Thursday, April 30, 2015

as silver spring urbanizes, neighbors disagree on who "belongs" in a civic association

Some members of a Silver Spring civic association recently tried to keep their new neighbors from joining. While residents rejected the measure, the fact that the issue got consideration at all illustrates how people disagree on who "belongs" in urbanizing communities.

High-Rise, Chelsea Heights Houses, Existing Cape Cod House
The new townhouses rise behind single-family homes in Seven Oaks-Evanswood. All photos by the author.
The Seven Oaks-Evanswood Civic Association (SOECA) sits in the shadow of downtown Silver Spring, just a few blocks from the Metro station. Nearly all of its 220 households live in single-family homes, though the association recently lost a years-long battle to stop Chelsea Heights, a development of 63 townhomes on the site of a former private school on Ellsworth Drive.

Last week, the SOECA board proposed an amendment to the civic association's bylaws that would limit membership to "residents of the R-60 zoned areas," or people living in single-family homes. The amendment would effectively bar the new townhouse residents from joining. The association already keeps out people living in a handful of small apartment buildings within the neighborhood's borders, which are drawn to exclude nearby high-rise apartment buildings.

The proposal unleashed a fiery conversation in the normally sleepy neighborhood, both online and at a community meeting last night that 50 people attended. But after a vote, neighbors voted 32-17 against the change.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

to make people-friendly streets, think beyond just cars

To make streets that are safe and comfortable for everyone rather than just speeding drivers, we need to measure them differently. In Montgomery County, one councilmember has a few suggestions on how to do that.

Two Bicyclists on Woodglen Cycletrack
The way we measure traffic makes it hard to create bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly streets like Woodglen Drive in White Flint. All photos by the author.

Like many places around the country, Montgomery County uses two tests of congestion: Level of Service (LOS), which measures how many cars can go through an intersection, and Critical Lane Volume (CLV), which measures how many cars travel through a single lane of road. But both tests assume that cars are the only way to move people, which results in wider and faster roads and undermines attempts to create safe, pedestrian- or bicycle-friendly streets.

Councilmember Roger Berliner, who represents both urban communities like Bethesda and urbanizing areas like White Flint, wants to change that. Last week he released a letter with some examples of alternative ways to measure congestion.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

guest post: breaking the gridlock on BRT (part three)

For years, Adam Pagnucco gave us an insider's look at the ins and outs of Montgomery County and Maryland politics, both here on JUTP and on Maryland Politics Watch, before stepping away from the keyboard in 2010. 

That's why I'm honored to have Adam here again with a three-part series on Montgomery County's Bus Rapid Transit plan. While BRT could be a boon for the county's future, it's mired in controversy. But why? In part two, we'll look at the disconnect between who benefits from better transit and who participates in the discussion over making better transit. Also check out part one and part two.

Driving Down Veirs Mill Road
Veirs Mill Road today. Photo by the author.

The County Executive has proposed state legislation calling for a new independent transit authority that would build and run a new countywide BRT system in addition to the county’s existing Ride On bus system. The authority would not be subject to County Council oversight and would have the power to condemn property, sign contracts, set fares and issue bonds.

The full cost of building a 10-route, 81-mile system was last estimated at nearly $3 billion and could tack on 20% or more to residents’ property tax bills. After significant public pushback, the county’s state legislators balked and the proposal collapsed. For now.

Is this the end of BRT? It better not be. The county desperately needs to enhance its transit capacity if it is to remain competitive with the rest of the region. The key to gaining public support for BRT is to show residents what this transportation mode actually looks like without a tax hike. If they see it, ride it and like it, they just might be willing to pay for more of it. There’s a way to get that moving right now.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

guest post: breaking the gridlock on BRT (part two)

For years, Adam Pagnucco gave us an insider's look at the ins and outs of Montgomery County and Maryland politics, both here on JUTP and on Maryland Politics Watch, before stepping away from the keyboard in 2010. 

That's why I'm honored to have Adam here again with a three-part series on Montgomery County's Bus Rapid Transit plan. While BRT could be a boon for the county's future, it's mired in controversy. But why? In part two, we'll look at the disconnect between who benefits from better transit and who participates in the discussion over making better transit. Click here for part one.

A Challenge of Perception

The observations made so far in this series are not meant to denigrate the benefits of BRT. The County Executive is fundamentally correct in his case for the system. BRT can be a flexible, high-performing transit service that can realize higher ridership levels than standard buses and lower capital costs than rail.

Checking Out BRT at the Montgomery County Fair
A Bus Rapid Transit vehicle on display at last year's Montgomery County fair. All photos by the author.

It can also play a part in promoting economic development. The Urban Land Institute has reported that Cleveland’s Euclid Avenue route generated $5.8 billion of transit-oriented development less than four years after its opening. That is especially impressive considering Cleveland’s long-standing economic problems.

Furthermore, the Executive notes that the potential for new road projects is limited, leaving transit and non-auto transportation modes as the only viable ways to increase transportation capacity. If the county were a business, it would have a strong rationale for investing in BRT as a way to increase its growth and profitability in the future.

But the county is not a business. It is a polity governed by politics. Consider the average regular Democratic voter in Montgomery County. According to voter registration and U.S. Census data, she is a white woman, age 64, who owns a single-family home in Silver Spring and has a household income of just over $160,000.

She is probably not a regular Ride On user. She is on the verge of retirement and thinking about how she and her spouse will live on fixed income. She and/or her family and friends have probably had some experience working with government as employees or contractors, so she is not ideologically opposed to government spending. But taxes are a growing concern for her and issues related to employment (including commuting options) are becoming steadily less relevant to her life.

The challenge for supporters of BRT inside and outside county government is to convince this voter, and many other voters who are both like her and not like her, that BRT is worth a large investment of taxpayer money.

Chelsea Heights Sign, Georgia Avenue
People board a Ride On bus in downtown Silver Spring.

That task is complicated by the fact that very few county voters have significant experience in using BRT. They understand Metro rail. They understand standard buses. Some have used light rail. But when many voters hear the term “bus rapid transit,” they only hear one word: bus. The existing bus system is already financed by existing taxes. A voter might ask why a new bus system must be financed by new taxes when the existing one seems to be working just fine. (Voters who are not regular bus riders will be especially prone to ask such questions.)

Some voters will resist property acquisitions associated with impending BRT construction. The Executive gave aid and comfort to such opponents when he canceled the Georgia Avenue North BRT study between Glenmont and Olney.

Such skepticism is both natural and inevitable. It must have a response. The response cannot be limited to economic data and pictures of nice-looking buses. BRT can and will attract a groundswell of support that will offset the opposition but only if people truly understand what it is. They must be SHOWN what it is.

And there is one way to do that: build a short, affordable pilot route that does not require a tax increase. And do it as soon as possible. Luckily, an outstanding candidate exists that fills the bill. More in Part Three.