Friday, July 03, 2009

Is This Smart Growth? Part Five

The Planning Department staff’s new recommended growth policy encourages development away from transit and throws in the towel on congestion mitigation. Here are some ideas for doing this better.

1. Restructure the impact taxes to move development into the Downtowns.
Currently, there are three categories for transportation impact taxes: Metro Station Policy Areas (MSPAs), which has the lowest rates; Clarksburg, where rates are three times the MSPAs; and general (the rest of the county), which has double the rates of the MSPAs.

Developing near Metro stations is a better option than sprawl (or opening the Ag Reserve), but the best development opportunities apply to Metro stations that are combined centers of residential, office and retail uses. We have four of them: the Downtowns of Bethesda, Silver Spring, Rockville, and Wheaton. We should create a new impact tax category for these Downtowns that has lower rates than the MSPAs and at the same time raise the rates in Clarksburg and in non-MSPAs. That would channel development into the Downtowns, where it belongs. It would also make sprawl development more expensive and effectively subsidize downtown development. Moderately-priced dwelling units (MPDUs) and workforce housing units should continue to be eligible for impact tax waivers.

2. Get rid of gobbledy-gooky data measures.
Overly complicated statistical barometers have two problems. First, they may not measure what you think they measure. Second, they sometimes behave unpredictably. The classic example is critical lane volume (CLV), which the Planning Department uses to measure intersection congestion for local area transportation review. The department’s own transportation staff found in 1998 that CLVs have no relationship to actual delay and yet they continue to use them. We exposed this dismal planning failure a year ago and the Planning Department has never responded. Planners should be using simple, easily understood measures like actual speed and delay data, which are commercially available.

3. Junk PAMR.
Policy area mobility review (PAMR), the procedure invented by the staff in 2007 to assess traffic and transit congestion across sub-segments (policy areas) of the county, is based on a trade-off premise. If cars are moving slowly, a policy area could still be judged to have adequate transportation capacity if transit was relatively mobile. The problem is that transit mobility is defined as a percentage of highway speed. So imagine a policy area without Metro stations in which cars are crawling at rush hour. If the buses crawled along at an equally slow speed – say, 80% because of their frequent stops – the policy area would be judged to have a “B” level of transit service. Under PAMR’s current tradeoff, that would allow a “D” level of auto congestion, meaning that cars could still move at 40% of highway speed. So under PAMR, as long as all transportation modes are equally jammed, the transportation capacity is called “adequate.” Do you see the illogic here?

A better way to do this is to use real-world speed and delay data for both local area and policy area transportation review. How congested are the intersections and the major corridors? Higher levels of congestion could be allowed in major Downtowns with Metro service. Lower levels would be tolerated in Upcounty. Projects built in congested areas would require more mitigation, especially directed to financing transit.

4. Give neighbors a voice in devising mitigation techniques.
Right now, a developer who builds near a highly congested (or “failing”) intersection can mitigate vehicle trips through building sidewalks, bike paths, pedestrian refuges, bus shelters, information kiosks, bike lockers or transit signs. Few of these measures do anything to mitigate traffic. The residents who live near that intersection should have a formal role in devising and approving real mitigation measures that actually impact traffic. If citizens are allowed to vote on speed bumps, they should be allowed a real voice on traffic mitigation.

5. Build more transit!
This is outside the bounds of the growth policy recommendations, but transit availability is vital to the future of the county. It has been more than six months since we reported on Council Member Marc Elrich’s bus-rapid transit plan, which is the only proposal now on the table for a comprehensive transit system across the county. Since that time, we have seen little if any progress on its implementation. Montgomery County desperately needs a geographically diverse network of fast transit service, especially on its east-west corridors. The Purple Line by itself cannot solve all of the county’s mobility issues. A county-wide transit system is required for that. Dedicated impact taxes, tax districts around prospective BRT stations and private equity partnerships should all be considered as ways to pay for this proposal.

The above five measures would steer development into Downtowns, provide sound data for evaluating transportation capacity and begin the process of building more transit options. So let’s forget about channeling development to Upcounty and strip malls and give some different ideas a chance.