Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.
Montgomery County leaders and residents want walkable, transit-served neighborhoods, but the county’s department of transportation has a reputation for putting cars over everything else. Now that two of the agency’s top officials have departed, will new leadership bring the department in line with a changing county?
MCDOT’s former director Art Holmes retired at the end of last year. Holmes had brought little vision or leadership to the department. Instead, most of the on-the-ground decisions fell to Deputy Director for Transportation Policy Edgar Gonzalez, a dyed-in-the-wool champion of designing roads for more and more cars to the exclusion of all else.
Last month, county officials announced that Gonzalez, too, was leaving the department, to become deputy director of the Department of Liquor Control. Gary Erenrich, who ran the county’s transit programs, will fill the post on an acting basis, reporting to MCDOT’s acting director, Al Roshdieh.
Gonzalez’s legacy: Lanes yes, walkability no
While an accomplished planner, Gonzalez prioritized building of highways over other priorities. He relentlessly pushed to extend the Midcounty Highway (M-83) from Gaithersburg to Clarksburg over protests from both neighbors and county councilmembers. MCDOT even protested a bill from councilmembers Hans Riemer and Roger Berliner that would require narrow, low-speed street designs in urban areas like Silver Spring and Bethesda.
Despite Montgomery’s vision for a walkable, urban White Flint, Gonzalez fought the plan every step of the way, pushing an extension of Montrose Parkway through the area, and resisting calls from residents to make Old Georgetown Road less of a traffic sewer.
A change in leadership is an opportunity to bring the county’s transportation policy in line with its planning and economic development policies, which promote walkable neighborhoods around transit hubs.
At a time when the county’s fastest growing areas are near Metro stations and driving rates have plateaued, that only makes sense. New leadership is a signal to anyone who supports sidewalks, bike lanes, and transit that MCDOT is ready to work with them.
Has MCDOT turned over a new leaf?
To be fair, the department has made some big strides in recent years. Last fall, Montgomery County got its first protected bikeway, on Woodglen Drive in White Flint, and the DOT decided to allow the narrower, slower-speed design for Old Georgetown Road than the county’s plans originally called for. After a years-long fight with parents at Wilson Wims Elementary School in Clarksburg, MCDOT agreed to install a crosswalk across a busy road.
New director Al Roshdieh has expressed an interest in focusing on pedestrian and bike infrastructure and wants to reexamine all of the county’s policies. He wants to combat the perception (though rightly earned) that the agency is “pro-car.”
But there are signs that elements of the old, highway-focused culture remains. Roshdieh insists that the county’s proposed bus rapid transit line on Route 29 won’t work without building highway interchanges. And though Roshdieh said there isn’t room for new roads, the department recently recommended building the most environmentally-destructive route for Midcounty Highway.
Change might not come all at once, but neither are merely small changes (or just words and no changes) enough. Roshdieh is evidently angling to become permanent director, and he’ll need to take bold action to fix an agency deeply out of touch with a county that’s changed significantly since the 1990s.
Meanwhile, it seems a little ironic that Gonzalez, who spent much of his career pushing for transportation and land use patterns which force people to drive, now is in charge of liquor. Car dependence all but forces people to drive home from restaurants and bars where they want to drink, while people who can walk or take transit home need not worry about driving drunk. Gonzalez will now be in charge of mitigating a problem he himself exacerbated in the past.