Friday, October 30, 2009

MDOT Goes Schizo on Gaithersburg West

So would the Planning Board’s proposed Gaithersburg West Master Plan be a bad idea because it would gridlock local roads and require vast sums of money to redo intersections? Or would it be a good idea because it would make a light-rail CCT cost effective? According to the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT), the answer is both.

In September, we reported that two MDOT subsidiaries, the State Highway Administration (SHA) and the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA), wrote a letter of concern to the County Council about the Gaithersburg West plan. In language expressed in an unusually strong dialect of bureaucratese, the agencies objected to the $1.3 billion cost of rebuilding interchanges that would be necessitated by the plan. They also stated their belief that the plan’s reliance on commercial space over housing would draw in commuters from other areas, thereby increasing the strain on the regional transportation network. The implication of these arguments is that the plan’s density, currently proposed at 20 million square feet of commercial space, should be reduced.

However, there may be a positive impact of the plan’s density: it could help build the Corridor Cities Transitway (CCT) as light rail. In July, we reported that Gaithersburg’s current density level generated ridership that would make bus rapid transit (BRT), but not light rail, competitive under federal cost effectiveness criteria. But in a new letter that we reproduce below, MTA believes that if the CCT were re-aligned through the bulked-up Science City proposed by the Gaithersburg West plan, it would gain a 15-40% boost in ridership. Since capital costs would only go up by 11-16%, the CCT might now be viable as rail. The Gazette reported that MTA’s CCT project manager told the council that the new alignment through the dense area of the plan would have a cost effectiveness range of $18-19 per hour of user benefit, which is superior to light rail on the Purple Line. But the density proposed by the Gaithersburg West plan is required to make these numbers work.

This poses an interesting question to the County Council, which will soon decide on the density to be allowed in the Gaithersburg West plan. On the one hand, almost everyone prefers rail to BRT. The County Executive, the business community, many state legislators and Action Committee for Transit are all on the record for rail. And even though the council’s Transportation, Infrastructure, Energy and Environment (T&E) Committee recommended BRT, it reserved the right to change its mind if higher densities permitted the feasibility of rail. The county’s pro-rail mindset does not apply to the CCT alone, but reflects a general sense that BRT cannot handle long-run high ridership capacities and is a “second-class” option compared to trains.

But there is also intense resistance to both the scale and the form of the Gaithersburg West plan from the civic and smart growth communities. The former will fight endlessly against a “city” in their midst while the latter has not yet acknowledged the tradeoff between density and transit mode.

How will this play out at the County Council? Let’s remember that Council Members are not planners. They are unlikely to whip out spreadsheets and plat maps and rewrite the Gaithersburg West plan wholesale. But they will adjust the density levels. The current allowable density in the plan is 20 million square feet of commercial space. The County Executive would like to see 18 million. Some on the council would like to go lower. In these sorts of situations, the natural inclination of politicians is to pick a number that everyone can live with.

But this is not a conventional split-the-difference issue. The problem is that MDOT’s schizophrenic messages reflect the actual facts on the ground. The Gaithersburg West plan would require huge infrastructure costs and it would enable a light-rail CCT. Density reductions would lower costs but might also result in BRT. Council President Phil Andrews, who represents Gaithersburg, sees this tradeoff clearly. Andrews told the Gazette, “I don’t think that light rail can be the tail that wags the dog, or is the Holy Grail here, either. It’s not the end goal. The end goal is to build a better community for everybody and to figure out what that balance is." For Andrews, that means cutting density no matter what the consequences for transit mode.

How will the rest of the council see this? We’ll find out soon enough.