Down to the Wire With the PHED Committee

Down to the Wire With the PHED Committee

The Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee of the Montgomery County Council is considering the White Flint Sector Plan. At the last PHED Committee meeting, on January 19, County Councilmembers Marc Elrich and Roger Berliner pleaded for more time to study the Plan and resolve some lingering questions. Committee Chair Mike Knapp pointed out that the Committee had to move forward on the White Flint Plan by February 1. That’s tomorrow, and the PHED Committee has another hearing — its sixth in this series — scheduled on transporation and land use issues in the White Flint Plan.

Surprise! They’re not going to meet their Feb. 1 deadline. They have another hearing on February 8 scheduled, beyond tomorrow’s hearing.

As usual, the Committee staff has prepared memoranda explaining their positions on several issues remaining for Committee consideration. The transportation (mobility) memo is here:

http://www.montgomerycountymd.gov/content/council/pdf/agenda/cm/2010/100201/20100201_PHED2A.pdf

The biggest lingering issue in transportation continues to be the clash between the older, automobile-oriented tests and the newer, transit-oriented, walkable White Flint Plan. (For more background, see the post “30 Seconds Over White Flint” and others below.) Still not resolved.

The staff memo shows that progress has been made, and without killing the White Flint Plan in the process. The older test projects that cars will take 32 more seconds to travel through the new White Flint Sector (from Grosvernor to Twinbrook Metro stations) than without the new Rockville Pike boulevard; this is known as Level of Service – E (“LOS-E”) as opposed to LOS-D. During its consideration of the Annual Growth Policy last year, the County Council adopted a chart which seems not to allow LOS-E. So the Committee staff has been trying to find those 30 seconds of car speed through White Flint.

The calculations aren’t exactly paralllel, so it’s hard to tell how many seconds the revised Committee staff proposal has made up, but a wild guess might be about 28 seconds (staff’s proposal makes up about 88% of the LOS-E v. LOS-D gap). The staff recognizes this by noting that the results are “high LOS-E.” Allllllmost there.

The difference was in shifting more car traffic to other modes (transit, walking, bicycles) sooner, through what is called Traffic Demand Management. TDM has been very successful in White Flint, where the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (the biggest employer in White Flint) has already achieved a 50% non-automobile commute ratio. The new North Bethesda Center, being built by LCOR at the White Flint Metro Station, is already committed to a 50% non-automobile goal. On the other hand, as discussed a few posts ago, the County Executive has taken away funding from the county’s Transportation Management Districts, the very agencies which have helped to move people out of their cars. So there’s a risk that this ambitious plan is doomed by the budget squeeze.

But the Committee still has a fundamental decision: no matter how the staff tries to squeeze this square peg of a transit-oriented White Flint into the round hole of the car-oriented Level of Service test, the more it looks like fudging. Everyone knows the car tests are going to be thrown out in a few months anyway; they don’t work anywhere in the country, and they can’t even be accurately described by those who use them. The problem is that no substitute is available right now, and the ones being considered are still . . . you guessed it . . . based on how fast cars move. Not on what people seem to agree is the future: you have to reduce carbon emissions, and the only realistic way to do that is through sustainable planning techniques.

With statutory limits on carbon emissions coming down on the County like a ton of bricks, the Council is going to have to move the County out of the automobile trap. The White Flint Plan is the first really modern plan on the Council’s agenda. Our leaders need to decide if we’re going to move forward, or back to the 1960’s. Our Council is pretty smart, and they’re really trying, so it’s highly unlikely that the Council will decide “Hey, let’s just scrap this whole sustainability thing. With all the snow, no one’s going to worry about climate change anyway. Let’s choose cars!”

Putting it bluntly, this whole exercise is just postponing what is going to happen in the future anyway. But they still need to vote tomorrow.

There are other transportation issues coming up tomorrow as well. The staff has reiterated its request that the Council adopt the northern site for the new commuter rail (MARC) station, and reject the Planning Board’s suggestion of a southern site at Nicholson Court. The Planning Board viewed the Nicholson Court site as a way to bring the benefits of White Flint to the very large, but often slighted Randolph Hills community just to the east of the sector boundaries. Randolph Hills has a relatively young population, and is much more diverse and lower income than the rest of the White Flint area, and it has usually been ignored in County planning. Randolph Hills made two requests in the White Flint Plan: the Nicholson Court MARC station, and a new school at Rocking Horse Center. Both requests were rejected by the PHED Committee last year. The staff has now reviewed the commuter rail station question again, and now projects that there may not be a need for the station at all. So the staff recommendation is either the northern site or nothing at all.

The Committee staff also submitted a memo on land use issues. You can find that memo here:

http://www.montgomerycountymd.gov/content/council/pdf/agenda/cm/2010/100201/20100201_PHED2B.pdf

Unlike the transportation issues, the remaining land use issues are fairly non-controversial and small, including such things as conforming zoning across particular properties.

Barnaby Zall

Barnaby Zall

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