Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Is This Smart Growth? Part Two

In 2007, the Planning Department devised a new system for measuring a project’s impact on transportation capacity: Project Area Mobility Review (PAMR). The system relied on a trade-off between road congestion (defined as actual speed divided by free-flow speed) and transit mobility (defined as transit speed divided by road speed) in each of 22 bite-sized “policy areas.” A policy area with congested roads could still be deemed to have “adequate” transportation capacity if transit service was almost as fast as road speed. Inversely, a policy area with very slow transit relative to road speed could still be deemed “adequate” if cars often approached the posted speed limit. But if a policy area had both slow transit and congested roads, it would be designated “inadequate” and developers would be required to mitigate at least some of the vehicle trips their projects generated.

Currently, developers have five options to mitigate trips in congested policy areas:

1. Sign a binding Trip Mitigation Agreement to reduce trips using transportation demand management techniques.

2. Provide non-auto facilities to make transit, walking and bicycling more attractive.

3. Add road capacity by building more lanes or widening intersections.

4. Add transit capacity by buying Ride On buses and subsidizing their operating costs.

5. Make a payment to the county in lieu of the above measures.

It’s important to note that the County Council set a floor for allowable auto congestion in its 2007-2009 Growth Policy Resolution. No matter how fast transit service was relative to road speed, the council established that road level of service should not fall below Level D, defined as car speeds of at least 40% of free-flow speed (essentially, the posted speed limit). So if a policy area had an average speed limit of 40 mph and the average car speed was 15 mph (38% of the speed limit), the policy area would have inadequate transportation capacity regardless of transit speed. The council defied the wishes of the planning staff, who argued that Level of Service E (25% of the speed limit) should be the allowable floor.

In its new proposal, the staff reasserts its recommendation that Level of Service E, and not D, should be instituted. Here is the staff’s reasoning:

Staff finds that LOS E conditions are appropriate for two reasons.

First, from a technical perspective, LOS E is the condition at which the throughput of a roadway facility is maximized. This is somewhat counterintuitive simply due to the fact that the LOS grading system is oriented toward the customer. For the customer, LOS A represents the least delay, and therefore the best level of service. Provision of LOS A service to all customers, however, is not practical from either fiscal or community-building perspectives. Most jurisdictions across the country require conditions ranging from LOS C to LOS E.

Second, from a community-building perspective, the establishment of more stringent LOS requirements in urban areas can create pressures to widen roadways to provide auto capacity, an action which not only uses valuable property but also tends to reduce pedestrian comfort and accessibility. In the White Flint Sector Plan, staff has recommended that the end-state conditions, which would result in Transit LOS B and Arterial LOS E conditions, should reflect an appropriate balance between land use and transportation.
The staff is actually claiming that many areas of the county should be congested. According to them, congestion relief through added road capacity is inherently harmful to pedestrian activity. But the above mitigation measures provide many other ways for developers to counter congestion, including buying buses and contributing to transit. The staff would simply let developers off the hook.

The staff’s recommended change has a real impact on many policy areas. Under the current system, developers of projects in the Bethesda-Chevy Chase policy area are required to mitigate 30% of trips generated by new projects. Under the staff’s proposal, that requirement would drop to 0%. Trip mitigation in Derwood and Shady Grove would fall from 20% of trips to 0%. North Bethesda mitigation would fall from 35% to 20%. Rockville City mitigation would fall from 25% to 20%. Aspen Hill mitigation would fall from 20% to 5%. And in Olney, Kensington/Wheaton and Silver Spring/Takoma Park, mitigation would fall from 10% to 0%.

Current PAMR Mitigation Requirements

Proposed PAMR Mitigation Requirements

This particular change only serves two purposes. First, it undeniably reduces costs for developers. Second, it undeniably increases costs for the rest of us by allowing more congestion with no offsetting gain. How smart is that?

But there is more – MUCH more. Come back tomorrow for Part Three.