A network of proposed "breezeways," or longer-distance bikeable trails and paths across Montgomery County in the Bicycle Master Plan.

Montgomery County has a Bicycle Master Plan whose “1,100-mile network of bikeways includes 573 miles of sidepaths, 172 miles of trails, 128 miles of bikeable shoulders, 99 miles of separated bike lanes and 48 miles of neighborhood greenways.” Sounds exciting! But there's some unwarranted angst over its cost.

More than a quarter of this network already exists, and the county is looking to build it out further. On Monday, the Montgomery County Council's Transportation, Infrastructure, Energy and Environment Committee is meeting to discuss the plan's recently completed Fiscal Impact Statement (FIS), which sets the cost of the 25-year plan at $3.1 billion. That's without “substantial” land acquisition costs.

County Executive Ike Leggett is even claiming that “implementing the scope and timing of the proposed plan would cause extreme duress to the capital and operating budgets.”

$3.1 billion is admittedly a lot of money. But it doesn't accurately define the cost of the plan. It's important to understand how jurisdictions make and use transportation plans.

Plans aren't only about what you're going to build

A transportation plan isn't just a list of capital projects that the government is going to do. It's also a framework for how infrastructure built by private landowners or other governments, like the state or federal government, should fit together.

For instance, say you're a county. You have a large shopping mall and two new neighborhoods are being built on either side. You want to make sure that when a neighborhood is built in between, the roads line up. You might make a plan showing those roads, but you aren't going to build them, at least not now. Does that make your new plan a really expensive one?

The $3.1 billion bikeway price tag would only be the cost if Montgomery County itself builds every single mile of planned bikeway, and the planning staff states up front that this isn't the case:

Such a large network is proposed so that opportunities to implement the preferred bicycling network are not lost when yet unknown circumstances arise, such as future capital projects and development applications.

In other words, some of these are merely unfunded lines on maps, which is how they'll stay unless some other entity such as the state or federal government decides to build a project that intersects with the plan. If that happens, the county then has the ability to push them to build the facility they've planned for. In addition, about half a billion dollars worth of these projects are expected to be built by private developers.

Putting unfunded projects in a plan is not unusual. In DC, the 2005 bike plan included a bike path along the old rail spur to St. Elizabeth's. That planned, but completely unfunded path, was considered years later when DHS decided to develop the property. Now a path will extend along that route and then all the way across Ward 8. This is how a lot of facilities wind up being built.

However, many of these lines will never become trails or bike lanes, and it's unrealistic to include them all as costs, since the plan is for the county to never pay for them or at least to never pay the full price.

Many paths are pedestrian or highway safety projects too

The planning staff also notes that many of these facilities are dual-use and therefore should not count as a bike plan cost entirely. There are 23 bikeable shoulders that are also highway safety projects (and are unlikely to be built unless to provide shoulders for drivers). The cost of these make up $1.8 billion of the total.

The 450 miles of sidepaths will also serve pedestrians and should be counted accordingly.

For these reasons, the planning board estimates the fiscal impact of the bicycle plan is actually less than $1.9 billion. It's like having a plan for sidewalks and saying that the cost of reconstructing every road is part of the cost. That wouldn't make sense.

Other budget estimates are even less accurate

The county Office of Management and Budget (OMB)'s $3.1 billion estimate is bad enough, but then it gets worse. Glenn Orlin, the staff member for the county council who leads its analysis on transportation, submitted a memo arguing that $3.1 billion actually understates the price tag, and the real cost is $6.5 billion because $2.5 billion worth of bikeways are not priced out.

When the planning board noted that not all of the bikeways will be implemented, he asked, “[Then] why are they all master-planned?” He also points out (as the OMB also acknowledged) that the land costs are not included, and argues for a major de-scoping:

One way to reduce this cost while generally respecting the Planning Board's priorities is to delete from the master plan the projects in Tiers 4 and 5, and many (but not all) of the bike-able shoulders in Tier 3.

This will not actually save the county any money, but it might prevent bike projects from being built. The deleted projects won't be built by the county, but rather are there as placeholders in case someone else — a developer, Maryland, or the federal government to name a few — can be convinced to build them. Having them in the plan makes it easier to get them built.

In a stark contrast, there's no discussion at all of the budget busting scope of the county's Master Plan of Highways and Transitways, which is also being updated.

The committee meeting is/was at 2:45 pm on Monday. I'll be watching to closely to see if councilmembers let these disingenuous budget shenanigans cripple what's an exciting and ambitious (and not so expensive) bicycle vision for Montgomery County.