcounty. How smart is that?

To understand how the staff proposal works, we must first understand how new projects are evaluated for their impact on transportation capacity. Two years ago, I wrote about how transportation review works in Montgomery County on Just Up the Pike. Here is an excerpt.


Between the early 1980’s and 2004, new developments in Montgomery County were subject to two kinds of analysis for their impact on traffic: Policy Area Transportation Review (PATR) and Local Area Transportation Review (LATR). LATR examined the impact of development on traffic in a handful of intersections close to the project. PATR examined the impact of development on traffic in a large area surrounding the project called a “policy area.” The county had 21 of these policy areas in addition to 10 smaller “Metro Station Policy Areas” and “Town Center Policy Areas.”

The idea behind both LATR and PATR was that if the new development caused traffic congestion to rise above a certain threshold in either a small immediate area around the project (LATR) or a large area around the project (PATR), the developer would be required to provide certain mitigation measures, such as additional road or transit capacity. If traffic conditions were extremely congested in a policy area (as measured by an average congestion index), a moratorium could be declared. In 2004, the last year PATR was in effect, the county had eight policy areas in moratorium for housing construction and six policy areas in moratorium for commercial construction.

In 2003, the County Council voted to abolish PATR, keep LATR and institute a combination of increased and new development impact taxes. The council’s reasoning at that time was that new development should pay for added infrastructure capacity (like roads and schools) rather than be subject to a moratorium until the county could construct the added infrastructure.

New developments would now be analyzed only for their traffic impact on immediate surrounding areas. For example, under the old system, a new development at the corner of Georgia Avenue and Forest Glen Road would be analyzed not only for its impact on that intersection and a couple others nearby (LATR), but also for its impact on the average congestion level for the Kensington-Wheaton policy area (PATR). Under the new system, only the impact on a small number of nearby intersections would be considered.

Critics of PATR’s abolition contended that it was unrealistic to believe that traffic impact from a new development would only spread for a couple blocks away from the site. After the 2006 County Council elections, the council called for an analysis of the county’s growth policy from the Planning Board and specifically requested a recommendation on whether to bring back PATR. The board’s response was to suggest instituting a similar, but not identical process called Project Area Mobility Review (PAMR).

Like PATR, PAMR also assesses the traffic impact of a project on a broad policy area. However, its methodology differs. PATR relied on an average congestion index to determine whether a policy area’s transportation infrastructure was “adequate” to handle additional traffic. PAMR calculates a tradeoff between auto congestion (termed “relative arterial mobility”) and transit capacity (termed “relative transit mobility”). If a policy area had low relative arterial mobility (meaning it had lots of auto congestion), it could still be judged as “adequate” if residents could use transit to get to destinations almost as fast as through car travel. Conversely, if a policy area had transit use that took substantially more time than car use, it could still be judged as “adequate” if auto congestion was low. If a policy area had both high auto congestion and transit options that were much slower than car use, it would be judged as “inadequate.”

Developers in adequate policy areas would not be required to provide mitigation measures under PAMR, though they might face requirements if nearby local intersections were found to be excessively congested under LATR. The planners contended this new system fairly reflected the tradeoffs that residents could make between cars and transit – for example, by switching to transit if car travel was too slow.


We’ll learn more about how PAMR works and how the staff would like to change it in Part Two.