Tag Archives: Ben Ross

Hogan Approves Purple Line

In a surprise move, Gov. Larry Hogan announced that he is ready to move full-speed ahead on the light-rail Purple Line that will travel from Bethesda to New Carrollton in suburban Washington. The Baltimore Sun reported:

“Working closely with Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn, we have discovered the means to reduce costs substantially,” said Gov. Hogan at an early morning press conference. “If we eliminate frills, I am now confident that it can be built in a cost-effective manner that will bring business to Maryland.”

Hogan explained that a major barrier has always been the price of the light-rail cars, which are expensive and have to be imported from Ostrava in the Czech Republic:

We have cut unnecessary extras. Seats provide no benefit to the taxpayer, so they have been eliminated from the redesigned trains. Indeed, we have now also done away with walls and the ceiling to go with a sleek, modern flatbed design.

Purple Line Project Manager Mike Madden applauded the move:

I appreciate the governor’s support and leadership on the project. Eliminating not just doors but walls will make it easier to board and to exit the train, thus reducing time spent at stations and increasing speed, resulting in an estimated increase in ridership of 31.7%.

When asked for the documentation on the increased ridership, Madden described the information as “proprietary” but also reassured the public on their accuracy: “They were calculated by the same high-quality experts who designed the Silver Spring Transit Center that will open later this year.”

Hogan’s decision to simplify cars was hailed by former Action Committee for Transit President Ben Ross:

This new design is in touch with the simplified lifestyle preferred by Millennials. Let’s face it: seats are emblematic of the bourgeois Lexus lifestyle. I’m glad that Maryland and Montgomery County have said “yes” to our smart growth future by embracing open plan light-rail.

Similarly, Montgomery Council President George Leventhal congratulated Hogan on WAMU for “finally following his lead” and said “The open plan is an excellent forward-thinking idea. I think of it as a moving Capital Crescent Trail. It will be a first-class system.”

Not all of Leventhal’s colleagues were so sanguine. Council Vice Chair Nancy Floreen said to the Washington Post:

Heck, I never thought the Governor would invest so much money in areas that will never vote for him. Now, I’ll have to come up with all the money that Montgomery County promised when I’m Council President next year. I don’t see why I shouldn’t just run for Congress instead.

But Robert Thomson, better known as Dr. Gridlock, reassured the public in an online Post discussion: “I have every confidence that the Purple Line will light a fire under small business in Langley Park just as the DC Streetcar has sparked long quiet H Street.”

Former Carroll County Commissioner Republican Robin Frazier denounced the move. Appearing at a “Help Save Maryland” rally, she said that it would only help “homosexuals and illegal aliens get around so that they can use bathrooms in more places.”

 

 

New Urbanism Succeeds Yet the Greater Greater Washington Agenda Does Not

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Downtown in the Kentlands–a Succssful Example of New Urbanism in Montgomery County

Part I (“They’ve Come Undone”) in this series overviewed the area’s recent rejection of several pricey transit projects. Part II (“Why has the GGW Agenda Stalled”) began to explain why, focusing on their high cost and Metro’s ills. Today, I look at the disconnect between Greater Greater Washington’s vision for high-density transit-oriented development and the new urbanism that has been embraced by many suburbanites.

The reaction against suburban sprawl, well-detailed in Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream, led to many thoughtful efforts on how to build more workable communities and the new urbanism movement.

Despite its many excellent contributions–and they are numerous–Greater Greater Washington’s (GGW) more extreme vision that ultimately rejects less dense versions like the Kentlands shown above have helped undercut support for its agenda for expensive light-rail and streetcar projects.

The American Dream

The ideal for most American families is not a Manhattan apartment but remains a single-family residence with a yard. Parents still envision their kids playing in the yard rather than running down to Busboys and Poets.

That home doesn’t necessarily have to be on the type of large lot associated with suburban sprawl. For many, the dream can be a townhouse, as long as they still have their own piece of grass to call their own and hold barbecues. Even people who move back into central cities often choose these sorts of homes over new apartments.

Urban Living is Expensive

Many people who like the urban dream, however, still have trouble realizing it. Precisely because it is desirable for reasons oft-outlined by GGW, they cannot afford it. It’s an unavoidable consequence of the very success of areas like Bethesda and Silver Spring.

This trend only accelerates as urban areas develop and become more sought after. The addition of many new apartment buildings in Silver Spring and Bethesda has not made either place a bargain. Moreover, it encourages renovation of older, more affordable housing into more expensive units.

Additionally, apartments and close-in townhomes are often more expensive than single-family homes due to the condo fees that go with them. Even if the price to buy is cheaper, condo fees can render the monthly cost unaffordable. And condo fees aren’t tax deductible and don’t go towards acquiring an asset like mortgage payments. A friend recently explained to me that this is why he couldn’t and didn’t move into downtown Wheaton.

GGW is aware of these problems and laments them but does not get that the high cost an inevitable part of the project. Indeed, from the perspectives of governments that support transit-oriented growth, it is the central point because higher land values and high-income residents provide more tax revenues.

Residents often do understand, which is why they some are resistant to new transit-oriented development even as others are excited. Renters rightly sense that they are going to have to move eventually. Small business owners will find commercial rents too high as the area catches fire. Homeowners worry that their taxes will increase along with home value–and the former matters a lot if you’d like to stay in your home awhile.

The Kentlands Vision of New Urbanism

The urban vision exemplified by the Kentlands–one of the earlier new urbanist developments–has proved very attractive to suburbanites. Central to this vision was to make suburban living a more community-oriented experience by taking what worked in older towns and applying it to the suburbs.

Density should be highest closer to the central shopping area but decline as you move away from the center to town homes and then close together single-member homes. Instead of dead-end cul-de-sacs that feed into a single artery, there is a more natural old-style town traffic plan.

Streets are tighter, which gives a more neighborly feel and slows down drivers–much like in Chevy Chase or Kensington. Garages are given less pride of place. The central shopping area or “downtown” provides people quick access to the necessities.

Other developments similar to the Kentlands have proven very popular in Montgomery. Unlike the Kentlands, several have the potential to be linked to transit, which should only increase their livability–good for residents–and desirability–good for the tax base.

Greater Greater Washington Rejects the Kentlands

Despite grudgingly acknowledging some positive aspects of the Kentlands, Greater Greater Washington is fundamentally less keen, envisioning much more dense developments with few, if any, single-family homes.

GGW attacked the Montgomery County Council’s decision to appoint the Kentlands developer over Ben Ross, one of its own contributors and former head of the Action Committee for Transit (ACT).  Ben Ross is critical of single-family homeowners in extreme terms that led councilmembers to repudiate his book:

A major obstacle, he says, is the resolve of owners of single-family homes to preserve “their privileged place in the residential pecking order.”

Probably not the way most Montgomery residents would like their Planning Board or County Council to view them. In another post, GGW writer Dan Reed takes Suburban Nation author Andres Duany to task and attacks new towns like the Kentlands for lacking diversity and being too affluent:

Despite having everything from one-room granny flats to million-dollar mansions, it’s still a homogeneous, affluent, predominantly white place. And now, twenty years later, much of D.C. is starting to look like Kentlands.

Again, the movement of high income, often but not necessarily white, residents into areas like Silver Spring and Washington is the intended result of the urban transit policies, not an accidental or surprising byproduct.

Make no mistake, GGW thinks developments like the Kentlands are better than traditional suburban sprawl. But, at heart, they view them as second rate. Dan Reed labels them “compared to places like DC, Arlington, or Silver Spring, they are relatively isolated, homogeneous, and car-dependent.”

At best, as one of his GGW co-bloggers writes, the Kentlands can be some sort of gateway drug to embracing true urbanism:

Thus, in a twist of fate, new urbanism’s main lasting benefit may be that it’s a gateway for suburbanites to become urbanitesa baby step towards regular urbanism. A necessary step, to be sure, but one quickly passed by.

The problem for GGW is that most people in Montgomery, Prince George’s, and Fairfax live in suburban developments and will continue to do so. Though it may shock GGW, they even like them and are proud of their homes–just like people in the city.

It is difficult enough to convince residents of neighborhoods who will not benefit from these very expensive transit lines to pay for them since they will not ease traffic and they will take away money from their transportation needs. Explanations that berate people for being affluent or privileged (read: almost all of Montgomery County) for making different choices than the GGW high-rise dream will hardly facilitate it.

Verdict on the At-Large Debate

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Moderator Charles Duffy with Vivian Malloy, Beth Daly, Marc Elrich, Nancy Floreen, George Leventhal, Hans Riemer, Robert Dyer, and Tim Willard

Last night’s debate at the 4H was unusually well attended–I guesstimated roughly 100 people–with many actual voters who came to hear the candidates. I live tweeted the debate @theseventhstate. The tweets give much of the blow-by-blow and there are some interesting tweets back.

Some Issues and Moments

Ben Ross. His book criticisms of owners of “single-family homes” trying to preserve their place in the pecking order along with “snob zoning and nimbyism” did not go down well. Probably wise in a county where most people live in single-family homes, as Nancy Floreen pointed out in her response.

BRT System. Beth Daly and Marc Elrich were clearly enthusiastic about the BRT system proposed by Marc. Hans Riemer and Nancy Floreen were more skeptical wanting to see how the Corridor Cities Transitway goes–and thus pushing the idea off into the distant future. George Leventhal agreed and questioned whether people would ride buses even in dedicated lanes. Nancy Floreen also expressed concern about the cost, though Marc Elrich pointed out that is far cheaper per mile to build than the Purple Line.

Ride-On Buses. Vivian Malloy said that people had lost confidence in the service and wanted greater frequency and dependability especially in bad weather. Marc Elrich said people don’t want to use the buses because they’re stuck in traffic. Hans Riemer disagreed with this “myopic” view and touted his getting five additional buses for the system into the budget.

Chevy Chase Lake. Marc Elrich called the failure to listen to civic associations a “travesty,” a position supported by Beth Daly. Hans Riemer pointed out that the Council had reduced the height of a tall building and called the result a good compromise, though the Planning Board had already increased density over the proposal advocated by Staff led by Rollin Stanley.

Taxes. All agreed that that the property and income tax should not go up. Marc Elrich and Beth Daly proposed studying taxation of commercial property (but not residential) owners who would benefit from nearby transit to pay for it on the model of what already is in place in Northern Virginia. Hans Riemer pointed out at that county taxes are the lowest in real terms in a decade.

Purple Line Trail and the Wisconsin Ave. Tunnel. All agreed that the county should pay for it. George Leventhal was clearest in directly stating “we have to spend what it takes.” Robert Dyer argued that we’re required to rebuild it under Maryland law. Marc Elrich said “it’s the least we have to do.” Hans Riemer said it would have to occur with the redevelopment of the APEX building but Marc Elrich expressed concern that the building’s owners are “holding us up” for  more money on top of the greatly increased density that they’ve already received.

Sparks. George Leventhal provided most of the moments with heat and light. At one point, he interrupted Marc Elrich to try unsuccessfully to interrogate him on his Purple Line position. He upbraided moderator Charles Duffy for asking questions on how to solve problems with incompatible bases in fact. Reading a letter praising him from a constituent for solving a problem engendered a noisy, negative reaction from the crowd.

The Importance of Demeanor

The debate reminded me that it is just as important how a candidate says something as what they say. In the 2000 presidential election, the first presidential debate between Gore and Bush became a textbook case. Gore clearly was stronger on the facts but sounded patronizing, sighed a lot when Bush spoke, and often answered the last question instead of the one posed.

Bush, while clearly not the most knowledgeable, was the one people who weren’t hard core Democrats liked. For many, he was the one who gave a sense of a solid character who you would have enjoyed getting to know. Gore did so badly that his advisers made him watch the popular SNL parody in the hope that he’d learn something.

Candidate Reviews

Tim Willard raised important issues regarding climate change but was the Debbie Downer of the debate due to his consistently pessimistic demeanor and failure to offer concrete proposals about how to address these problems locally. Still, great to be offered alternatives in one-party Montgomery.

Robert Dyer utterly surprised me because this Republican is probably more left wing than many of the Democrats. Running as a dark horse candidate also freed him to make many out of the box statements, such as calling for a bridge over the Potomac, castigating the Council for paying for transit projects we don’t need but failing to fund the ones we do, and saying that the Council should make developers pay and stop overdeveloping Bethesda.

Vivian Malloy had a personality that just made you want to vote for her as she is a nice, warm person who clearly cares about the county and its problems. More specifics on how to address important issues she raised, such as affordable housing, would have enhanced her good presentation.

Beth Daly projected both confidence, an unusual knowledge of the issues for a challenger, and had a can-do positive attitude that contrasted with fellow challenger Tim Willard’s negativity. She projected well her past involvement in issues like Ten Mile Creek and an eagerness to get to work. Clearly allied with Marc Elrich, she was a candidate that people liked.

Nancy Floreen came across as calm, thoughtful and knowledgeable who understood the complexities of the issues faced by the Council. Put another way, she came across as an experienced, trustworthy set of hands. More detailed responses would have been welcome despite the complicated nature of many issues, though she clearly has a mastery of many facts.

George Leventhal. One person said to me after the debate: “If you wrote down what George said and read it, it would come across as a perfectly reasonable argument but George always sounds angry.” A disastrous performance.

Hans Riemer. Hard not to like a guy who tweets back at you even as he engages in the debate. Still optimistic but perhaps a bit more careworn after four years on the Council, Hans did a good job of touting specific concrete legislative achievements.

Marc Elrich just excels at these events, probably because as a former teacher he knows how to explain complex problems in ways that people can understand. Probably the winner of the debate with the audience and I’m not just saying that because I support him. His commitment to poor and working people combined with his community focus seemed a winning formula.