County Exec/PHED Committee Staff Strangle White Flint

County Exec/PHED Committee Staff Strangle White Flint

What a week!

Things aren’t looking great for the future of White Flint right now. Several problems are converging, just as we reach “crunch time” for the consideration of the White Flint Sector Plan.

First, the Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee of the Montgomery County Council has been working hard on a review of the Planning Board’s draft of the White Flint Sector Plan. Most people thought the PHED Committee was fairly comfortable with the Plan, including its most innovative features of making a walkable, sustainable area with a higher level of density around the Metro Station. But there were some nagging issues, one of which has just exploded.

One of the biggest issues, which I’ve written about before, is the collision between the walkable, transit-oriented White Flint Plan and the County’s out-moded automobile-centric traffic measurements. We’ve been fighting this battle for a while now, with some opponents using the Annual Growth Policy (which tests how fast cars move through intersections to measure “quality of life”) to attack the White Flint Plan, which uses an entirely different set of tests. In other words, the Plan doesn’t measure quality of life by how fast cars go; it uses a whole lot of other tests. We thought we were past that, as it appeared the Council recognized the value of treating White Flint differently; after all, why would the County use car speed tests in an area where it wants people to walk. It’s a simple rule: as car speed increases, walkability decreases. Faster cars = more people run over. Everyone (but the County Dept. of Transportation) understands that.

Unfortunately, the Council never really made those automobile-oriented tests go away. It just shoved them off into the corner, with a promise to revisit them in the spring. The Committee staff has been wrestling with reconciling the two mutually-contradictory approaches for months now. It’s a tough job, and you could see the staff just squirming in their seats trying to make this work.

Since we’re nearing the end of the road for the Plan’s consideration, the tests have come roaring back out of the dark corner. And you know who wins when a car hits a pedestrian?

Let’s be specific here: the PHED Committee staff report on “transportation” (what we call “mobility”) in the White Flint Plan is now publicly available. You can get a copy here:

http://www.montgomerycountymd.gov/content/council/pdf/agenda/cm/2010/100119/20100119_PHED1.pdf

Look at the top of P. 4 of the memo:

Council staff recommends approving the Sector Plan with an ultimate land use and zoning that reflects the Committee’s aggregate review of all the individual properties in the area, but limiting the amount of growth to the 3,000 dwelling units and 2 million square feet of non-residential development in Phase 1.  

[emphasis in original] Translation: only Phase 1 of the White Flint Plan will be allowed to proceed. Phases 2 and 3 will not move forward until cars can go faster on Rockville Pike.

Now add the second problem: the County Executive, faced with an enormous budget problem, has decided to defund the Transportation Management Districts. In a couple parts of the County, TMDs are the principal implementors of the efforts to move people out of cars and onto transit. They are fully funded, through things like parking meters. We didn’t have parking meters in a lot of places until they were put in to fund the TMDs. But the Executive has decided that the need to fund other things in other places is greater than the need to do what the County promised when it set up the TMDs. That was fifteen years ago, after all, so why should the County keep its promises after that long?

This is the same thing the Executive has said it wants to do with White Flint. White Flint is projected to raise BILLIONS for the County. To pay for all that needed infrastructure everyone wants to see, the Plan suggests reserving a small amount (less than ten percent) of the new money raised in White Flint; the County Executive said that was unacceptable. The Executive wants the “flexibility” to take money generated in White Flint for other parts of the County. ALL the money. It’s a “fairness” issue, they say.

Bottom line: as I’ve said before, one of the biggest problems facing the White Flint Sector Plan is people’s fear that the County will not follow-through on its promises. These are two pretty blatant examples of how those fears are justified. In two different, but related areas. Quite simply: infrastructure takes money. Money comes from bonds. Without certainty, no bonds will be sold.

If only Phase 1 is approved, no bonds will be sold to pay for infrastructure. Why would people buy bonds if there is no economic activity to pay for them because Phases 2 and 3 are uncertain? And if the money that is generated in an area under a 15-year-old County agreement can be redirected to areas of “greater need”, how could a prospective bondholder be confident that any money generated in White Flint wouldn’t be diverted away from repaying the White Flint bonds?

Hence, no White Flint. No County commitment = no money. No money = no White Flint.

So, here we go. Cars win; pedestrians lose. More congestion. More carbon. Lots more problems. All because the County’s commitments seem as ephemeral as a male’s in a Drew Barrymore movie.

Friends of White Flint has already made its position plain on this. Here’s what we said in our Report to the Council on the White Flint Plan on October 19:

            There is opposition to the Plan, as there will be with all innovation and change.  The biggest reason for opposition (again, based on our discussion with thousands of County residents, and on our public opinion polling) is skepticism that the County will fulfill its promises. Quite simply, County residents have seen many County initiatives to protect the environment and provide smarter growth, and have seen many of them fail. The best example in this community is the 1992 North Bethesda-Garrett Park Master Plan, which had grand intentions, but produced the White Flint we know today.

            We believe that this skepticism can be countered by strong County leadership. The simplest example is for the County to make the commitments we request in our proposed improvements in the Plan: to transit, to timing improvements, to family-, pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly amenities, and most importantly, to the financing and management mechanisms which should guarantee that the Plan is implemented as expected.

Let’s hope the Council stands up against these — and other — attempts to gut the Plan before it’s even approved.

Barnaby Zall

Barnaby Zall

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One comment

evangoldman

Great posting Barnaby. I can’t see property owners voluntarily taxing themselves to fund infrastructure if the plan only allows for 30% of the expected build out to occur. What would happen if you agree to pay a tax for the next 30 years and in year 7 a different Council votes not to allow the second phase to occur. Where does your return on that investment come from? This is a long term sector plan which must have long term certainty to give property owners and residents the confidence they need to make it happen. It is amazing in this economic climate to see a recommendation which bases the future of the County on how well a traffic model predicts the speed that cars will move in 30 years. Anyone who works with models understands that they are as variable as the assumptions and should be used simply as one point of reference not as the decision maker.

Evan

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