That smoke you see rising over White Flint isn’t from (prohibited) autumn leaf burning, it’s the flame war that has erupted over the Montgomery County Department of Transportation’s plan to plunk a “commuter thoroughfare” in the middle of the new walkable, sustainable, bikeable White Flint Sector Plan. Of course, like everything MoCo, it’s not that simple, and the flames obscure a significant trust issue that no one’s talking about.
When I last sat down with County Executive Ike Leggett on the White Flint Sector Plan, I was representing Friends of White Flint, this community-based organization including residential associations, employers, and property owners in White Flint. In the three years leading up to the adoption of the White Flint Plan in 2010, Friends of White Flint held over 200 community meetings to educate and activate the public. We knew what the community thought about the County and its planning processes. I told Mr. Leggett that the County had a trust problem: people believed that the County promised big but later changed its mind and did something else.
Mr. Leggett looked me in the eye and said “That’s a valid point. But that won’t happen this time.” And he kept his word, delivering – along with the County Council – the needed road funding over the last four years.
So why the disconnect between Leggett’s office and the County Department of Transportation? Both sides seem to be saying the same thing, but acting in different ways. And – beyond the trust question – that seems to be the real problem here.
There’s an old adage: “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” The more modern useage: confirmation bias. You tend to focus on what you’re comfortable with.
The Montgomery County Department of Transportation has a vital job: moving cars through a jurisdiction with a million people. People in Montgomery County, like people everywhere, hate traffic congestion, pollution, climate change, sprawl and all the things that come with the automobile-centered society we have built over the last fifty years. They hammer on the County Executive, Council and agencies to do something about traffic. Then they get in their cars and contribute to the problem. So MCDoT has a tough job: moving traffic in a community that wants it all.
Right now, Old Georgetown Road is a major road on the western edge of the White Flint Plan area, curving at its far northern end to dump thousands of cars a day onto Rockville Pike. People new to the area think the function of Rockville Pike is to move cars, like a pipe, as quickly as possible through White Flint. But there’s more than one way to move a big volume of traffic: you can have, as we do now, one big, really, really fast pipe, or you can have, as the White Flint Plan directs, a lot of smaller, safer, slower streets so people can get around accidents and traffic snarls.
The first way – the big pipe with fast cars and no pedestrian or bike safety features – leads to pedestrian fatalities, like last month’s death of 24-year-old Aaron Papirmeister on an eight-lane section of southbound Rockville Pike in White Flint. The second way’s like the Internet, designed with lots of pathways so no single blockage stops its traffic.
White Flint is part of the County’s official policy of improving neighborhoods so they are more walkable, safer for bikes and bicycle commuters, and less reliant on automobiles. It’s a sophisticated, non-coercive approach to traffic planning, designed to communicate with drivers about appropriate speeds, and protect fragile flesh from tons of metal and glass. We’re not going to ignore the people who live “in-between” here and there so others can speed through on their way to somewhere else, but we’re going to let everyone get where they want to go quickly and safely through careful and sophisticated traffic management. It works in lots of places, like Arlington County, where a huge increase in residents and offices hasn’t resulted in an increase in traffic. So, the White Flint Plan calls for slowing, narrowing, and sharing even the most major roads, while increasing the “street grid” by giving drivers a variety of options for moving through White Flint.
Old Georgetown Road and Rockville Pike are part of that planned transformation. White Flint is being designed – and now being built – for residents, pedestrians, bicycle users, rapid transit, and, yes, even drivers. Buildings are rising. Seven restaurants are scheduled to open in the next two months in Pike & Rose, the new planned urban center just north of the section of Old Georgetown Road we’re talking about. People are already living in Persei, the new “mixed-use” residential building on Old Georgetown Road.
And all those people expect Old Georgetown Road to be walkable, bikeable, and not a “commuter thoroughfare.” After all, it’s what the County promised, not just in evanescent discussions, but in the official White Flint Sector Plan, adopted in 2010, and now four years old.
Which makes the Montgomery County Department of Transportation’s current plan for the two east-west blocks of Old Georgetown Road just south of Pike & Rose surprising. In June 2013, MCDoT revealed its plans for that short section of road, and the words were encouraging; Bruce Johnston, MCDoT’s transportation engineering chief, told the County’s White Flint Implementation Committee: “We want to provide an environment that’s pedestrian and bicyclist friendly and will encourage people to get out of their vehicles.” But their plans didn’t actually do that; their plans included eight traffic lanes and a 40 miles per hour speed limit, much higher than where Old Georgetown Road travels through Bethesda. The White Flint Plan calls for only four traffic lanes, bike paths, wide sidewalks, and more; none of that was included.
Why? Johnston said because of “the anticipated [vehicular] traffic volume on that road.” In other words, we have to ignore the sophisticated (and proven) plans to handle “the anticipated traffic volume” in favor of making it more difficult for bikes and pedestrians.
Still, it was only a preliminary “35%” plan, and at least they were saying the right things about their intentions. But that tension between community, planners and MCDoT primed the community to watch for the same sort of evasion of the White Flint Plan in the future.
In the meantime, those two blocks were “improved” to include narrow sidewalks with wires and poles plopped directly in the middle. Not easy for pedestrians, strollers, or wheelchairs to get around. And no bike lanes. Not particularly reassuring.
So last week, MCDoT revealed what is likely to be in its “70%” plan for the same two blocks. The result, almost exactly the same: eight traffic lanes, not four; no bike lanes; no pedestrian medians or other safety features; still the “anticipated traffic volume” as the driving force.
Above, what we expect from MCDOT’s plan. Below, what we expected under the sector plan.
The community, which had been primed to watch for just this sort of thing, exploded. In just 24 hours, Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett’s office received hundreds of letters from residents complaining about the Old Georgetown Road planning.
The response? County assistant chief administrative officer Ramona Bell-Pearson sniffed at the residents’ complaints: “It seems like enough is never enough.” Ken Hartman, regional services director for Montgomery County, called the residents’ characterizations “disingenuous.” MCDoT said that it would build the two blocks one way now and then rebuild the road again later. County officials blamed the state of Maryland.
Which brings us back to our two ways to move traffic: one big pipe or many little, safer, slower pipes. We have learned we can’t build enough roads to handle the problem; there simply isn’t any more space to build big new roads “down-county.” So we have to maximize what we have. And we can do that, like Arlington County has, through careful and consistent management and planning. We know what to do, but we actually have to grit our teeth and do it.
And the County and state transportation agencies are slowly – ever so slowly – moving in the right direction. At a recent Friends of White Flint meeting, a representative of the Maryland State Highway Administration talked about “communication with drivers” as an important part of their current planning. That is a breakthrough; before planners would try to simply impose their wills on drivers, but now they are beginning to try to understand and work with drivers instead.
But because that change is slow and because MCDoT has as its main priority moving traffic as fast as possible – and most important because of that trust issue with unfulfilled promises – what one side sees as slow progress, the other sees as “sabotage.”
And they’re both right. Slow progress can be seen as “slow walking” something to death. Seeing interim solutions as “sabotage” can be seen by the other side as “enough is never enough.”
Issues of trust, rubbed raw by years of conflict. What we are left with is a lot of smoldering feelings, ready to erupt in flames at the least provocation.
Time for Mr. Leggett to step forward again. Let’s have another public commitment.
Ike, come down and walk across the eight lanes of Rockville Pike, or Old Georgetown Road. Make your statement right there. Make that statement clear. Montgomery County Department of Transportation should become the Department of Mobility, to reflect the new direction the County must move in. Embrace it, and the community that has asked for it. Set the tone again.
You’ll see that community vigilance can work both ways: to help you achieve your commitments (and enhance the County in the process) and to illuminate those times when County agencies aren’t quite getting your message.