Several councilmembers are pushing Montgomery County to reinvest funds from an expensive highway project back into pedestrian and transit improvements. The county’s biennial update of their capital plan, which includes allocating funding for these infrastructure projects, will say a lot about the direction Montgomery wants to go.
Will the county build for a 21st century economy, or double down on 1950s-era planning practices?
I cost 140 million dollars, this is crazy. So cancel me maybe?
After the February 7 capital budget hearing, councilmembers Roger Berliner, Hans Riemer, and Tom Hucker released a plan to defer an expensive highway expansion project called Montrose Parkway and free up $93 million for transit and pedestrian improvements. Under the councilmembers’ proposal, money would go to new Metro entrances at Forest Glen and White Flint, Veirs Mill Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), bike paths in Gaithersburg, pedestrian initiatives in Wheaton, and a host of other projects.
Instead of spending $140 million for 1.62 miles of asphalt, Montgomery could use its resources to implement myriad transportation improvements throughout the county. The total cost for Montrose is $140 million, and $123 million is budgeted in the executives' current six-year capital budget. The councilmembers' plan would delay the project a few years, opening up $93 million for other capital items.
Local residents came out in force to ask for increased funding for transit improvements and to delay the costly Montrose Parkway East. Citizens asked for increased investments in new Metro entrances, bus rapid transit, walkability, and for the council to delay or cancel Montrose Parkway East.
Lawmakers responded favorably to the residents’ push. Councilmember Marc Elrich posted on his Facebook page, “Listening to testimony on our Capital Improvement Plan budget. One thing stands out — the waste of $140 million dollars on Montrose Parkway East.
Councilmember Roger Berliner commented to Bethesda Beat that he believes that Montrose may be needed in the future but isn’t warranted at this time, while Councilmember George Leventhal noted, “At our public hearing we heard from a lot of folks who want to divert money for other worthy purposes. We did not hear from people expressing support for Montrose Parkway East.”
Montrose Parkway (B)east
In recent years, Montgomery County has increased support for smart growth. While they’ve passed transit-oriented master plans in areas like Downtown Bethesda and around future Purple Line stations, some relics of the county’s love affair with sprawl live on.
In mid-January, County Executive Ike Leggett released his six-year capital budget known formally as the Capital Improvement Plan (CIP). The CIP included building a 1.62-mile, $140 million highway known as Montrose Parkway East. Costs for the road seem to have ballooned — a 2011 county document estimates construction at $72,156,000.
The highway, which would connect Rockville Pike to Veirs Mill Road, was originally part of plans for an outer beltway. The project has been justified as a way to relieve future car congestion in transit-oriented White Flint, even though future development is contingent upon high levels of residents commuting using transit. Dense urban areas in Montgomery County like Bethesda and Silver Spring have achieved high levels of non-driver commute shares, and there is no reason why White Flint cannot follow in their footsteps.
The Montrose Parkway East seems especially out of step with current county goals to limit greenhouse gas emissions and support sustainable transportation. In fact, the Montgomery County Department of Transportation has a sustainability policy stating that one of its goals is to “plan and implement a transportation system that broadly considers ecosystem and climate impacts, reduces and prevents waste and pollution, uses renewable resources, uses sustainable sources of energy and reduces energy consumption.”
Building a highway through Rock Creek Park would seem to contradict these goals.
Mo’ highways, mo’ problems
While county documents state that average daily traffic on Randolph Rd will hit 42,000 vehicles by 2020, average daily traffic is now only about 25,000. In 2016, there were 6,639 fewer daily car trips on Randolph Road east of MD-355 than there were in 2007 — about a 20 percent reduction in trips. Yet MCDOT and council staff claim that upon completion, Montrose Parkway would attract 35,000 vehicles daily and reduce traffic on parallel Randolph road by 32 percent.
These congestion reduction claims are made despite the much-studied phenomenon of “induced demand.” We now know increasing road capacity simply leads to more people driving. Researchers in California found that for each 1 percent increase in lane miles, VMT goes up by 0.6 percent to 1 percent, and these results are supported by the California Governor’s office.
Building Montrose may encourage driving in an area where we are seeing declining traffic, and nullify the entire point of the project. The amount of vehicle miles traveled per capita in Montgomery has fallen 11 percent since 2010 and is now 24 percent below the state average. This suggests we should be expanding our investments in transit-oriented development instead of spending $140 million on 8,000-foot highways.
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 lanes to twelve lanes, it had been reduced to a “rolling parking lot.” The article was titled “Md.'s Lesson: Widen the Roads, Drivers Will Come.” Luckily, local residents are heeding this lesson.
Let’s find 21st Century transportation solutions
A recent analysis by the Regional Transportation Planning Board found the most impactful way to reduce future congestion in the Washington region was to invest in transit-oriented development and transit. The study evaluated 10 scenarios. The worst-ranked projects tended to be highways and investments in exurban infrastructure that maintained long distances between jobs and housing. One example is the Second Potomac Bridge, which would consist of a new three-lane highway from I-370 in Maryland to VA-28 in Dulles.
On the other hand, placing more jobs and housing near transit had the largest impacts on reducing future vehicle delay. Under the Travel Demand Management and Regional Land Use Balance scenarios, vehicle hours of delay would be cut by 24 percent and 18 percent. This data makes the central reason for Montrose Parkway East — claims of congestion relief — seem particularly dubious.
Local groups in White Flint have been fighting for pedestrian enhancements, not expensive highways. The intersection next to the White Flint Metro Station has the highest amount of pedestrian crossings anywhere in Montgomery, outside of Downtown Bethesda or Downtown Silver Spring. The White Flint Master Plan calls for Rockville Pike to be turned into a “grand urban boulevard,” but spending $140 million on a 1.62 mile highway to nowhere does not help White Flint cement its place as a transit-oriented destination.
A 2015 report found that the most successful office clusters in Montgomery were in walkable and transit accessible areas, while commercial vacancies have soared in sprawl locations. Reallocating funds from wasteful projects like Montrose into sustainable transportation will help Montgomery succeed in a 21st Century economy.
A key county council committee vote will occur on March 8. Let’s help our elected leaders build a smart growth future for Montgomery.