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

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., You can find the latest Council staff memo proposing the same odd car-speed amendments here: 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

Barnaby Zall


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