Tag Archives: transportation

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.


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.


When You’re In a Deep Hole

By Gaithersburg City Council Member Neil Harris.

In a recent meeting with the capital improvements team at MCPS, I suggested that it would take $1 billion in extra capital funding to provide enough classrooms and to fix dilapidated schools. The staff responded that the number was more like $2 billion or more. Ouch.

My guess was based on the basic cost for classroom space of $40K per student. So, an elementary school for 750 kids would cost $30 million. And we have 9,000 kids in portables ($360 million worth of classrooms) and we’re adding 2,500 new students each year ($100 million). I guessed at double that for renovations, but apparently that number is way worse than my rough guess.

In transportation, the situation is even worse. Not only is our system the most congested in the country, but in 25 years the congestion is projected to be 72% worse! In the past 15 years, we’ve added several hundred thousand new residents to the mid- and up-county, and the population will grow by 20%. We’re not keeping up.

The National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board (TPB) made projections based on the regional long-range plan, which includes all the projects proposed and expected to be funded. The TPB recently looked at the 500 projects proposed but not expected to be funded, and building all of them “only” makes congestion 28% worse. I repeat: building every project proposed still makes congestion 28% worse!

One problem for the TPB is that the projects on their list are proposed by local jurisdictions: the states, counties, and cities, and are most often focused on local needs. There is no central authority over regionally significant ideas that will serve to improve transportation for everyone.

Another challenge is that there is such a huge focus on new transit that it crowds out roads. If you build a new Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) on a Metro Station and 60% of the new residents use Metro, then there are still 40% of the new residents in cars. One mode is not enough, and the current plans look like they are out of balance, with the vast majority of trips by auto in 25 years but most funding going to transit and not highways. To be clear: in 25 years with $100 billion spent on transit in our region, we increase ridership by 2% for work trips, with a huge increase in auto trips and little improvement in our road network.

The TPB bravely took it upon ourselves to develop a list of 10 “potentially game changing” projects, programs, and policies to study, to learn if there are ways to actually reduce congestion instead of surrendering to it. This has been a controversial process thanks to inclusion of a new northern Potomac crossing, but the TPB has recognized that desperate times require desperate measures.

So, where would the money come from to fix these problems, assuming we find good answers and the political will to address them?

For transportation, Northern Virginia has taken the lead. The Northern Virginia Transportation Authority collects a small surcharge on some taxes to create $330 million in new funding to reduce congestion. Under this new program, the state and the local jurisdictions are not allowed to reduce transportation funding, so the money goes directly to new programs.

For schools as well as transportation, Adam Pagnucco suggested that Montgomery County’s annual revenue grows by about $140 million each year due to increased income and property tax revenue. How about dedicating all this growth to infrastructure for the next few years, instead of operations? In five years or so, we could be all caught up.

These aren’t the only ways to get out of the hole. We could build schools like the Monarch Global Academy in Laurel, which cost one-third to one-half what MCPS spends on each school. That would stretch our dollars. We could look at the cost-effectiveness of transportation projects already in the pipeline and refocus on ones that make more of a difference.

I hope with the big election year in Montgomery County next year, we can direct the candidates to solve these big challenges as their top priority. We need to understand what projects will actually help and then find ways to pay for them.

Whatever we do, we know one thing – when you are in a hole, first stop digging.

Neil Harris is Vice President of the Gaithersburg City Council and a voting member of the Transportation Planning Board and TPB’s Long Range Plan Task Force.


The Zombie Bridge Returns

By Adam Pagnucco.

The long-discussed second bridge across the Potomac may never truly be dead.  Dubbed “the Zombie Bridge” by Council President Roger Berliner, the creature will continually claw from the grave as long as its living minions keep trying to shovel it out.  And this time, the zombie’s targets will include county candidates for office.

First, a bit of background.  Discussions of a second bridge date back to at least the time of the American Legion Bridge’s construction in 1962 as part of a possible Outer Beltway.  Montgomery County and the state even included the second bridge in their master plans until it was removed in 1974.  Nevertheless, the bridge has been examined several times.  Twenty years ago, the bridge and its associated roadway was known as “the Techway” and was the subject of a 2000 federal study requested by Virginia Congressman Frank Wolf.  Within months, Wolf asked that the study be canceled after constituents fearful of property seizures mobilized against it.  But the bridge was awakened yet again by a 2004 study of the American Legion Bridge which showed some demand among travelers in points west.

Anyone have any brains in Maryland?

The bridge’s supporters are clustered in two organizations.   The first is the 2030 Group, an organization of major developers and construction firms with property in both Maryland and Virginia.  Members of the 2030 Group have significant overlap with the board of the Suburban Maryland Transportation Alliance, which also supports the bridge.  Advocates for the bridge cite a 2015 poll by OpinionWorks of 800 adults in the Washington region that shows substantial support.  According to the poll (shown below), 59% of respondents favor the bridge, including 39% who strongly favor it, and 11% oppose it.  In Montgomery County, 68% favor (52% strongly) and 12% oppose.  The poll does not mention the bridge’s cost (a figure that may not exist in any reliable form yet) or its location.

Opponents, including smart growth groups and environmentalists, point out that the project is not just about the bridge itself but also its connection to the county’s road network.  The bridge, proposed to extend north from Route 28 in Virginia, is not supposed to terminate at River Road but is intended to connect northeast to I-370 and the Intercounty Connector.  How much is that likely to cost?  (The ICC cost $2.4 billion.)  How much property will have to be seized for its route?  (Much of the right of way for the ICC was already in state or county hands as that road had been planned for decades.)  Another factor for consideration is that the State of Maryland owns the entire Potomac River between the District and West Virginia.  Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe told Bethesda Magazine, “I don’t fund bridges that aren’t in our state. It doesn’t touch our border. That’s your simple answer… I take responsibility for bridges in Virginia.”  That leaves Maryland and MoCo to figure out how to pay for any new bridge.

Connect the red stars.  How would you plan a route from a new Potomac bridge to I-370?

Despite the unanimous opposition of the Montgomery County Council and no apparent support from Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board just voted to study a new Potomac bridge.  That has effectively resuscitated the project, which now shambles from the grave into the 2018 elections.  Because it is now under study, it is certain that we have not heard the last word on the bridge until the June primaries.  The deep-pocketed real estate and construction interests who support the bridge may fund an advocacy campaign to sway both candidates and voters on its behalf.  Meanwhile, environmental and smart growth groups will include questions about the bridge on every questionnaire they send to candidates and will likely consider it a litmus test issue.  All of this will squeeze candidates between major progressive organizations and traffic-hostile voters looking for alternatives to I-270 and the Beltway.

MoCo politicians may try to run, try to hide and cry out for help as they flee from the monster, but it will continue to stalk them no matter how hard they try to escape.  The Zombie Bridge has returned.