Category Archives: transportation

How is MoCo Doing on Pedestrian Safety?

By Adam Pagnucco.

Pedestrian safety is arguably THE hottest issue in MoCo government right now.  With several recent high profile pedestrian deaths and residents swarming a county council meeting on the subject, alarmed elected officials are terming pedestrian crashes a “public health crisis” and demanding action.  The county has responded by hiring a full-time pedestrian safety coordinator and is promising more to come.

Pedestrian safety has been a challenge in Montgomery County for decades.  How well is the county doing on this issue?

First, let’s look at MoCo’s rate of pedestrian involved crashes in comparison to the rest of the state.  The table below, sourced from data provided by the Maryland Department of Transportation, compares the average annual number of pedestrian crashes by county to county populations.

Three of the top four counties on a per capita basis – Baltimore City, Baltimore County and Prince George’s County – are among the most urbanized jurisdictions in the state.  The other county in the top four – Worcester – has an unusual amount of pedestrian activity on the Ocean City boardwalk.  MoCo ranks 7th of 24 counties on crash rate but its average annual crash rate per 1,000 residents (0.44) is below the state average (0.54).  Admittedly, the state average is skewed upwards by Baltimore City.

It’s interesting that MoCo’s pedestrian crash rate is similar to less urbanized jurisdictions like Wicomico, Dorchester and Washington Counties.  Urbanized counties should have greater volumes of pedestrian activity because of a greater abundance of walkable districts.  MoCo certainly has more of those than Wicomico, Dorchester and Washington Counties.  That suggests that MoCo isn’t a relatively bad performer on this measure given its substantial (and increasing) urbanization.

One thing MoCo does is spend significant amounts of capital money on pedestrian projects.  The table below compares capital budget spending on pedestrian and bikeway projects (the two are one category) to total capital spending excluding the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission in the last 16 Capital Improvements Program (CIP) budgets. 

MoCo’s spending on pedestrian and bikeway projects steadily accelerated from $44 million in the FY7-12 CIP to $225 million in the FY19-24 CIP.  Major projects like the Metropolitan Branch Trail, the MD-355 BRAC crossing and the Capital Crescent Trail are partially responsible for these increases.  However, the FY21-26 executive recommended budget is a step back.  The six-year total pedestrian and bikeway spending of $181 million is the lowest since the FY13-18 amended budget.  So is the percentage of the total capital budget accounted for by pedestrian and bikeway projects.

All of this gives rise to two questions.

1.  MoCo spends a lot of money on pedestrian projects, but is the county getting a good return?  A 2007 county council press release states that the county averaged 430 pedestrian collisions per year from 2003 through 2006.  The Maryland Department of Transportation estimates that the county averaged 459 pedestrian crashes from 2014 through 2018.  Between the two periods, the county’s population rose by 13% while its pedestrian crashes rose by 7%.  Is that a sufficiently positive result from the enormous sums the county has spent in recent years?  Given the significant needs in this area and the limited resources in the capital budget, the county may wish to study the most cost-effective ways of promoting pedestrian safety and direct its funding accordingly.

2.  As noted above, the executive’s new recommended capital budget decreases pedestrian and bikeway spending to its lowest level in seven years.  One reason for that is that the overall level of capital spending is declining.  (That’s a subject for a future series.)  With all areas of the capital budget under stress and the looming possibility that school construction delays will trigger residential moratoriums, it’s extremely difficult to add or even maintain funding for any program, not just pedestrian and bikeway projects.  That said, county elected officials will look terrible if they declare pedestrian safety to be a “public health crisis” but then cut funding for pedestrian and bikeway capital projects.

Overall, MoCo’s record on pedestrian safety is not a bad one when compared to the rest of Maryland.  But funding constraints could hinder its prospects for improvement.

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Create Gridlock Now?

In an unusual move, three members of the Montgomery County Council wrote the Planning Board to ask them to reverse their decision regarding the Capital Crescent Trail crossing at Little Falls Parkway. The Planning Board made the right call. Retaining the status quo both increases traffic and reduces biker and pedestrian safety.

In the wake of a tragic accident that took the life a recumbent cyclist trying to cross Little Falls on the CCT, the parkway was changed to reduce it from two lanes to one between Hillendale and Arlington Rds, located close by the trail. Unsurprisingly, taking away a lane and forcing a merge before busy Arlington Rd. has increased traffic in this area. More cars have also started cutting through residential Kenwood to avoid the new tie-up.

Instead of calling it an “intentional traffic jam” by cutting off use of an already existing and paid for road, proponents use the creative euphemism of a “road diet” to put a positive spin on it. Voters don’t much like sitting in traffic but diets connote virtue and health.

The major argument for the created traffic is biker and pedestrian safety with proponents arguing that fewer accidents have occurred than under the previous configuration. This might be a very good argument if it were truly needed to improve safety. Except it’s not. The Planning Board didn’t vote for a return to old trail crossing but to move it just a few yards away to a traffic light at Arlington Rd.

This is a much better solution all around for safety because it forces everyone to stop. Cars that face a red light have to stop and won’t even be allowed to turn right. Bikers and walkers will know they need to stop when they don’t have the light. Sounds simple, easy and cheap. Also a lot safer than a crosswalk even across one lane of traffic. Whether or not they see you, cars have to stop at red lights but, as in the case of the tragic accident, cars won’t stop if they don’t see you.

The people most unhappy with the Planning Board’s sensible solution are commuter cyclists. Instead of being able to race through at a straightaway if they see no traffic, fast moving commuter bikes will now have to slow down and stop as they bike a few yards down to light. Of course, if bikes have to slow down, one would think that would help reduce accidents.

The head of the Washington Area Bicyclists association has spoken out vehemently against the change, calling it unsafe because cars won’t stop at the traffic signal and make illegal right turns on to Arlington Rd., while pedestrians will be tempted to race across—either at the light or at the existing crossing even if the trail is moved.

In short, he is arguing that people will violate the law so we shouldn’t bother. I look forward to the county jacking up speed limits and eliminating speed cameras for the same reason. It also puts the county’s relatively recent anti-jaywalking campaign in a perplexing light. Pedestrians and cyclists also have responsibilities when it comes to safety and reducing the number of accidents. Drivers face significant penalties for making illegal turns.

The idea that people cross where it’s easiest is also more complicated than presented. People do sometimes jaywalk. But jaywalkers or jaycyclers tend to be selective about it. Otherwise, we’d have way more accidents at the many intersections without lights or crosswalks at the intersections of the county’s grand avenues like Georgia, Wisconsin, and Connecticut.

Beyond danger and the law, jaycycling could also be easily disincentivized by restoring the original terrain and putting up a few 3-foot concrete barriers where the CCT meets Little Falls. Like the red light, this tells people that you must stop and is certainly no harder or uglier than the bollards cutting off a lane of traffic.

I’m not unsympathetic with the idea that we don’t want to impede people unnecessarily. But it also seems to make sense to place this “minor inconvenience” on the vastly smaller number of commuter cyclists than on the far greater number of parkway users. Maybe we could call it a “speed diet” to make it more appealing?

The final argument for the “road diet” is that it has cut accidents by one-half so we shouldn’t make any changes. Except that the Planning Board isn’t going back to the old configuration. Putting the trail where motorists and cyclists must stop, as opposed to a crosswalk where they can drive through if they don’t spot anyone, should improve safety. Unlike the three councilmembers, the Board held a public hearing and heard from all sections of the community.

Traffic is also about to get much worse if “road diets” are now our preferred solution. According to the county database, for example, many pedestrian accidents occur in a short section of Georgia Ave. in Aspen Hill. I bet if we forced cars there to merge from three lanes into one, it will indeed be safer as no one will be going anywhere.

Pedestrian and cyclist safety are important. But induced traffic jams seem a dubious solution at best and benighted, when perfectly good alternatives exist. Indeed, the current solution got a two-year test, so why not give the Planning Board’s considered idea the same?

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Corruption at MTA

Maryland Reporter has the story:

In response to a call to its waste, fraud and abuse hotline, the Office of Legislative Audits investigated complaints about contracting at the Maryland Transit Administration, which runs the buses, subway and light rail line in the Baltimore region.

“Our review disclosed that MTA included language in certain contracts that allowed its employees to circumvent State procurement regulations by directing the contractors to use specific vendors as subcontractors,” chief legislative auditor Gregory Hook said in a letter to lawmakers. “The MTA management employee used this capability to direct work to specific vendors as subcontractors including one vendor with which the management employee had less than an arm’s-length relationship (related vendor). The related vendor was paid $3 million for the subcontracted work. Due to the questionable nature of certain of this activity, we referred this matter to the Office of the Attorney General – Criminal Division. We also identified possible violations of State ethics law that may require referral to the State Ethics Commission.”

“Our review also identified questionable procurement and contract monitoring practices, which may have limited competition and precluded effective monitoring of contracts and related payments,” Hook said. Contracts were issued without proper approval, and payments were made without invoices to back up the work.

Four contracts for snow and ice removal totaling $6.2 were issued to a contractor that the project manager had a relationship with.

While Secretary Rahn says that his office takes the “findings of the audit seriously,” he has yet to apologize or take responsibility for this occurring in his office on his watch on his pet project. When Gov. Hogan promised to make Maryland more business friendly, presumably he wasn’t talking about featherbedding of the form so appreciated by President Trump.

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How to Spend More on Education and Transportation Without Raising Taxes

By Adam Pagnucco.  

It’s election season and that means it’s time for lots of promises from politicians.  And boy are they promising a lot, especially on the county’s two big issues of education and transportation.  The mailbox’s “progressive leaders” have “plans” to guarantee every child a great school, invest in transportation – especially transit – and to do all of the above without raising taxes.  Sounds great, yeah?

Time to get real, folks!

Education and transportation each have two virtues.  First, each of them generates direct economic returns.  Education spending yields a return on human capital while transportation spending yields a return on physical infrastructure.  Both are important for attracting and retaining residents and jobs.  Second, each of them is popular with voters.  For as long as anyone can remember, education and transportation have been two of the top issues in our elections – and they might possibly be THE top two.  Happily, on these two issues, good policy and good politics come together!

Paying for them is another matter.  MCPS accounts for a greater percentage of the budget than any other agency with a $2.5 billion budget in FY18.  Montgomery College received more than $300 million.  The Department of Transportation’s operating budget was $56 million.  Funding increases with meaningful impacts on these agencies need to be in the tens of millions of dollars – at least.  That kind of money far exceeds a spreadsheet rounding error.

And yet, there is a way to increase spending on MCPS, the college and transportation without massive tax hikes.  The catch is that it’s not quick or easy.

Let’s do a simple (and yes, admittedly simplistic!) exercise with the operating budget.  First, let’s identify the combined local dollar spending on MCPS, the college and the Department of Transportation (DOT).  Next, let’s segregate out intergovernmental aid, which plays an important role in the budget but is not controlled by the county government.  Then let’s segregate debt service.  Yes, over long periods of time, the county can adjust debt service.  But much of the debt service is being paid on capital projects already completed, and furthermore, a huge chunk of it goes to school construction and transportation projects.  Boosting education and transportation operating budgets by cutting their capital budgets is not the best idea in the world!  Finally, let’s subtract out local dollar education and transportation spending, intergovernmental aid and debt service from total spending and what we get is a great big category that we shall creatively name “Everything Else.”

Here’s what happens when we do that for FY11, the trough budget year of the Great Recession, and FY18, the budget that ends on June 30 of this year.

What the above data shows is that the total county budget grew by 28% over this period.  Intergovernmental aid grew by 26% and debt service rose by a whopping 58%.  (We have previously written about the county’s rapidly growing debt.)  Now let’s contrast the two remaining broad categories: the local dollars spent on MCPS, the college and DOT and everything else.  The education and transportation budgets grew by a combined 18%.  Everything else grew by 37%.

That’s right folks – spending on everything else has been growing twice as fast as local dollar spending on education and transportation operating budgets.  That’s a strange fact in a county in which education and transportation are arguably the top two political issues.

Now what would have happened if the everything else side of the budget was restrained to grow at the same rate as inflation?  The average annual growth rate of the Washington-Baltimore CPI-U since 2011 has been 1.3%, meaning that prices have grown by 9.8% over that period.  When we hold the total budget, intergovernmental aid and debt service constant and assign a growth rate of 9.8% to the everything else category, here’s what happens to local dollars available for education and transportation.  For the purposes of discussion, let’s call this Scenario 1.

In Scenario 1, $2.4 billion is available for education and transportation because of spending restraint on everything else.  That’s $383 million more than the $2 billion that was actually available in the real world FY18 budget.

Holding a big chunk of county government to the rate of inflation for seven straight years is tough medicine and very unlikely.  So let’s create a Scenario 2 in which the everything else category is restrained to twice the rate of inflation, or 19.5% growth since FY11.

In Scenario 2, $2.2 billion is available for education and transportation, $244 million more than the real world FY18 budget.

For the sake of comparison to both of these scenarios, let’s recall that the 9 percent property tax hike was supposed to raise $140 million a year.  (It probably raised a little less than that.)  So under both scenarios, the county could have avoided the giant tax hike and still had lots of money left over for more education and transportation spending.

Yes folks, we understand the radical nature of what we are proposing – namely that liberal Democrats should deliberately and strategically restrain the growth in some forms of spending to boost growth in other spending.  This is likely to be an unpopular concept in a county that has multiple jam-packed budget hearings every year with groups of all kinds requesting money.  But here’s the benefit to concentrating on education and transportation: both forms of spending are investments that generate returns for the economy.  And when those returns boost economic growth, they generate tax revenue that bolsters the entire budget.

What is necessary to pull this off?  Simply put, this requires strategy, discipline, patience and leadership.  Without those traits, given the huge number of constituencies that want their piece of the budget, it would be impossible to focus it on education and transportation.  The natural outcome of a budget process without strategy is that everything gets funded, a tax hike follows, voters tire of it and then they pass restrictive charter amendments and vote for politicians like Larry Hogan.

So what are we going to get?  Spending on everything followed by tax hikes?  Or a budget that is strategically focused on generating economic returns from education and transportation?

Folks, that depends on your decisions in the voting booth.

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Candidates Take Positions on Controversial Transportation Projects

By Adam Pagnucco.

The Suburban Maryland Transportation Alliance has released questionnaires completed by County Executive and County Council At-Large candidates on transportation issues.  While many answers are similar – who doesn’t favor transportation funding? – others illuminate real differences on specific issues.  Drawing on the questionnaires, here are four key projects on which the candidates disagree.  (Note: unlisted candidates did not complete the questionnaire.)

Question: Do you support funding and building the missing link of the Mid-County Highway (M-83) to better connect Clarksburg and other Upcounty communities?

Executive candidates who said yes

David Blair

Robin Ficker

Rose Krasnow

Executive candidates who said no

Roger Berliner

Marc Elrich

George Leventhal

Council At-Large candidates who said yes

Rosemary Arkoian

Marilyn Balcombe

Robert Dyer

Lorna Phillips Forde

Neil Greenberger

Ashwani Jain

Michele Riley

Council At-Large candidates who said no

Gabe Albornoz

Bill Conway

Hoan Dang

Evan Glass

Seth Grimes

Will Jawando

Jill Ortman-Fouse

Hans Riemer

Question: Do you support the Maryland Traffic Relief Plan to add new express toll lanes on I-270 while keeping the existing lanes free of charge?  (Editor’s note: this question contains a link to Governor Hogan’s proposals for I-270 and I-495.)

Executive candidates who said yes

Roger Berliner

Robin Ficker

Rose Krasnow

George Leventhal

Executive candidates who said no

David Blair

Marc Elrich

Council At-Large candidates who said yes

Gabe Albornoz

Rosemary Arkoian

Marilyn Balcombe

Bill Conway

Hoan Dang

Robert Dyer

Lorna Phillips Forde

Neil Greenberger

Jill Ortman-Fouse

Michele Riley

Council At-Large candidates who said no

Seth Grimes

Ashwani Jain

Will Jawando

Other answers

Evan Glass did not answer yes or no.  He said, “I am not convinced that toll lanes are the correct solution to this problem.”

Hans Riemer did not answer yes or no.  He said, “I support the council’s adopted vision for 270.”

Question: Do you support the Maryland Traffic Relief Plan (see link above) to add new express toll lanes on I-495, keeping the existing lanes free of charge?

Executive candidates who said yes

Roger Berliner

Robin Ficker

Rose Krasnow

George Leventhal

Executive candidates who said no

David Blair

Marc Elrich

Council At-Large candidates who said yes

Gabe Albornoz

Rosemary Arkoian

Hoan Dang

Robert Dyer

Lorna Phillips Forde

Neil Greenberger

Michele Riley

Council At-Large candidates who said no

Bill Conway

Evan Glass

Seth Grimes

Ashwani Jain

Will Jawando

Jill Ortman-Fouse

Hans Riemer

Other answers

Marilyn Balcombe did not answer yes or no.  She said, “I don’t think we know all the options for how to expand capacity on 495.”

Question: Do you support studying the concept of a second Potomac River crossing, north of the American Legion Bridge?

Executive candidates who said yes

Robin Ficker

Executive candidates who said no

Roger Berliner

David Blair

Marc Elrich

Rose Krasnow

George Leventhal

Council At-Large candidates who said yes

Gabe Albornoz

Rosemary Arkoian

Marilyn Balcombe

Robert Dyer

Lorna Phillips Forde

Neil Greenberger

Jill Ortman-Fouse

Council At-Large candidates who said no

Bill Conway

Hoan Dang

Evan Glass

Seth Grimes

Ashwani Jain

Will Jawando

Hans Riemer

Michele Riley

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Marc Korman’s Transportation Mailer

By Adam Pagnucco.

Transportation is an eternal issue in MoCo politics and most candidates mail on it.  But this has been Delegate Marc Korman’s top priority since his first campaign and he has worked hard on this issue in the General Assembly, notably playing a key role in passing dedicated Metro funding.  The only quarrel we have with this mailer is that Korman may not be taking enough credit for his work!  Still, your author is a big Korman fan and we look forward to his second term.

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Reznik Calls on Board of Public Works to Reject “Shadow Government” Highway Contract

By Adam Pagnucco.

Delegate Kirill Reznik (D-39) has written to the Board of Public Works asking them to reject an engineering and management contract awarded by the Maryland Department of Transportation for its planned expansion of the Capital Beltway and I-270.  According to the Washington Post, the winning consortium included a former employer of the state’s Secretary of Transportation and was awarded the contract despite finishing second in its written proposal.  The Secretary did not vote directly on the contract, but he had dinner with a representative of his former employer and obtained an ethics clearance after the award was made.  Post reporter Michael Laris described the bidding process as “expedited and unusual” and wrote:

The winning firms, known collectively as the “general engineering consultant,” would act as something of a shadow government for the Maryland Department of Transportation, which says its plan to hire firms to build, finance and maintain toll lanes is too big and complex to govern itself.

Referring to much of the above, Delegate Reznik said he was “incredibly alarmed” and asked the Board of Public Works to “restart the process in an open, fair, public, and transparent way, without the involvement of potential conflicts, and only after the public has had an opportunity to weigh in.”  We reprint his letter below.

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Toward Cost-Effective Transportation

By Neil Harris.

Transit is much more expensive to build than highways. It’s politically correct to focus on transit. But is it the best use of our tax dollars? Let’s look at the numbers.

Transportation planners in our region look at many. At the most recent Transportation Planning Board (TPB) meeting, there was a presentation on the ways that transportation plans are measured and approved factors – social equity, air quality, and many more. But when I asked if there was a cost-benefit analysis, it became clear that this did not appear to be on anyone’s list of measures.

By cost-benefit, I mean this: when you build a new transportation project, how much money does it cost to move people?

Over the last few weeks, I went back through some presentations and found the two slides shown below that have the numbers to tell an important story. I spent a lunch hour on the phone with TPB staff to verify that what I was seeing was accurate, and what it might mean. Here is what I learned from TPB’s data:

The DMV region plans to spend $42 billion to expand transportation capacity over the next 25 years, split between $27 billion on highway expansion and $15 billion on transit. This will result in 2.7 million more daily trips by auto and 300 thousand more daily trips in transit. By simple arithmetic, this means that it costs just over $10,000 to add capacity for another auto trip, and more than $53,000 to add another transit trip. Building transit capacity currently costs more than 5 times as much as highway capacity!

 

If this was the only factor that was important, then decisions would be easy. Any CEO would immediately allocate more money into adding highway capacity. Of course, it’s not the only factor. Not everyone can afford to travel by auto – we want lower-income people to be able to get to their jobs, so we need transit. Transit trips are less polluting than autos, although TPB’s data shows a steady decrease in auto pollutants thanks to greater efficiency and the growing number of electric, zero-emission vehicles.

The other key is that, for parts of our region, building new roads or even expanding existing ones is terribly difficult. Where would you put a new thoroughfare in DC, or in the close-in suburbs?

The costs I focused on so far are the capital costs for new projects. The same TPB information can be used for operating costs – how much it costs for each trip. It turns out that we’re going to spend $130 billion over the next 25 years on transit operations and repairs, about $5.2 billion annually, with capacity growing to 1.5 million daily trips, for a per-trip cost of about $9.50. Each time someone takes a transit trip, the government subsidizes the trip by that amount. We’ll spend $72 billion to maintain roadways during the same period, about $2.9 billion annually, to move up to 16.6 million trips/day. That comes to just under 50 cents per trip.

The operating cost information is useful in a couple of ways. At the same TPB meeting, the Commuter Connections presentation unveiled a new program, piloted in Howard County MD, where auto commuters can receive a $10 stipend for taking a rider along with them. That number is almost exactly right – it is comparable to the cost of putting someone on transit instead, but we don’t need to build more transit lines.

That is the kind of thinking we need. When we look at a new project or a new idea, does it move people more effectively than how we’re doing it now? Is it better for some reason, is it faster, is it cheaper?

For example, the TPB recently recommended that we find ways to encourage employers to let more people work from home. What if the government provided an incentive to the employers? With these numbers, we can make informed judgments about how much of an incentive makes fiscal sense.

The amount of money we have to transport people is limited, so we need to think carefully about optimization strategies to move people cost-effectively as well as focusing on all the other factors.

Neil Harris is a member of the Gaithersburg City Council and the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments Transportation Planning Board.

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Busting Three Metro Myths

The six graphs – one for each Maryland branch of the Metro – in today’s post reveal the ridership figures for all Maryland Metro stops from 2005 through 2016. They’re not encouraging either for the health of the system or cherished myths around it.

Transit Always Heralds Urbanism

“If you build it, they will come.” Usually not. In Maryland, only three stops have become high traffic urban nodes: Bethesda, Silver Spring and Friendship Heights – the latter is shared with the District. The other 24 stops have not witnessed remotely this level of impressive urban development or Metro ridership. Outside the urban three, the highest ridership occurs mainly at end-of-the-line commuter stops, such as Shady Grove, Greenbelt and New Carrolton.

Transit advocates and developers are both very attached to this myth. The former because they believe fervently in transit. Developers like it because they are permitted to build far more when transit is built, which allows them to make a lot more money even if nobody ever rides it. Proximity to transit also raises the value of their property at somebody else’s expense.

The uncomfortable truth is that no nodes similar to Bethesda or Silver Spring – or Ballston or Rosslyn – have emerged in Prince George’s County. Leaving aside the terminus stops, ridership is not very high and certainly not growing. And the terminus stops have seen more precipitous declines than in Montgomery – 34% at New Carrollton, 21% at Greenbelt, and 20% at Branch Avenue.

Thriving Urbanism Heralds More Transit Riders

Not necessarily. Bethesda, Friendship Heights and Silver Spring have continued to grow yet ridership has declined. In 2016, all three served many fewer riders than at their peak – 15% in Bethesda, 17% in Silver Spring, and 20% in Friendship Heights.

Transit is a positive for these areas but it’s only one factor among many. It’s not that smart growth or new urbanism is totally off base. The focus on transit may lead to overestimation of its importance to successful development. Density and the mixture of residential and commercial looks more crucial to their continued success. It’s why places like the Kentlands thrive even though they’re nowhere near Metro.

There is little sign that less intense development around Metro stations other than the big three has increased ridership either. Throughout the Maryland portion of the system, ridership has tended to stay flat or decline. Remember that this has occurred despite population increases in both Prince George’s and Montgomery.

Declining Ridership is Temporary

Two major excuses are given for Metro’s declining ridership: the financial crisis and Metro’s “temporary” maintenance backlog. At this point, the former explains little as the recession is over and the population is now higher, so Metro should have more riders. The latter is belied by the similar decline in Metro’s bus ridership. Moreover, SafeTrack will not bring the system back to tip-top condition but simply prevent its complete collapse, as General Manager Paul Wiedefeld has been at pains to point out.

The wheel of technological change is driving changes in transportation patterns fast. Increasing numbers of jobs can be done via telecommuting. Competition from services like Uber and Lyft are remaking the taxi industry and attracting many new riders. Every price increase in Metro or its parking lots only makes them more competitive – and the price of both is likely to head up.

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M-83 Supporters Get a Win

By Adam Pagnucco.

Back on November 3, David Lublin wrote that the County Council had placed the planned Upcounty highway M-83 “in the freezer.”  We agree with that take with one addition: if and when M-83 comes out of that freezer, it will be ready to serve.  That’s because instead of killing the road, the resolution passed by the County Council has preserved it for a future county government to build.

To understand what has happened, one has to consider the goals and challenges of road supporters and opponents.  The supporters want to fund its construction.  That’s tough because the road will cost roughly half a billion dollars and the county is reducing its annual issues of general obligation bonds to trim future debt service.  Opponents want to remove the road from the county’s master plans.  They believed they had a chance to do that since six Council Members said they opposed M-83 during the 2014 elections.  But that has not happened.

The council’s resolution, passed on Halloween, did not implement the agendas of either side.  Its action language is worth reading word for word.

The County Council for Montgomery County, Maryland approves the following resolution:

  1. The Council supports expanded capacity on I-270, the Corridor Cities Transitway, Bus Rapid Transit on or near MD 355, and improvements on MD 355. These improvements will provide significant, immediate relief for Upcounty residents. These improvements align with our economic development strategies, providing the broadest and most diverse benefits, and minimize impervious surface, stormwater runoff, carbon emissions, and other environmental impacts.

  2. The Council directs the Montgomery County Planning Board not to assume additional road capacity from the northern extension of Midcounty Highway when calculating the land use – transportation balance in future master plans, including but not limited to the upcoming Gaithersburg East Master Plan and the Germantown Plan for Town Sector Zone. This step ensures that any new development allowed under these plans does not rely on the northern extension of Midcounty Highway, while retaining the right-of-way for this extension in these plans.

Road supporters did not like the omission of M-83 from the list of projects supported by the council.  They should have no argument with the idea of not including M-83’s capacity in calculating infrastructure needs for future development.  That could help prevent the road from filling up immediately after it’s built (if it’s built).  But the last sentence referring to “retaining the right-of-way for this extension” is a big win for supporters of M-83.

Why does this matter?  A casual perusal of land ownership maps from the State Department of Assessments and Taxation shows massive county land holdings in the vicinity of M-83’s preferred alternative.  Identifying every one of the dozens of parcels owned by the county and county-affiliated entities there would be a time-consuming research project.

A sample of county-owned land for M-83 near Watkins Mill Road and Great Seneca Creek.

Instead, we asked the county Department of Transportation’s project manager for M-83 how much of the right-of-way for the road’s preferred alternative was currently owned by the county and state.  We received this response.

Dear Mr. Pagnucco:

Thank you for your interest in the Midcounty Corridor Study (M-83) project.  Per our preliminary assessment, approximately 60% ROW for M-83 has been dedicated or reserved and another 24% is in parklands owned by the County’s Parks.

Should you have any questions, please contact me.

Best regards,

Gwo-Ruey (Greg) Hwang, P.E.

Capital Projects Manager

That’s right, folks – the county and Park and Planning together control 84% of the right-of-way for M-83 right now.

Why does this matter?  Let’s remember the history of the Intercounty Connector.  The highway had been in master plans for decades.  As of 1997, the county and state owned more than half the right-of-way for the ICC.  The following year, Governor Parris Glendening announced he was killing the project and later told the state government to sell part of its right-of-way.  But the state did not sell off all its right-of-way and in fact purchased some of it after Glendening’s announcement.  Continued state ownership of the ICC’s right-of-way made it much easier for Glendening’s successor, Governor Bob Ehrlich, to reverse his decision and begin construction.

So it may be with M-83.  The county’s holdings of right-of-way for the project may be even greater as a percentage of its acreage than the state’s holdings of the ICC were a decade before its construction.  The resolution by the council explicitly calls for “retaining the right-of-way” in the master plans, suggesting that the county’s holdings will not be sold.  And the road has not been removed from any master plans, a key goal of opponents.

M-83 supporters should have hope.  M-83 opponents should beware.  Both sides have a lot of work to do in next year’s elections.

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