Monday, December 01, 2008

The Elrich Plan, Part One

At-large County Council Member Marc Elrich has introduced a sweeping new transportation proposal. It is ambitious. It is comprehensive. It violates several taboos. But will it work?

In assessing the effectiveness of any long-term transportation plan, we must consider the real-world constraints faced by the county. And there are many problems to overcome. Here are a few relevant facts that any transportation plan must face:

1. Growing Population and Employment
The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG) projects that Montgomery’s population will grow from 938,000 in 2005 to 1,145,000 in 2030, an increase of 22%. Over the same period, the county’s employment will grow from 500,000 in 2005 to 670,000 in 2030, an increase of 34%. The Washington region as a whole will see population growth of 32% and employment growth of 38% over the same time period.

2. Carbon Dioxide Emissions Are Increasing
Population and job growth will push up CO2 emissions, thereby fueling global warming. COG estimates that CO2 emissions will increase in the Washington region by 33% between 2005 and 2030, and 43% between 2005 and 2050. Roughly one-third of those emissions are caused by vehicles. COG has told Elrich that an 8.3% reduction in vehicle miles traveled (VMT) is necessary to reduce emissions to 2002 levels in Montgomery County. A reduction of 15-20% in VMT is necessary to reduce emissions to 1990 levels. COG estimates that Montgomery County will be at “high risk” for drought and thunderstorms and at “medium-high risk” for flash flooding and snow or ice-storms because of climate change.

3. Funding is Limited
Regular readers remember the state’s $1.1 billion transportation cut. Part of the reason for that cut is the General Assembly’s failure to heed the Governor’s proposal to index the gas tax for inflation during the Special Session. While the state still plans on spending $9.4 billion on transportation projects over the next six years (for now), the vast majority of Montgomery’s portion of that spending is accounted for by the $2.4 billion InterCounty Connector. Montgomery County plans on spending roughly $900 million on transportation over the next six years. But very large portions of both state and county spending go to system maintenance, not new projects. At existing rates of spending, it is very doubtful that either the state or the county can adequately prepare their transportation infrastructures to handle the demands of a 20-30% population growth occurring through 2030.

4. Residences Are Not Located Near Jobs
Prior to World War II, Montgomery County was primarily a bedroom community for the District. From the 1950s on, it has evolved into an employment center. But jobs and residences are concentrated in different places. The county’s employment centers are located in the I-270 corridor, especially from Bethesda to Gaithersburg, as well as in Silver Spring. Many people commute to the District and Virginia. Residences are more evenly distributed throughout the county. Many areas, like East County, northern Silver Spring, Potomac, Olney and the rural areas are dominated by residential uses. The fact that most jobs are not located near most residences stresses the transportation network.

5. Central Business Districts (CBDs) are Highly Congested
Smart growth advocates favor concentrating both employment and new residential development near Metro stations, especially in the county’s downtowns. One challenge to this approach is that the roads in these CBDs tend to be very congested. Longtime readers will recall our lengthy criticism of the county’s reliance on Critical Lane Volume to measure traffic. When using average speeds to measure corridor performance, the slowest stretches of road in the county include Rockville Pike in Rockville, Wisconsin Avenue in Bethesda, Georgia Avenue north of Wheaton, and Georgia Avenue and Colesville Road in Downtown Silver Spring. If new development in these CBDs is accompanied by new traffic, those roads will be overloaded. And the geographic constraints of all these CBDs will prevent the roads from being widened.

6. Rail Limitations
Rail is expensive. According to the Purple Line’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement, rail on that route will cost in a range of $75-102 million per mile. That may be justified by the high density in the Montgomery and Prince George’s inner suburbs. But it is harder to make that case in lower-density areas. Furthermore, much of the right-of-way for the Purple Line is already publicly owned (such as the Capital Crescent Trail). Assembling the right-of-way for a new rail line further north in the county would require huge amounts of money and perhaps significant destruction of housing. This decreases the likelihood that rail by itself is a feasible solution for the county’s transportation challenges.

How does Elrich intend to deal with these problems? We’ll find out in Part Two.