Sunday, November 22, 2009

Marc Elrich on Growth Policy

Following is an op-ed on the county's Growth Policy by County Council Member Marc Elrich that appeared in the Gazette earlier this week.

The Montgomery County Council is engaged in its biannual evaluation of the growth policy and the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance. The APFO determines if public facilities can handle new development — whether schools can handle more capacity or roads more traffic. Road capacity is determined by assessing vehicle speed during rush hour.

It is now measured by a deeply flawed test that allows new development based on two factors: if auto speed remains above 14 mph (in a 35 mph zone) during rush hour and if transit maintains 50 to 60 percent of auto speed. Actual speeds in the peak direction can be less than 14 mph because speed is an average of both directions. Supporters of a lower standard claim that the current one supports free flowing highways, but I suspect you'd agree that 14 mph is a hardly free-flowing.

The Planning Board's new growth policy would lower the permissible speed to an average of 8 mph as long as the average transit speed is 75 percent of auto speed. Because this is an average of both directions and we tend to have heavy one-way congestion during rush hours, an 8 mph average could mean cars going as slow as 4 mph in peak directions. The proposal, rejected by the County Council, calls this Level of Service E, but all professionals call this an "F." If you were sitting in it, you would surely call this an "F," too.

The test is a travesty. The development community says it's worse than the old test — you can't tell what's broken or what's required to fix it. Activists find it incomprehensible. Board members can't explain how it works, nor can most council members, and the county executive wants it replaced. The highly regarded Florida Department of Transportation refers to this kind of test as lacking professional acceptance or scientific validity — it tells you nothing about whether roads or transit are "adequate." The proposed changes to this flawed policy are to accommodate one project — White Flint. Its only supporters seem to be either people who want White Flint exempted from any standards and don't care about the impact on thousands of people who use Rockville Pike, or some Smart Growth advocates who support it because it mentions transit and autos in the same breath.

The county needs tools that accurately assess transportation capacity. I have no argument with multi-modalism, requiring a shift to more transit (that is the reason behind my countywide bus rapid transit proposal), and focusing development in areas that can be served by transit. But Smart Growth is more than tall buildings and dense development —it still has to fit within real world constraints. Even if 50 percent arrive without cars, 50 percent arrive in cars. If we want fewer drivers, we have to provide a viable, cost-effective and rapid alternative. We can't turn roads into parking lots and then hope, as the board proposes, that people will give up cars to ride transit. That transition requires planning and investment for a viable alternative, not simply a plan to make commuting hell.

Smart Growth advocates and White Flint supporters fear that looking at other standards will return us (as if we ever left) to an auto-centric focus. The truth is there are nationally accepted standards that apply to both auto and transit. Others are doing it, while we insist on rare, inscrutable tests. We continue to change the rules to redefine failing roads as adequate, and we've been doing it for years. The time for these games is over.

Good tests illuminate problems and direct toward solutions. Smart Growth advocates have argued that the tests automatically lead to more road construction, but tests only indicate the problems. We must choose solutions that address congestion by reducing trips, rather than adding concrete. There is no doubt that transit must increasingly become the solution because we can't keep building roads. It's time to start focusing on transportation solutions that create transit capacity and viable alternatives to driving.

Marc Elrich, Takoma Park

The writer is an at-large member of the Montgomery County Council.