The bombing of Tokyo by Gen. Jimmy Doolittle’s carrier-launched B-17s (chronicled in the book and movie “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo”) arguably changed the course of World War Two, even though they did insignificant damage. The same could be true of Friday’s recommendation by Council staff to only implement Phase One of the White Flint Plan.
The Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee of the Montgomery County Council has been working hard on a review of the Planning Board’s draft of the White Flint Sector Plan. Most people thought the PHED Committee was fairly comfortable with the Plan, including its most innovative features of making a walkable, sustainable area with a higher level of density around the Metro Station. But there were some nagging issues, one of which exploded Friday.
One of the biggest issues is the collision between the walkable, transit-oriented White Flint Plan and the County’s outmoded automobile-centric traffic measurements. We’ve been fighting this battle for a while now, with some opponents using the Annual Growth Policy (which tests how fast cars move through intersections to measure “quality of life”) to attack the White Flint Plan, which uses an entirely different set of tests.
In other words, the Plan doesn’t measure quality of life by how fast cars go; it uses a whole lot of other tests. We thought we were past that, as it appeared the Council recognized the value of treating White Flint differently; after all, why would the County use car speed tests in an area where it wants people to walk. It’s a simple rule: as car speed increases, walkability decreases. Faster cars means more people run over. Everyone (except the County Department of Transportation) understands that.
Unfortunately, the Council never really made those automobile-oriented tests go away. It just shoved them off into the corner, with a promise to revisit them in the spring. The Committee staff has been wrestling with reconciling the two mutually-contradictory approaches for months now. It’s a tough job, and you could see the staff just squirming in their seats trying to make this work.
Since we’re nearing the end of the road for the Plan’s consideration, the tests have come roaring back out of the dark corner. And you know who wins when a car hits a pedestrian?
The PHED Committee staff report on “transportation” (what we call “mobility”) in the White Flint Plan says,
Council staff recommends approving the Sector Plan with an ultimate land use and zoning that reflects the Committee’s aggregate review of all the individual properties in the area, but limiting the amount of growth to the 3,000 dwelling units and 2 million square feet of non-residential development in Phase 1.
Translation: only Phase 1 of the White Flint Plan will be allowed to proceed. Phases 2 and 3 will not move forward until cars can go faster on Rockville Pike.
This fight is over 30 seconds. Well, actually 32 seconds. That is the difference between a trip on the existing Rockville Pike (“LOS D”), and the worst case scenario of Rockville Pike 30 years from now (“LOS E”): some traffic models says it will take about 32 seconds longer to drive from Grosvenor to Twinbrook in the year 2030. So when we say the outmoded traffic tests (see post below for a more detailed explanation) that will kill the White Flint Plan are about moving cars through intersections “faster,” we’re really talking about 30 seconds faster. But in order to get those 30 seconds, Council staff has recommended that the White Flint Plan be delayed, or built only through Phase One (of three).
Now add the second problem: the County Executive, faced with an enormous budget problem, has decided to defund the Transportation Management Districts. In a couple parts of the County, TMDs are the principal implementors of the efforts to move people out of cars and onto transit. They are fully funded, through things like parking meters. We didn’t have parking meters in a lot of places until they were put in to fund the TMDs. But the Executive has decided that the need to fund other things in other places is greater than the need to do what the County promised when it set up the TMDs. That was fifteen years ago, after all, so why should the County keep its promises after that long?
This is the same thing the Executive has said it wants to do with White Flint. White Flint is projected to raise billions for the County. To pay for all that needed infrastructure everyone wants to see, the Plan suggests reserving a small amount (less than ten percent) of the new money raised in White Flint; the County Executive said that was unacceptable. The Executive wants the “flexibility” to take money generated in White Flint for other parts of the County. ALL the money. It’s a “fairness” issue, they say.
One of the biggest problems facing the White Flint Sector Plan is people’s fear that the County will not follow-through on its promises. These are two pretty blatant examples of how those fears are justified. In two different, but related areas. Quite simply, infrastructure takes money. Money comes from bonds. Without certainty, no bonds will be sold.
If only Phase 1 is approved, no bonds will be sold to pay for infrastructure. Why would people buy bonds if there is no economic activity to pay for them because Phases 2 and 3 are uncertain? And if the money that is generated in an area under a 15-year-old County agreement can be redirected to areas of “greater need”, how could a prospective bondholder be confident that any money generated in White Flint wouldn’t be diverted away from repaying the White Flint bonds?
Hence, no White Flint. No County commitment = no money. No money = no White Flint.
This weekend, there have been intense discussions between the Council staff, County executive’s office, planning staff, and members of groups which are influential in this debate, culminating in a packed-room conference. The most important thing to come out of all these meetings is that no one seems interested in killing the White Flint Plan.
The problem is that the Council did not, in fact, fix the problem with the old Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance (“growth policy”) last fall. Under pressure from a state-mandated deadline, the Council unanimously adopted the same old automobile-oriented tests. The Council staff (and Executive) can’t ignore that vote. They have to use those tests, even if everyone realizes they are completely out of place in a transit-oriented, urban-style development such as White Flint.
They, and the Planning staff working with them, are really trying hard to reconcile the irreconcileable. They’ve been working for over a month to find a solution, and no deus ex machina has appeared. All of these great minds have not come up with a solution that can meld the two theories of car speed and sustainable development.
So the solution will have to come from the Council itself. Will White Flint die to give cars 30 seconds more? Or will the Council recognize that they should probably not use car-oriented tests in a transit-oriented 21st-century Plan?
To put it another way: cars or carbon.
If you have a preference — cars or transit — by all means, tell your Councilmembers about it. I think the Council is well aware of that choice. I’m not sure that pressuring them will add much. That’s why I haven’t asked people to mass-mail the Council, even though it’s been recommended.
We’ll re-evaluate after tomorrow’s PHED Committee meeting. Then we’ll know whether some of the most brilliant minds on the Council (Councilmembers Knapp, Floreen and Elrich, usually assisted by Berliner, who sits in with the Committee on White Flint Plan meetings) can wrestle this problem into a harness that will work for everyone.