The “Car Speed Through Intersections” Tests Are Baaaaaack.

The “Car Speed Through Intersections” Tests Are Baaaaaack.

Movie monsters sometimes rise from the grave to attack again and again and again. The mythical monster Hydra was said to grow two heads for each one defeated. Fading celebrities and politicians appear on Dancing With the Stars or Celebrity Apprentice.

And those pesky car-oriented tests that so bedevilled the development of the White Flint Sector Plan have appeared again to attack the Plan, even after it was approved by the Montgomery County Council last month. Those tests of how fast cars move through intersections popped up this time in a proposal to use the Montgomery County “growth policy,” known more formally as the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance, to block progress on the just-passed White Flint Plan. (This is not an April Fools post.)

Regular readers may recall the pitched battles fought over these tests of how fast cars travel through intersections. After months of debate, the key question was whether the White Flint Plan would be stopped because of tests which showed that cars in 2030 would take an extra 32 seconds to travel from Grosvenor to Twinbrook Metro Stations through White Flint. This was deemed to be “failure” under these tests because cars weren’t going to move fast enough.

We thought we had finished all those debates when the White Flint Plan unanimously passed the Montgomery County Council on March 23. The sword which sliced the Gordian knot was a decision to focus less on car speed and more on getting people OUT of their cars. That’s pivotal to the New Urbanism ideal, in which people don’t want to drive because they won’t need to drive; they’ll already be close to work, shops and fun, and to Metro or connector transit. It’s the way most modern urban planning is heading in this country.

But having worked through that issue in White Flint, the Council is now being asked to stop the White Flint Plan dead in its tracks — because of the same old tests of how fast cars move through intersections. The same opponents of the White Flint Plan — including the sclerotic Montgomery Civic Federation, the White Flint Community Coalition, and the Garrett Park Estates – White Flint Park residents associations — have asked the Council to vote on Tuesday to use those car-oriented tests to block the White Flint Sector Plan from going into effect. The Council staff memorandum with those letters and with the staff recommendation can be found here:

The 36-page Council staff memo didn’t bother to point out that most of the comments and public hearing testimony, including those by Friends of White Flint, opposed using those tests to block the White Flint Plan. I guess it was inconvenient, or there wasn’t enough room on the documents server.

The twist this time is that opponents want those car-oriented tests applied in OTHER areas to block the redevelopment in White Flint. In other words, if traffic is messed up in Rock Spring (and you know it is already), or if the BRAC “improvements” in Bethesda aren’t good enough, cars won’t move quickly enough through intersections in those areas. So, goes the opponents’ thinking, we should stop converting White Flint into a transit-oriented community because cars aren’t going fast enough in Rock Spring or Bethesda, which aren’t transit-oriented at all.

So let’s follow this logic: Council realizes that what we need to do is get people out of cars in White Flint, and votes to do that. Because of those special efforts and the new Plan’s transit-orientation, the Council votes to exempt White Flint from those “cars through intersections” tests in White Flint. But other areas are not transit-oriented and might have problems, so we’ll stop White Flint until the other areas can move cars faster. But there are no plans to make those areas walkable or transit-oriented, so nothing will ever get done.

As I’ve said before, the only REAL problem confronting the White Flint Plan is that people fear that the County won’t do what it promises. Here again the Council is being asked to use a back-door method to block White Flint. The new Plan has lots of monitoring, and lots of planning. There are going to be opponents who will viciously grab any problem and shout it from the rooftops; they got the Council to vote to put people who oppose the Plan on the “advisory group” helping to monitor the Plan’s implementation. Is there any serious threat that a problem generated in White Flint will go unnoticed and cause additional problems in Bethesda or Rock Spring? This is simply a smoke screen to continue to apply the old, discredited (even the opponents call them “flawed”) automobile-oriented tests. Because they couldn’t do it in White Flint itself, now they’re trying to use the same “flawed” tests outside White Flint to block what everyone says is a demonstration of solutions to the very problem they’re complaining about.

What good will it do to make a transit-oriented, walkable community in White Flint, if it can be blocked because we haven’t yet done the same in other parts of the County?

This fight has nothing to do with concern over “adequate public facilities” or traffic; it’s all about strangling White Flint without leaving fingerprints.

Barnaby Zall

Barnaby Zall


One comment

Ben Ross

This problem grows out of an underlying flaw in the way LATR tries to accommodate transit-oriented development. The basic idea of the current rules is that transit-oriented development is compatible with more crowded intersections because better pedestrian and transit access makes up for less convenient auto access. So the allowable TLV is increased near transit-oriented development.

But the county varies the standard according to where the intersection is, not where the building is. This leads to several illogical results — the current problem with White Flint is just one. If someone wants to build a project that is only accessible by automobile, they are allowed to create more traffic congestion if the congestion is near a Metro station — even though no one can reach the new building by Metro.

The remedy for the fundamental problem (short of replacing LATR altogether) is to make the TLV standard depend on the location of the building, not the location of the intersection. Making this change (unfortunately, time is probably too short to do it immediately) would address the criticism made by the Civic Federation and others that White Flint should not be treated differently from the rest of the county.

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