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“Balance” and 30 Seconds

Posted on by Barnaby Zall

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Live blogging from the PHED Committee meeting of January 19, 2010. The topic right now is “land use” vs. traffic congestion. Current law requires a “balance”, measured by tests which calculate how long it takes cars to move specific distances along major roads throughout North Bethesda. For more on these tests, see the prior posts below.

Committee staffer Glenn Orlin is describing his application of these tests, noting that the Council still requires the use of these tests. When he applied them to all of North Bethesda, the White Flint Plan was “out of balance.” Alternative approaches of increasing “mode share” (the percentage of commuters who use something other than cars) or limiting density in White Flint did not bring the area into “balance,” even if it was assumed that no commuters used cars. And limiting density had almost no effect either. So Orlin said the alternative was only to do Phase One of the Plan. That would bring the Plan into “balance” at least at the beginning.

Orlin then noted that they had been told that no developers would go forward with improvements in White Flint because they could not get financing. So Orlin discussed exceptions which past Councils have made in these “balance” tests, including Potomac. One way or another the Plan needs to come into “balance.” Committee staffer Marlene Michaelson added that if the Committee could never find a way to get ‘balance,” it could revise the Plan to get it.

Planning Board Chair Royce Hanson pointed out that the level of service “E” (LOS-E) which the Plan produces in North Bethesda, was “the appropriate level for an urban area.” He pointed out that the problems were outside White Flint.

Diane Schwartz-Jones, from the County Executive’s office, noted that delaying the Plan meant killing it. The development districts they have been considering are predicated on this Plan, the full Plan, not just Phase One. The cost of improvements of Phase One are $88.9 million, with 12 million sq. of commercial space to help pay for the costs. (that is more than the Committee staff recommendation would permit.)

Councilmember Roger Berliner said that the “failure” is less than one minute, and the problem is that the larger policy area gets stressed by that one minute in 2030. Dan Hardy: that’s correct. Berliner: have you done an analysis within WF itself which shows that it fails. Hardy: tough to separate WF from the larger area. We have specific intersections that we have tested. We have greater latitude in WF. Any development in or outside of No Bethesda would be subject to traffic conditions.

Orlin: the reason for looking at balance in WF is that we’ve historically done it this way. Historically the local intersections work when we look at them. The problem occurs just outside the Metro Station Policy Areas (the higher density areas around Metro stations). That’s what happens here: Montrose and Rockville Pike below WF.

Elrich: the capacity measures around the country are not reliable. It’s a legitimate standard. Not that cars speed down Rockville Pike, but that they are unimpeded. 12 miles per hour is the standard. No one is talking about preserving the Pike as a speedway. The question is how far do you let things go. And it’s 130 seconds, and that delay may well cascade up and down the Pike. I’m unwilling to use some of the other modeling tests to see how that performs. I’d like to see the raw numbers. I’d be interested in any other thing we can do differently. I don’t view this as an insoluble problem. I’ve talked to people on both sides of the issue and I haven’t found anyone who says leave Rockville Pike the way it is. I don’t think we’ve worked hard enough to see the answers. If we have to go beyond the limits of the WF Plan to see those solutions, then I think we should do that.  If anything we’ve done calls for stepping back, this problem causes us to do that. What can we do to make this work? Rather than lowering the standard, we don’t have to fix anything; that’s the problem with lowering the standard. Things will become a royal mess because we’ve changed the balance. I think we ought to think about how these things work together. Take a little time to understand where the problems are. I would lke to feel we’re actually solving the problem, not defining the problem away. What’s to stop us from defining the problem away every time we have a problem? I have confidence we can actually solve this.

Berliner: schools moratorium created a context where we got a win-win. What Elrich is saying is analogous. Best outcome would be to use the existing standard to drive other policy objectives. What do we need for our community as a whole to be a smart growth community and WF itself may not be enough. We could adopt policy guidance that could get us where we want to go. That’s what I hope to do over the next several weeks. Maybe we can get to “balance.” Notion that we are making a fundamental decision based on a standard that is about to change is not the most reasonable analysis. But this can be an opportunity, not a challenge.

Floreen: I love the WF Plan. Because the community defined what it wanted and said the community character is what matters most. I have come to say that’s how you should find out what matters. Is the City of Rockville in balance? It doesn’t use this test and it’s a neighbor of WF. Why let 9 Council members define this? Special procedures in place to protect community needs. I will lie down in the middle of Rockville Pike if you make the intersection at Strathmore any bigger. People can’t walk across Strathmore because of the speeds drivers think they’re entitled to. We’re using the wrong standards. You’ve got to get this development district in process to proceed. Partners in creating the community. We’re letting the wrong standards drive us. I can’t explain to difference the difference between 30 seconds and 40. People who live within WF want to see some real improvements. The people nearby are ok with that, they just don’t want it to affect them too much. I find this frustrating.

Councilmember Duchy Trachtenberg: I spent the better part of the weekend listening to my neighbors express their frustration about the situation. I’ve had a lot of conversation with people who live in the area, and people are in agreement with the vision. There are details still to be worked out. We’ve been waiting for this for a while. We’ve got to approve the big picture and not just part of it.

Elrich: I differ on this issue of the test causing a problem. All the test shows you is the relative mobility. Historically always said all we can do is add a lane; that’s not requirement of the test. Other way to do it is to change modal splits; we didn’t take that option. Fairfax County new growth policy says you can’t meet your requirement by adding lanes, you have to get people onto transit. We can make a different choice. Let’s drive this toward a transit solution. It’s gotta be bigger than WF. Embrace the broader policy that tries to set these rules everywhere. It’s logical for these developments in Bethesda to give way to the developments in WF. Give Park & Planning some time to come back with more options.

Berliner: I don’t support either proposal from staff. I don’t support the road improvements because that’s the old paradigm we’re desperately trying to get away from. If we do anything to the Pike, it should be the boulevard and BRT and the new things. How close can we get to the standard, as imperfect as it is? Until we’ve tried to get as close as we can to the standard, we’re not in a position to do that.

Knapp: 3 options: change land use, change mobility, or change policy. Timing realities. Things have to be done by. Last time for us to take action in Committee on WF is Feb. 1. Critical piece is the money, which we’ll take up on Jan 26. Infrastructure is necessary under any scenario. Financing piece for infrastructure may be more significant than what the actual test is. We know we don’t want to get caught up on that. We can take some time, but effectively have a week, and look at alternatives and have a financing discussion without tying ourselves up. We could get some perspective from the development community. There’s a window.

Hanson: you all agree on what you want to do, you just want to argue it out. Importance of focussing on vision, what you’re trying to accomplish. Vision is to create a great place, and to do that, there’s some things that will help. Staging discussion is overlooked in this balance discussion. We had extensive discussion in the Planning Board about each stage to show what needs to be there to make that stage function. We have a recommendation of a funding mechanism that makes it possible to get those things there in time for the next stage to take place. We set up some performance standards to trigger each stage. So the staging recommendations ensure that the facilities to support that stage will be available to progress to the next stage. This is unique in sector plans in the County, to figure out how to make this happen. For a long time,, you’ve used the current growth standards to bring a plan into balance, but important factor is that the growth policy standard is for individual subdivisions, a failsafe, which says that if the stuff needed for each subdivision isn’t there, the developer has to wait until it is. That’s a different use of the standard than balancing transportation in a master plan. In a master plan, you’re making a general assumption about how things are going to work many years out. You can add in assumptions, that over the next 30 years we’ll have changes, all these things are to be taken into account. But if the things that are necessary for each stage, then the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance, at that time, will be in place to insure that growth doesn’t get ahead of facilities. So don’t use the test for the wrong thing.

Knapp: Bring back at the Feb. 1 meeting. And at the jan 26 meeting. 260 e-mails this morning. But we have a few days to work on this.


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