Stories from the NFCCA Newsletter, the “Northwood News”

Northwood News ♦ February 2015

The State of Things — White Oak, Route 29, Montgomery County Government

By Jim Zepp

Since last February when I wrote my most recent update on the plans for redeveloping the White Oak area and creating a whole new transit system in Montgomery County, I can report that a lot has happened, but not much has changed.  Specifically, this includes the following.

The White Oak Science Gateway Master Plan

Despite recommendations by the Council and Planning Board staff to reduce the planned density by 25 percent and retain the staging requirements (new development is only allowed as adequate transportation infrastructure is available) applied to all other areas of the County, the Council voted eight in favor and one abstention (Councilmember Marc Elrich) to approve the 25 million sq. ft. of new commercial space (in comparison, Wheaton Mall contains 1.65 million sq. ft. of retail floor space) and 8,600 new residential units proposed in the new Master Plan.

The new development will be concentrated at three locations — the 300-acre Percontee site near the intersection of Cherry Hill and Powder Mill Roads and the White Oak and Hillandale Shopping Centers.  Another mixed use project with about 300 residential units is expected along Tech Road.

Proposed development for the White Oak area of Silver Spring.

The reason given by most of the Councilmembers for their decision claims that this would result in the creation of many new job opportunities for the poor and unemployed residents of the East County as biotech and high tech companies flock to be near the FDA.  Reminiscent of former U.S. Senator Joe McCarthy’s secret list of Communist conspirators, proponents of the Master Plan claimed to have a secret list of Chinese biotech companies that will locate in White Oak as soon as new office buildings are available.

The likelihood of these claims coming true are doubtful.  An examination of federal economic statistics for the 10 years that the FDA has been in White Oak has shown that the number of biotech companies has actually declined.  This reality is further confirmed by the many persistently vacant office spaces, such as the buildings that were formerly occupied by the Quality Hotel chain across Route 29 from the Trader Joe’s grocery store, as well as vacancy rates as high as 25 percent in Downtown Silver Spring.

If major new development does occur, it may be difficult to anticipate their exact impacts on local infrastructure needs such as water and sewer, electricity, police and fire, transportation facilities and services, and schools.  Because the Council resisted requests to use zoning codes that would have required specific employment-related uses and instead chose to apply the Commercial/Residential Zoning Code to much of the area designated for new development, the actual nature of what is built can be decided by the developers whenever they decide to build.

Since there is almost no demand for commercial space in the Washington region, the most likely type of development is high-end, luxury residential.  This would mean more traffic as new residents would create demands for more transportation, more schools, and other public services.  But this will only be known when project applications are submitted, which may be too late for planning and providing additional infrastructure that takes years to accomplish.

After approving the White Oak Science Gateway Master Plan and eliminating the staging requirements which are the County’s first line for keeping new development somewhat in sync with transportation capacities, the Council then began consideration of also getting rid of the second method for doing this in response to a complaint by a single developer who was concerned that his project might trigger the LATR fees so he would be paying for the cumulative effect of other developers.

The Local Area Transportation Review (LATR) is a formula for calculating the impact of proposed developments on existing transportation infrastructure.  If a proposed project exceeds current thresholds, then the developer is expected to pay fees to help fund new improvements, such as new transportation facilities or services.  Initially it was proposed to:

Currently, LATR for a proposed development measures the degree of congestion at nearby intersections in the future, comparing the sum of existing traffic, traffic from previously approved, but yet unbuilt, subdivisions (also known as “background” traffic), and traffic from the proposed development with the transportation program to be on the ground six years in the future. The proposal would change the definition of background traffic to be traffic from previously approved, but yet unbuilt, development that has obtained a building permit. The proposal would apply this definition only to LATR tests in the White Oak Policy Area.

What this meant is that the impact of new development projects on traffic conditions would be ignored until they are ready for construction, which would be far too late to provide new transportation facilities in time.  Consequently, the County would be in a position of struggling even more to catch up on current demands, especially when major development is occurring in an area.

The Council and County Department of Transportation staffs proposed the creation of a new formula method that might spread any LATR fees across multiple projects, which may be difficult to do across a rolling period of six years and a large, interconnected geographic area.  It is not known how this will be resolved at this time.

However, County-wide changes to the LATR process are also being considered, so whatever is decided about White Oak may be shortly applied to the rest of the County over the next two years.

The Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) Plans

A BRT is a transit system usually having large, articulated buses which travel in exclusive lanes, have stops located a mile or more apart, and receive priority treatment by signals at intersections in order to move faster than other vehicles on the road.  A study by a national BRT organization concluded that Montgomery County mostly lacks the population density to justify such a system.  Nevertheless, a County-wide BRT network was approved conceptually by the County government last year.

As a result, two years and $5 million will be spent exploring the realities and costs of actually building and operating such a system on four major roadways.  The map (below) shows the four corridors to be studied.

For example, the County-wide Transit Master Plan calls for the Route 29 BRT to leave the White Oak Shopping Center heading south via Lockwood Drive (which is only two lanes wide) to rejoin Route 29.  To maximize the travel speed of the BRT vehicles, the Plan calls for dedicated lanes that exclude other vehicles.  An earlier study of a BRT on Route 29 found that it would significantly increase congestion in the Four Corners intersection, which is complicated by the multiple traffic flows involving the Beltway and drivers using this as their connector between New Hampshire Avenue and University Boulevard.

Four proposed Bus Rapid Transit System corridors.

In addition, space in the Four Corners intersection would have to be found for four BRT stations (according to the Plan, BRTS will be running on both Colesville Road and University Boulevard).  Each station would be about 150 ft. long and 12 to 15 ft. wide.

Consequently the BRT may increase the roadway’s capacity to carry more people, which allows for more development but does not reduce traffic congestion.  So the question may be whether it is worth spending several years of work and billions of dollars doing this to mostly shorten the travel time for long-distance commuters and encourage further sprawl development.  Incidentally, 50 percent of trips are three miles or less nationally and 28 percent are one mile or less, according to Smart Growth America.

The County Department of Transportation is issuing contracts for consultants to study how BRT routes could be built on Colesville Road, Rockville Pike, Georgia Avenue (although the State Highway Administration has already determined that the southern portion of Georgia Ave. is inappropriate for a BRT because of the Beltway traffic on that section), and Viers Mill Road.

As part of the study process, seven Corridor Advisory Committees (the longer roads will have separate northern and southern committees because of differing conditions along their lengths) are being formed to represent the concerns of affected communities, businesses, and roadway users.  It is expected that these groups will begin meeting in February on a quarterly basis.

Is There No Hope?

Despite these developments, there are some reasons to believe that more sensible solutions may eventually rise to the top.  This was the case with Downtown Silver Spring, in which a developer claimed that a mega-mall project similar to the Mall of America in Minneapolis was the only possible answer for revitalizing Silver Spring.  Even with the heavily committed support and subsidies from the County government, they were unable to secure financing for this scheme.  Fortunately, a more appropriately scaled development was built, which has restored the Silver Spring area.

The recent election has resulted in Arlington, Va., canceling its ambitious plans for two street car lines featuring stops costing a million dollars each.  The realization that Maryland State government will be facing almost a billion dollar deficit in the next two years and that citizens are not in a mood for increasing taxes has caused some elected officials to reconsider their plans.

Does This Mean That Our Transportation Concerns Will Not Be Addressed?

There are new trends, thinking, and emerging technologies that are changing how transportation issues and congestion can be approached.  Just as some industries — such as entertainment recording/distribution, computers and telecommunications, and news reporting — have radically changed over the last 40 years, transportation is on the verge of major transformations that will impact how we travel and plan for the future.  Transportation’s next 40 years will not be the same as the last 40 years.

The past of transportation planning focused on expanding capacity by building more roads, larger transit systems, etc.  However, travel demand is very elastic and can increase more easily than capacity, i.e., people can decide to travel during peak times, or use a preferred highway or travel mode, or choose the same destinations so that individual decisions result in collective congestion.  In other words, we cannot build our way out of congestion by simply increasing transportation capacity of any kind.

Therefore, approaches which more evenly disperse vehicles or people over an area can avoid bottleneck situations.  Viewed in this way, traffic congestion is a dynamic phenomenon that can strain the available transportation facilities and services if many individuals decide to use the same route at the same time.

What is emerging are strategies to manage travel demand over our existing transportation infrastructure and more efficiently using our current resources.  This means stop clinging to one favored transportation alternative as the sole answer to all of our problems.  Examples include:

Given the current economic realities and growing trends toward reduced car usage, the future may substantially resolve many of the congestion problems before the old approaches of simply expanding transportation capacities could even be funded or implemented.  We need the breadth of vision to develop comprehensive strategies rather than insisting on tunnel-vision solutions.   ■

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