Photo by Google Earth.

Montgomery County has tried several times to find a working “adequate public facilities ordinance,” rules that aim to ensure new buildings don’t jam up roads. They’ve never succeeded, and a new version won’t either.

At a County Council meeting Monday, legislators struggled with another proposed revamp of the law, which the county DOT originated and the Planning Board endorsed with some changes. This version would junk rules the county adopted 5 years ago, which supplanted a law from 2003, which replaced yet another system of regulation that preceded it.

None of these rules got rid of traffic jams because all share the same fundamental flaw. They measure how fast cars move, rather than whether people can get where they want to go. If the supermarket is 10 miles away, and it takes 15 minutes to drive there, you pass the test. If the supermarket is 1 mile away, and it takes 5 minutes to drive there, you flunk.

There are 2 ways to get new construction approved under this sort of test. One is to locate the building far from everything else. The other is to build new highways or widen old ones. This is a recipe for more sprawl, more asphalt, and more driving. Rather than relieving traffic congestion, it makes more of it.

The proposal now before the Council, called Transportation Policy Area Review or “TPAR,” doubles down on this failed strategy. It would create a new pot of money, collected from developers who build in areas with congested roads, under the control of the county’s car-centric, highway-loving Transportation Department. In addition, the proposal would still require developers to widen nearby roads if intersections back up.

Edgar Gonzalez, the department’s number two, told Councilmember Hans Riemer that passing the legislation would commit the county to a long list of controversial road projects, especially the hotly-disputed Midcounty Highway extension. The legislators were divided Monday over whether they should tie their hands in this way.

Riemer and George Leventhal argued that the County Council should retain flexibility in making spending decisions. Nancy Floreen, on the other hand, insisted that money from the road congestion tax should only be spent to move cars. She pointed to a bicycle bridge over Veirs Mill Road, funded under the current law, as a misuse of funds.

Marc Elrich, who has long considered “free-flowing” automobile traffic a paramount objective, initially agreed, saying he was “sort of where Nancy is on certainty of where money is spent.” Elrich later backtracked somewhat, saying that improved transit could be a better way to keep cars moving than new highways, but he reiterated his belief that sidewalks and bus shelters should not substitute for road-building.

A companion tax on developers that would fund added Ride-On bus service is also before the council. Sharp questioning from Roger Berliner established that this tax would not, as claimed, put autos and transit on an equal footing.

Gonzalez and Planning Board chair Françoise Carrier conceded that the level of transit service the proposal defines as “adequate” — a bus every 20 minutes in rush hour and every half hour the rest of the day — is nowhere near good enough to compete with driving. It is simply what is achievable without straining the county budget.

The debate over who should determine spending priorities comes just months after the Council overruled the Transportation Department and deferred 3 highway projects to pay for a new Bethesda Metro entrance and a bike trail. Since then, the county bureaucracy has done little to gain public confidence. The debacles of the Silver Spring Transit Center and the Woodmont Avenue road closing in Bethesda suggest that now is not the time for legislators to lessen their oversight.