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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MoCo’s Moratorium Madness

By Adam Pagnucco.

The Montgomery County government is currently plagued by a $100 million operating budget shortfall and a shrinking capital budget.  So what is the county doing to revitalize its economy and earn more revenue?

Potentially, imposing more moratoriums on housing construction!

County development rules require moratoriums on housing construction inside school clusters or individual school service areas when projected public school enrollment accounts for 120% or more of capacity five years into the future.  Additionally, elementary schools must be 110 students over capacity and middle schools must be 180 students over capacity to trigger moratoriums.  Projects that are already approved are not halted by moratoriums but new project approvals are not granted.

Last year, the county imposed moratoriums on four high school clusters and 13 individual elementary school service areas.  Those areas accounted for roughly 12% of the county and included high-profile markets in Downtown Silver Spring and North Bethesda, thereby directly thwarting the county’s transit-oriented development strategy.

The problem with stopping residential development is that school impact taxes collected from new units can be a major source of revenue for school construction.  As recently as the FY15-20 amended capital budget, school impact taxes accounted for 15% of MCPS’s school construction budget.  Unfortunately, that is no longer the case.

In a memo to the Montgomery County Planning Board, planning staff noted that the county executive’s new recommended FY21-26 capital budget underfunds MCPS’s construction request by $61 million in FY21, $93 million in FY22, $93 million in FY23 and $57 million in FY24.  One of the biggest reasons for the underfunding is that school impact tax receipts have fallen by more than half since FY14.  The planning staff indicates that if the underfunding results in delayed projects, nine elementary school service areas (Bethesda, Clarksburg, JoAnn Leleck, Rachel Carson, Strawberry Knoll, Summit Hall, McNair, Page and Burnt Mills), one middle school service area (Parkland) and seven high school clusters (Quince Orchard, Richard Montgomery, Albert Einstein, Montgomery Blair, Blake, Northwood, Walter Johnson) may be at risk of moratoriums.  For the Blake, Blair, Einstein and Walter Johnson clusters, this would be the second straight year of moratorium, threatening projects in North Bethesda and Downtown Silver Spring.

The cruel fact here is that reducing residential construction has historically had little if any impact on MCPS enrollment increases.  The chart below shows MCPS enrollment (red line and left axis) and residential units permitted in Montgomery County (blue line and right axis) from 1994 through 2018.  MCPS enrollment comes from the county executive’s recommended budget while permitted units comes from the U.S. Census Bureau.  Over this 24 year period, housing construction has been falling while MCPS enrollment has been rising.  The contrast between the two trends has been most pronounced in recent years.  Housing units permitted has fallen from 3,981 in 2012 to 1,947 in 2018 while MCPS enrollment has grown from 146,497 to 161,470.  It defies logic to blame school crowding on housing construction when homebuilding is in an era of decline.

And so here is the effect of MoCo’s moratorium policy.  Housing construction drops, causing school impact tax payments to plummet and depriving school construction of needed funding.  The county reacts by delaying school projects, triggering moratoriums.  That causes housing construction to decline further and the cycle continues.  None of this helps more schools get built but it definitely constrains housing supply, thereby driving up home prices and making the county even more unaffordable to live in than it already is.  Another effect is that it makes the county radioactive to the real estate and investment communities, thereby pushing them into competing jurisdictions.  It’s no wonder that Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks is celebrating her county’s passing of Montgomery County in job creation.

Using residential moratoriums to prevent school crowding is like treating lung cancer by amputating the patient’s legs.  The treatment does nothing to solve the original problem but it definitely causes new problems to arise!

If you wanted to stop economic growth and make it harder for people to live here, it would be difficult to devise something more attuned to such goals than MoCo’s insane moratorium policy.  The county must bring it to an end.

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