Archives April 2010

From the People Who Brought You More Surface Parking in White Flint

Fresh from yesterday’s interesting Montgomery County Council discussion of the failed car speed tests, I received a leaked copy of the Montgomery County Department of Transportation’s proposed replacement. McDoT will announce the new policy this afternoon. The explanatory memo can be found here:

http://www.montgomerycountymd.gov/content/dot/dir/cefinaltparapril222010.pdf

The new Transportation Policy Area Review will replace the existing Policy Area Mobility Review (PAMR) and Local Area Transportation Review (LATR) tests. These tests, which have been widely criticized, focus on how fast cars move through intersections, blocking development and imposing new infrastructure requirements whenever cars slow down.

These tests may have their places, but not in modern pedestrian-friendly Plans. The reason is simple, as discussed in several posts in the last month: you can’t have a pedestrian-friendly community if cars move fast. The Council wrestled for months to reconcile a pedestrian-friendly White Flint with its existing car speed tests, a struggle which was resolved only when the Council realized that the answer to congestion was not to move cars faster but to get people out of cars. That works in Arlington County, and it should work even in Montgomery County. That, at least, is the premise of the White Flint Plan.

But there’s an aphorism that, if all you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail. That’s the problem with the Montgomery County Department of Transportation, which is tasked with the huge job of handling the County’s traffic problems. McDoT sees everything in automobile terms: Rockville Pike, for example, is a big pipe from NIH and Navy Med in Bethesda to Rockville (oh, by the way, White Flint in between isn’t anything at all to worry about, except if it slows cars).

That’s why, when faced with a nice opportunity for a park or community facility on the unused SHA land at the northern intersection of Montrose Parkway and Rockville Pike, McDoT gave us a . . . surface parking lot. In White Flint. Where we’re trying to replace those. To protect the environment. And make a pedestrian-friendly community. I’m sure they had a good reason.

And just so with the new TPAR. The product of a high-powered consultant’s report, the proposal to be issued today is fascinating more for what it does NOT do than what it does. There are some good parts of the proposal, mostly dealing with the techniques for measuring and analyzing traffic.

But you hit the real problem on the very first page of the Introduction: transit and travel demand management (getting people out of their cars) are to be considered “separately” (emphasis in original) from arterial roadways and bicycle and pedestrian improvements. See, P. 3. Um, . . . why?

Maybe that comes from treating roads out of context. That’s reinforced by the wide and differing areas which are treated as if they were the same. Downtown Bethesda, with its urban character, access to Metro, and full streets, is in the same transit access zone with Cabin John, with its more suburban or rural vocabulary and NO transit access. Really, only roads matter to McDoT, not transit access, and not transit-orientation. (And, a wiser analyst than I pointed out, the new TPAR means that McDoT can build what it wants, when it wants, without a lot of outside control, as long as a road is in a master plan.)

So, there’s a lot of good in the new proposal, but at bottom, this is a continuation of the “car is king” philosophy. Understandable in a department of Transportation, but not really where the County is going. This is more rearranging the deck chairs, rather than a holistic approach to solving a variety of mobility issues.

And it totally ignores the big gorilla coming down on us all: carbon limitation laws that will begin strangling road construction in just a few years. Sustainability (read demand management) will become the main driver in the future, not congestion. Soon what comes out of the tailpipe will become more important than how fast we can move that pipe.

Perhaps this is the wrong place to do that type of overall “quality of life” analysis, but if this TPAR is intended to replace PAMR and LATR, then TPAR will determine our government priorities and spending. Road construction is, and will be important, but the County shouldn’t lock into a system which expressly intends to separate transit and demand management from road needs.

This is, again, the same problem the County faced with the White Flint Plan: how do you use these car-oriented tools in a transit-oriented space? The answer is: not very easily.

Wouldn’t we be better served, as a County, if we did what the Planning Board tried to do in White Flint: measure a variety of elements which make up “quality of life,” rather than just how fast cars move through intersections? Spend as much time on getting drivers out of cars as on moving them through intersections as fast as possible.

Barnaby Zall

Free FoWF Membership for Residents and Community Associations

At its meeting yesterday, the Board of Directors of Friends of White Flint unanimously voted to waive membership dues for Residents and Community Associations for 2010. Similar free memberships were offered in 2009 at major FoWF events, and the Board extended that waiver throughout this year.

New resident members need only fill out the membership application on the main web site. Existing Resident members who receive a renewal notice need not send in membership fees in 2010, but will have their memberships extended for a year.

Barnaby Zall

New Members of Friends of White Flint Board

Yesterday, the Friends of White Flint held its 2010 Annual Meeting. At the Meeting, and the Board of Directors meeting which followed, three new members of the Board of Directors were seated, one from each of the three “classes” of Friends’ membership: residents, businesses, and property owners.

Todd Lewers   Todd Lewers, representative of the Forum Condominium, was elected to the open Residents and Community Associations seat. Todd is Co-Director, Federal Programs, for Roth/Viridian, a facilities services company specializing in automation controls, HVAC maintenance, electrical/lighting, roofing, day lighting, solar energy, wind generation and other facility services and energy management tools and techniques. Last year, he testified before the Montgomery County Council in support of the White Flint Sector Plan.

Mike Smith  Mike Smith, representative of LCOR White Flint, LLP, was elected to the open Property Owners/Developers seat.  LCOR is building the North Bethesda Center at the White Flint Metro station. North Bethesda Center is already approved for development, and includes the new Harris Teeter grocery store. Mike has been active in the White Flint planning process since the beginning, including participating on the 2006-2008 White Flint Advisory Group and the 2008-09 White Flint Steering Committee. He has been an active member of Friends of White Flint and served on the Board of Directors in 2009.

Mike Springer at FoWF White Flint Town Hall Meeting  Mike Springer, representative of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, was elected to the open Business seat. Mike served on the Executive Committee of the original Transportation Action Partnership (TAP) and was a member of the Montgomery County-sponsored task force to develop recommendations for what became the North Bethesda Transportation Management District (TMD). He was a member of both the 1994 North Bethesda-Garrett Park Master Plan Citizens Advisory Committee and the 2006 White Flint Sector Plan Advisory Committee. He has been an active member of Friends of White Flint, including hosting the 2009 White Flint Town Hall, and served on the Board of Directors in 2009.

Each of the new members will serve three-year terms on the FoWF Board of Directors.  

Barnaby Zall

Desperately Seeking a Problem to Justify Keeping the Car Speed Tests Alive a Little Longer

At its meeting on Tuesday, April 27, the Montgomery County Council will, yet again, consider whether White Flint’s transformation from an asphalt-covered, strip shopping mall-dominated, overhead wire-topped suburb into a pedestrian-friendly, sustainable, transit-oriented community should be halted because someone, somewhere in the County can’t drive fast enough.

I’ve posted about this before. See, e.g., http://blog.friendsofwhiteflint.org/2010/04/20/car-speed-amendment-back-yet-again-but-maybe-not/. You can find the latest Council staff memo proposing the same odd car-speed amendments here: http://www.montgomerycountymd.gov/content/council/pdf/agenda/col/2010/100427/20100427_6.pdf. The latest memo is unchanged from the one posted last week.

The basic problem is that these tests measure how fast cars move through intersections, which is fundamentally opposed to the new, pedestrian-friendly planning approach favored by the County. It’s simple: the faster cars move, the more pedestrians die. People know that instinctively, so they tend to avoid areas where cars race through intersections. You just can’t build an enticing community around fast streets.

Previous attempts to pass amendments have been rebuffed, but opponents of the White Flint Plan think they’ve convinced a couple of Councilmembers that these amendments are vital to their neighborhoods’ protection. These neighborhoods are on the south of the White Flint area, but these amendments will have a far broader impact than on, say, Garrett Park or Kensington.  

The critical amendments say that the “traffic impact of any development in . . . the White Flint Metro Station Policy Area must be considered” in the car speed tests for any development anywhere in Montgomery County. These amendments are intended to “firmly close a loophole” of a “regulatory vacuum” which might otherwise cause concern in neighboring communities that some intersections might become “over-congested due to White Flint development.”

This loophole will supposedly exist in the time period before a proposed development will be “required to provide substantial funds to a” proposed White Flint financing mechanism “to finance transportation improvements” for White Flint. Unclear exactly when that “regulatory vacuum” will exist, but the amendments say it is until the White Flint financing mechanism is “made a condition of preliminary subdivision plan approval.” So basically, there is a “regulatory vacuum” until County Executive and Council decide on a financing mechanism and make it mandatory for White Flint projects.

That’s not so bad. Council staff says that underlying County law requires something be done to measure the adequacy of public facilities at all times, and, although their position is legally wrong (as shown in prior posts), that period should be short. The Council is already working on preparing a White Flint financing mechanism, so the damage from the Council staff misunderstanding their own law is likely to be minimal.

But that last sentence of each amendment is troublesome. Why should Clarksburg, or Wheaton, consider White Flint traffic impacts? The Council staff claims it is to close this “loophole” and protect neighborhoods from congestion concerns. That is . . . a bit overbroad. Why not limit them to the areas right near White Flint?

Because, of course, that would be political dynamite. Council staff, with remarkable amnesia, seems to have forgotten the overwhelming public support for the White Flint transformation. It isn’t even mentioned in any of the staff memos. But remember the Council public hearings? Usually they are overwhelmingly opposed to development, but for White Flint, they were 4-1 in FAVOR. The groups opposing White Flint went all-out to get their supporters to the hearings, but were greatly out-numbered by residents who wanted White Flint to become pedestrian-friendly, not car-dominated.

The staff also claims the amendment is to focus Council financing priorities on needed intersections improvements outside White Flint. That makes a lot of sense, given that it was the Council’s expressed concern. But the proposed amendments don’t do that. They aren’t targetted in any sense to the Council’s financing process. They simply say that development anywhere in the County must consider White Flint traffic impacts, and the net effect of using the car speed tests is not to trigger financing, but to stop development.

Everyone knows these car speed tests are not going to live much longer. They don’t work, they are incomprehensible in public policy, and they are obsolete in a carbon-limited age. Why keep them alive?

Could we, perhaps, look at exactly what the Council asked for, instead of this broad, obsolete car speed test-related language? How about a little more precision in drafting? Or how about just dropping these amendments and letting White Flint live?

Barnaby Zall

THRUUUMMMMMMM!

The Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission wasn’t kidding when it warned White Flint residents about noise from its construction of the “Bi-County Water Tunnel,” and it’s starting today. The Bi-County Tunnel will provide water to Prince Georges County, and will run from I-270 and Tuckerman Lane to Connecticut Ave. and the Beltway. http://www.wsscwater.com/Bi-CountyWaterTunnelJuly2009.pdf. The main local entrance is off Tuckerman Lane, but one entrance is off Old Club Road in the Old Farm neighborhood in White Flint. See P. 3 of the WSSC .pdf file. This tunnel will be used to extract the gigantic tunnelling machine from 200 feet underground.

So this morning, starting at 7AM, and mingling with the school busses and the early-morning lawn services, there was a deep, grinding roar, mixed with the shriek of disintegrating rocks, echoing through Old Farm from this:

WSSC Bulldozer

Sounded like something cinema sound wizard Ben Burtt would have designed for the Star Wars Death Star. Right next to the houses at the end of the street. And did I mention it was at 7AM?

But I’m sure the rest of the construction equipment WSSC plans to use will be much, much quieter. And will start later in the day.

Barnaby Zall

Car Speed Amendment Back Yet Again, But Maybe Not

As discussed in several prior posts, the staff of the Montgomery County Council has been trying frantically to block development in White Flint if intersections outside White Flint are slowed. These “car-speed-through-intersections” tests have plagued the White Flint Sector Plan throughout its four-year development.

The basic conflict is that White Flint is a pedestrian-friendly, transit-oriented area, yet its growth would be blocked if cars cannot go fast enough through area intersections. The problem is simple: faster cars = less pedestrian-friendly. Here’s a simple table showing that, from a British study reported in the February 2007 issue of WashCycle, www.thewashcycle.com/2007/02/index.html:

Pedestrian Fatality Rate by Vehicle Speed

Having failed to convince the Council that White Flint should be blocked because cars can’t go through its intersections fast enough, now opponents, supported by Council staff, are arguing that a walkable White Flint should be blocked because OTHER, non-transit-oriented areas have slow cars.

An earlier version of this “block White Flint because cars can’t go fast enough in other areas” amendment was removed from the Council agenda on April 5. http://blog.friendsofwhiteflint.org/2010/04/05/car-speed-amendment-pulled-from-council-agenda/. Councilmembers noted “legal problems” with the proposed amendment.

Now staff is trying again; you can find the latest version, which has a few words changed, here:

http://www.montgomerycountymd.gov/content/council/pdf/agenda/col/2010/100420/20100420_13.pdf

The biggest change for one of the car speed tests (Policy Area Mobility Review or PAMR) seems to be the deletion of the word “elsewhere” from the requirement to use the car speed tests. See, p. 3 of the memo. But this deletion seems to render the amendment meaningless, or at least confusing. The relevant sentence now says that the “traffic impact” of any White Flint development must be considered in any PAMR (car speed test) review of any development anywhere. The removal of the word “elsewhere” doesn’t seem to mean anything, since it was redundant anyway. Does this mean that projects in Clarksburg must test to see if any of their traffic comes from White Flint? Or even was “affected by” White Flint, somehow, some way? Since an amendment must mean something (a basic canon of statutory interpretation), this amendment will likely spawn at least controversy, if not litigation, while people try to figure out what it does and why it was adopted.

If that wasn’t bad enough, the second amendment, to block White Flint if other areas fail the “local” car speed test (Local Area Transportation Review or LATR), has similar language, but, as FoWF member Action Committee on Transit pointed out weeks ago, that amendment would violate the law itself, by using distant data in a “local” test. LATR, in legal terms, requires each development to be tested for its impact on slowing cars through its closest intersections; isn’t that a reasonable definition of “local?” This amendment would look at intersections and developments OTHER than the proposed one. Can’t be done, legally. In other words, this proposed revision would not only muddy the water further, but would also spawn litigation.

Do they PAY people to write this stuff?

I have to say I have some sympathy with the poor staff having to draft this stuff. They are trying to fit square pegs into round holes. You really can’t judge a transit-oriented area like White Flint with car speed tests; that kind of misses the point. And that’s why the Council reasonably decided to simply forego the exercise in White Flint entirely, by getting people OUT of their cars rather than trying to speed up the cars. That’s what you should do in an area where you want people to bike, walk and use transit: give them an incentive NOT to drive.

So now staff is trying to figure out what to do at the interface between a transit-oriented, pedestrian-friendly community and an older area where everything is governed by how fast cars move. One idea might be to put up big signs which say: “Pedestrians BEWARE. Cars matter. You don’t.” After all, if pedestrians are warned, they’ll probably be better prepared to jump out of the way.

Who wins on Rockville Pike?

Another might be for the County to continue its movement away from the automobile as King, and to be sure that the adequacy of public facilities is governed by all aspects of quality of life, rather than just by car speed. As ACT’s Miriam Schoenbaum put it, how about making sure that transit, pedestrians and bicyclists (and I would add people with mobility issues) are all considered equally with cars in public facilities planning? Friends of White Flint asked for just that in its testimony on the Growth Policy last year, and it seems like a better idea every time we hear about another traffic fatality in Montgomery County.

But this idea that we’re going to continue to use the car speed tests to block White Flint is just ignoring the fundamental differences between 1950’s planning and today’s. As the memo shows, Council staff is really straining here to accomodate a few groups, such as the Montgomery Civic Federation, who just don’t like the White Flint Plan. The Civic Federation, which, with the departure of most members below the age of 45, seems to be shrinking faster than February’s snows (disclosure: a number of younger activists are building a new community participation vehicle, which I’m happily supporting), says that the County is legally required to use the car speed tests. See, p. 3 of the memo. But wouldn’t the proposed solution be just what the White Flint Plan envisions with the new incentive- based zoning: extensive Planning Board review of all aspects of the proposed development, not just car speed? That would seem more modern and more holistic than simply measuring the adequacy of public facilities by car speed.

Fortunately, late word is that the car speed amendment has again been pulled from the Council agenda by Council President Nancy Floreen. No idea when, if ever, it will be scheduled again.

Barnaby Zall

FoWF Residents’ Board Opening Voting

Just a reminder: balloting for the open Residents’ and Community Associations’ seat on the Friends of White Flint Board of Directors ends TODAY. Ballots must be received today. It is too late for ballots to be mailed. You can submit a ballot electronically: on some computers you can digitally sign your ballot and e-mail it back; otherwise, just sign and scan your ballot and e-mail the .pdf file back to bzall@friendsofwhiteflint.org.

Information on the candidates can be found here:

http://blog.friendsofwhiteflint.org/2010/04/05/meyer-lewers-vie-for-open-residents-seat-on-fowf-board-of-directors/

Results will be announced at the FoWF Annual Meeting, 4:30PM, Monday, April 26, at the offices of Lerner Corporation, 2000 Tower Oaks Blvd, 8th Floor; this is a LEED-certified building and one of the greenest in Montgomery County. The meeting is open to the public.  

Barnaby Zall

Is LATR becoming NVR? Car Speed Test Amendment Withdrawn

Last week’s attempt by Montgomery County Council staff to amend the County’s Growth Policy to block implementation of the White Flint Sector Plan by using the old tests of how fast cars move through intersections has been withdrawn. Originally scheduled for last Tuesday, the amendment would have put a “hard stop” on White Flint’s transit-oriented development if cars moved too slowly through other, non-transit-oriented areas outside White Flint.

Council sources report that there were “legal and language problems” with the proposed amendment. That’s certainly true. For example, the Montgomery Civic Federation first claimed that the County was violating its own laws if it didn’t apply the car speed tests to stop White Flint’s transformation; then the Action Committee for Transit responded that the County was actually violating its own laws in implementing the car tests by applying them to a broader area than the specific “subdivision” or building involved.

Ironically, by raising the legal issue, the Civic Federation may have inadvertantly opened the County up to lawsuits by those who claim that they were injured by inappropriate implementation of the existing law. And the same principle (the County can’t use the car speed tests outside the immediate examination area) would be exacerbated under the proposed White Flint amendment.

After all, if it’s illegal for the County to apply the car speed tests a little ways out from the specific building, it’s going to be much more illegal for the County to apply the speed tests to White Flint for clogged intersections miles away.

This isn’t my area of legal specialty, but I’ve been defending and attacking statutes for three decades. I’d hate to have to defend this law, and its implementation, before a judge. I can see it now:

“No, Your Honor, it doesn’t make any sense to choose whether a transit-oriented community like White Flint should live or die based on how fast cars move through intersections. Yes, Your Honor, the first part of the Adequate Growth Policy does say that the most important factor is safety for pedestrians. No, Your Honor, the car speed test has nothing to do with safety for pedestrians, or anyone else either. Well, no, Your Honor, nobody thinks these car speed tests actually do what they’re claimed to do. And, no, they don’t really do anything useful. Yes, Your Honor, they’re going to be replaced any day now; the Council just has a really busy schedule and hasn’t gotten around to it.”

I don’t know any judge in Montgomery County Circuit Court who wouldn’t hand the lawyer for the County her head if she supported the proposed amendment on that argument.

So how much longer will this car speed amendment keep walking around White Flint?

Barnaby Zall