Downtown Wheaton.  Image from Montgomery Planning.

Montgomery officials say there isn’t enough money in the capital budget to pay for both a new Bethesda Metro entrance and redeveloping Wheaton. But there is plenty of money, if only the county deferred some of the new and wasteful highways that will only worsen sprawl and shift the county’s growth away from the places that can best accommodate it.

Wheaton residents are eager for a redevelopment project which will bring new offices, residences, a hotel and a town square to the area around the Metro station. Meanwhile, to prepare for the Purple Line (and ease crowding today), the county needs to add a second entrance to the Bethesda Metro.

County Executive Ike Leggett’s budget eliminated funding for the Bethesda entrance, and general services director David Dise told the Wheaton Redevelopment Advisory Committee that the county could probably not fund both the $40 million Wheaton plan and the $80 million Bethesda Metro south entrance.

Actually, it can, easily. And it can afford $12 million for the Metropolitan Branch Trail, which Leggett also cut from the current capital budget. All the county has to do is defer some of the $359 million in new highways in the 6-year Capital Improvement Program (CIP). That $359 million is all for new capacity, over and above the necessary cost of maintaining the county’s existing roads and bridges.

The projects include widening Goshen Road, which costs $129 million, but the justification in the CIP suggests it’s not needed until 2025. Building Montrose Parkway East, for $56 million, will further despoil Rock Creek Park, while the completed western portion has already created a “Berlin Wall” that will hamper a future walkable, mixed-use neighborhood growing north of White Flint.

Widening Snouffer School Road and Snouffer School Road North, 2 projects costing $45 million, would meet “demands of existing and future land uses” in an area which “is experiencing growth with plans for future residential and commercial development.”

Why does the County Executive claim that it doesn’t have enough money for the Bethesda Metro, a necessary step for the Purple Line in the part of the county that generates the most tax revenue, and Wheaton, a prime spot for new mixed-use growth and an already-thriving community right on top of another Metro station, but can spend money on new roads in car-dependent areas which may grow in the future?

These new road projects would increase traffic congestion through induced demand, offer no economic development, and destroy irreplaceable Chesapeake Bay watersheds. Montgomery County has already agreed, through long public debates, to make the Purple Line, the Metropolitan Branch Trail, and growth in Wheaton top priorities. But Leggett’s budget does not reflect this.

This is an unfortunate pattern with this County Executive. The Leggett administration consistently cries poverty when it comes to smart growth-oriented projects like these, or making Rockville Pike a boulevard in White Flint.  However, it seems that no sprawl-oriented road project is too expensive to fund.

Whether it’s putting up roadblocks to BRT, pushing harmful skybridges and underpasses, or a bizarre focus on resurrecting bad “zombie road” proposals from the 1960s, the County Executive’s decisions do not embody Montgomery County’s and Maryland’s stated smart growth policies. 

Fortunately, it appears the County Council does not share the County Executive’s misplaced priorities. A council committee has since voted to restore funding for the Bethesda Metro entrance, and the full council will consider it soon. The council should also restore funding for the Metropolitan Branch Trail.

Despite claims to the contrary, these worthy projects need not compete with each other. The council can simply choose the least valuable of the plan’s many expensive road projects and use the money to ensure Wheaton, Metro riders at Bethesda, the future Purple Line, and a valuable bicycle connection from Silver Spring to DC get the attention they deserve. Our county, state and region cannot afford more delay.