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ACT Letter to County Council
White Flint and Gaithersburg West Master Plans

February 28, 2010

There is a widespread realization in our county and our state that the old ways of transportation planning don't work. Even before the current fiscal crisis, transportation budgets were severely stressed. The public is unwilling to pay higher gas taxes for more roads and highways, as more and more people understand that building roads and highways doesn't get rid of traffic; it only leads to more traffic jams.

Despite the proven success of transit-oriented growth demonstrated by the downtowns of Bethesda and Silver Spring, the failed methods of the past linger in our laws, our practices, and our beliefs. The Planning Board has tried to adapt to the new reality of transportation planning by developing master plans based on transit-oriented development. But much remains to do, if those master plans are to succeed.

First, we must stop using the movement of motor vehicles through nearby intersections to evaluate transportation in transit-oriented development. Since this gives priority to people traveling by car and makes streets less usable or even inaccessible for people traveling on foot, on bicycles, or in transit vehicles, the unsuitability of this measure for transit-oriented development should be obvious. And, even in car-dependent development, it does not actually improve overall transportation, since widening intersections to allow extra cars to move through simply puts more cars on roads elsewhere in the region.

This is a crucial issue in the White Flint Master Plan. The heart of this plan is fixing the mess that was created by designing Rockville Pike exclusively for transportation by car. The growth policy in effect for more than twenty years, based on getting more cars through intersections more quickly, has failed to cure Rockville Pike's traffic jams. We must learn from this failure and adopt new policies that give pedestrians and transit equal priority with cars. The transit-oriented development in the White Flint Master Plan will succeed only if it is not subject to LATR, PAMR, or any other test that evaluates transportation by the movement of cars.

Second, we need to reprioritize our spending on roads. The road projects on the county's transportation priorities list have been designed almost entirely for the movement of cars. We should instead prioritize the creation of complete streets that are shared by automobiles, pedestrians, bicycles, and transit vehicles.

Unfortunately, the combined effect of the two master plans now before the council would be to shift spending priorities even more toward cars. In the White Flint plan, reconstruction of Rockville Pike and building of side streets that can be shared by cars, pedestrians and bicycles is financed by developer contributions and other internally generated funds. This plan places almost no reliance on general transportation revenues. The Gaithersburg West plan, on the other hand, county taxpayers will spend $525 million on roads and highways and ask for an additional $1.3 billion from the state, for a total of almost $2 billion from general transportation revenue. Not only will this use up money that ought to be spent on expanding transit, it will potentially block new sources of transportation revenue, such as an increase in the gas tax, since opponents will be able to frame them as a subsidy to developers of sprawl.

Further, much of this $2 billion will go towards road widening and high- speed highways with cloverleaf intersections, which will make it impossible to achieve the avowed goal of creating a transit-oriented community. The six-lane and eight-lane highways and overpasses will divide Gaithersburg West into isolated pods. And within the pods, there are too few streets – a suburban office-park design that will discourage walking and transit use and inconvenience drivers too. To get from one part of Gaithersburg West to another, you will either take a long walk to a giant garage and get into a car, or else wait for an infrequent, heavily-subsidized circulator bus. This sounds a lot like Tysons Corner – which Fairfax County is currently spending an enormous amount of money to fix.

To avoid repeating the mistakes that gave us Rockville Pike and Tysons Corner, we must change the Gaithersburg West Master Plan. In place of overpasses, there should be at-grade intersections that accommodate bus stops and crosswalks. In place of bigger highways, there should be a new, fine-grained street network that encourages travel by foot or bicycle. In place of eight lanes plus exit and merge lanes on Key West Highway, there should be a boulevard, like the Rockville Pike envisioned in the White Flint Master Plan, to serve as the Main Street of the Life Sciences district. We should reduce the size of the development to what the existing highways and new internal street network can support. Given its location at the edge of the county's built-up area, next to the Agricultural Reserve, Gaithersburg West will always be more car-dependent than White Flint. But if we plan for development that allows people to travel safely and conveniently on foot, by bicycle, and by transit, as well as by car, development in the area will improve the quality of life for local residents and provide new jobs and opportunities for all of Montgomery County.

The Action Committee for Transit urges the County Council to quickly approve the White Flint Master Plan, without tying it to PAMR, LATR, or any similar traffic- based test, and with a financing mechanism that will ensure the rapid rebuilding of Rockville Pike. The Council needs to take more time with Gaithersburg West because the fundamental flaws in the draft master plan have to do with its design rather than its density. The transportation component needs to be redesigned; adding more internal streets goes hand in hand with getting rid of overpasses. If the County Council cannot accomplish these changes before the election, it should return the plan to the Planning Board for revision, rather than simply holding it over for the new Council.

Finally, we urge the county to revise its transportation priorities list to place complete streets that serve people using all modes of travel before highways that serve only people traveling in cars. Rockville Pike should be at the top of this list, and Key West Highway should be not far behind.