Auto-centric suburb considers making developers pay more for transit, walking

Montgomery County is considering changing how it measures the transportation impact of proposed development, focusing — for the first time — on how accessible new buildings would be to transit rather than how many vehicles they would add to roads.

In areas around Metro stations — including traffic-clogged Friendship Heights and downtown Silver Spring and Bethesda — developers would no longer be required to complete traffic studies. Montgomery planners say that there’s no room to widen roads in more urban areas and that doing so would only make crossing them harder for pedestrians and cyclists.

Planners propose focusing on how many jobs would be reachable within a one-hour walkable transit trip of a new development, rather than the amount of traffic it would generate. Instead of vehicle trips, a development’s potential impact would be measured in “person trips” — whether by car, transit, foot or bike.

As Montgomery planner Pamela Dunn said, “We’re no longer a county that drives everywhere.”

The debate over how to best measure a new development’s impact on the transportation network comes as the County Council updates its Subdivision Staging Policy to ensure that infrastructure keeps pace with growth. Traditionally, the policy has focused on schools and roads as it specifies how growth’s impact should be measured and guides how developers should pay to mitigate them.

Like many suburbs, Montgomery is planning to accommodate population and job growth without worsening its sprawl-induced traffic by pushing for more high-rise development around transit stations.

Although many residents say they’re all for getting cars off the roads, some worry that the county’s vision ignores reality. Some say it’s impractical to expect transit, walking and biking to absorb the bulk of the growth in a suburb where about 75 percent of residents still commute by vehicle and many don’t live or work near a rail station or reliable bus service.

Critics point to a high-rise proposed for downtown Bethesda that would be adjacent to both a Metro Red Line station and a future light-rail Purple Line stop— and still have an 800-space parking garage.

“You can’t leave out the traffic impacts,” said Barney Rush, a council member for the town of Chevy Chase, where single-family homes in long-established neighborhoods abut downtown Bethesda.

Some people coming to new high-rises will still drive, he said, even if they live atop a Metro station.

“They might take Metro to and from work, but they could still be soccer moms or dads driving their kids,” Rush said. “We don’t expect roads to be empty, but we do expect our infrastructure to support the level of development coming.”

 Montgomery planners say traffic-impact studies done in such urban areas rarely predict problems at nearby intersections. When they do, they typically point to solutions — such as adding turn lanes — that would only make them less pedestrian-friendly.

Some residents say the kind of traffic study the county requires, which is no longer considered the industry standard, isn’t sophisticated enough to capture the lengthy backups that occur when saturated intersections close together create near-gridlock. They question whether county officials are considering scrapping traffic tests near Metro stations because more accurate results might make it more difficult or expensive to build the kind of high-rise, transit-oriented development that their long-term growth plans rely on.

Discussions of how to best measure and reduce the burdens that growing communities face as they attempt to move beyond their auto-centric roots are happening across the region.

Across the Potomac River, Fairfax County officials expect that by 2050, traffic-clogged Tysons will get 100,000 new jobs and a fivefold increase in its current residential population of 19,000. Amid the vast parking lots and strip malls that line Routes 123 and 7, new high-rises are quickly sprouting around the area’s two-year-old Metro Silver Line stations. Traffic-mitigation measures required of Tysons developers include reducing the number of single-occupant cars entering or leaving their new buildings, such as by funding vanpools and shuttle services to Metro stations and building mostly smaller roads to create a more urban and walkable street grid.

Even so, some longtime Tysons residents say the new high-rises have already brought significantly more traffic as many of the new residents and workers continue to drive.

Accommodating new building by continuing to focus on traffic congestion “isn’t going to get us to the future we need,” said Montgomery County Council member Hans Riemer (D-At Large).

County Council President Nancy Floreen (D-At Large), who also chairs the panel’s planning committee, said improving transportation will mean developers helping to pay for different things in different parts of the county.

“In [downtown] Bethesda, we won’t be building bigger intersections for cars to go through more rapidly,” Floreen said. “But we’ll have a list of what else needs to be done there, like improve sidewalks.”

Montgomery isn’t the only jurisdiction considering a different approach. Pete Tomao, Montgomery advocacy manager for the Coalition For Smarter Growth, a pro-transit group, noted that California recently threw out development-impact standards based on intersection congestion and now considers vehicle miles traveled. California officials have said that measurement better aligns with the state’s environmental goals, such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions, rather than helping people drive more.

While developing around transit lines focuses growth and reduces government infrastructure costs, Tomao said, those proposals often become more difficult or costly under traditional traffic-congestion tests. The result: It can become easier and cheaper for developers to build farther out, further adding to unsustainable sprawl.

“The vehicle delay could make a development look bad, but the benefits — people taking transit and walking more — weren’t taken into account,” Tomao said.

Developers say any additional taxes or fees would raise their construction costs. That, they say, could make it harder to secure financing and possibly require them to charge higher rents, which might prompt some businesses and residents to take their jobs and tax dollars elsewhere, such as to Tysons.

“How much can you tax development and still make sure that high-rise apartment buildings or office buildings get built?” said Steve Silverman, a former Montgomery County Council member and economic development director who now consults for developers.

At least one council member said he’s concerned that Montgomery lacks enough frequent and reliable transit service to absorb the amount of high-density growth planned, and there’s little money to provide more.

“If there’s no transit capacity, they’re all drivers,” said Marc Elrich (D-At Large). Traffic “is already horrible. You can’t add more development and not make it worse. It’s just not logical.”

Alice Crites contributed to this report.

Image credit: Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post

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