An abandoned office park in Montgomery County.  Image by Dan Reed.

Montgomery County is going to add over 200,000 new residents and must build 155,000 housing units between now and 2040. The question isn’t growth vs. no growth, but rather how we grow.

The choice voters make in the 2018 local elections will be pivotal in choosing which direction Montgomery goes—sprawl or smart growth. How we grow will be one of the essential questions facing voters and candidates over the next year.

The Coalition for Smarter Growth has released a Smart Growth Platform outlining policies that allow Montgomery to grow in an equitable, economically successful and sustainable way. By following through on the platform vision, the Montgomery of 2040 can be even better than the Montgomery of today.

The 5 Principles Of Montgomery Smart Growth

The 5 keys to smart growth in Montgomery are:

  • Increasing investment in transit-oriented development
  • Expanding the county's housing supply at all income levels
  • Funding new transit initiatives that lower vehicle miles traveled (VMT)
  • Implementing complete street policies that foster bicycling and walking
  • Expanding, preserving Montgomery's parks and protecting our streams, drinking water, and the agricultural reserve

What does this look like in practice? Building the 81-mile bus rapid transit network, maximizing mixed-use centers near our metro stations, increasing our affordable housing trust fund to $75 million per year, using public land near transit to expand our supply of affordable housing, allowing multi-family zoning around new Purple Line Stations, and funding express bus service on major corridors like Veirs Mill Rd.

Arlington and DC show smart growth reduces traffic

Arlington and DC, the jurisdictions that have the highest transit ridership and lowest driving rates in the region, correspondingly have the shortest commute times as well. Both region-wide and in Montgomery County, the amount of driving per capita has actually decreased.

Regionally, vehicle miles traveled (VMT) has fallen by about 10 percent since 2000, and in Montgomery VMT per capita has declined 11 percent since 2010.

Research has shown that simply expanding highways will not solve our congestion issues.

Through a phenomenon known as induced demand, the more we widen roads, the quicker they will fill up with cars. For every one percent increase in lane miles, vehicle miles traveled increase between 0.6 percent to one percent. If we want to stop digging the hole of adding more drivers to our roads, we have to build communities that rely less on driving.

In 1999, the Washington Post published a groundbreaking article about the expansion of I-270. Even though the highway had just been expanded from eight to 12 lanes, it had been reduced “to a rolling parking lot”.

The article ended with a quote from a transportation official cautioning, “Tests should be run using different assumptions about induced traffic when evaluating the benefits of the proposed road projects to see if their investments are warranted.”

Smart growth will help Montgomery's economy keep going

The economic value of both current and future transit-oriented development cannot be overstated. $235 billion dollars of property value sits within a half mile of Metro and represents 28 percent of our regional tax base—even though it is just three percent of our land.

A 2015 report prepared for the Montgomery County Planning Department found that the most successful office clusters in Montgomery County were in walkable, transit-accessible locations. This reflects a larger trend in the county and in the region toward transit-oriented development.

In fact, 86 percent of new office construction is occurring within a quarter mile of a metro station.

The first phase of bus rapid transit in Montgomery County is expected bring in $871 million in net fiscal revenue to county coffers–enough money to build 30 new elementary schools. Transit-oriented development is an investment that not only lowers commute times, but also brings more money back into the economy.

Image by Montgomery County Government.

The CEO of Marriott explained his decision to move to Downtown Bethesda, despite county attempts to have the company remain in their current office park: “I think, in many respects, that’s a losing proposition. People are going to want these urban, pedestrian friendly, public transit accessible places”.

The data bears that out. In Montgomery County, of the 10 buildings of 100,000 square feet or more that are completely empty, and the nine others that are expected to empty because of planned departures, all are located outside the beltway and far from downtown cores. Countywide, there are 11 million square feet of vacant commercial space.

Office market vacancy trends. Image by Montgomery County Planning Department.

As Montgomery has struggled to adapt to the urbanizing market, its share of regional jobs has declined.

What does this mean for Montgomery’s future?

If we do not invest in the type of economy that attracts the next generation workforce, we are going to have growing social needs and lessening revenue. From 2015 to 2025, the number of people in the 22 to 64 year age group–prime wage earners–will drop by five percent. The county is looking at a 28 percent increase in the number of seniors. With the movement of boomers out of the workforce, the worker-to-senior dependency ratio changes from 4.5 in 2015 to 3.5 in 2025.

In 2015, the average retirement income is $42,756, one third of the County’s average income of $134,527. This shift will further drive down the county’s median income and with it the ability to fund schools, infrastructure, and other social programs. Unless we are willing to shift from a 1970s-style type of growth to attract new capital from jurisdictions like DC and Arlington, we are looking at doing more with less.

To put a finer point on it, this year DC had a $600 million budget surplus, while last year Montgomery raised property taxes 8.7 percent to keep up with growing costs.

Change in Regional Median Income 2007-2014. DC boomed while rest of the region was hit hard by the recession. Image by American Community Survey.

Smart growth is better for equity

Smart growth development of walkable, transit-accessible, inclusive neighborhoods isn't just good for the economy, it is better for an equitable Montgomery. Access to transportation has emerged as the single greatest indicator of someone’s odds of escaping poverty.

The best thing we can do to bolster those odds is to ensure that we build affordable homes in our transit-served areas.

Recent construction in Montgomery County shows that Montgomery could do more to maximize housing in area's near Metro. Certain Metro Station areas are not zoned for multifamily uses, such as Forest Glen. 

Recent research in California has found that cities who limit new housing had much higher rates of gentrification than those that had less restrictive zoning. Even the Obama administration has weighed in, saying that restrictive zoning is killing our local housing markets and hurting poor people.

Opposing change will only hasten our economic divides and preserve current inequities.

Let’s build what’s smart

Montgomery County’s median wage has decreased 5.8 percent since 2007, the second-largest decrease in the region. Most startlingly, Montgomery County had the most significant increase in poverty of any jurisdiction in the DC region during the recession. In 2000, none of the county’s census tracts had more than an 18 percent poverty rate; now there are 12 census tracts exceeding that standard.

The answer to our economic and infrastructure needs isn’t build nothing or build everything, it's to build what’s smart. Simply doubling down on 1970s growth patterns will not prepare us for a 21st century economy.

In the 1970s Montgomery came together and led the way on progressive growth. Now we have to rise to the occasion again and build the Montgomery of 2040. A good start is by following through on the vision we laid out in our platform.