Montgomery County planners this week strongly urged the jurisdiction's elected officials to adopt innovative measures and to take dramatic steps to deal with traffic congestion spurred by the county's rapid growth.
Montgomery County is experiencing its strongest housing construction boom in more than 20 years, with 9,800 new units completed in 1985, the county planning staff said in a new report. But the planners said the boom might go bust unless the county grapples with its congested roads.
The County Council commissioned the report and plans to study its recommendations before adopting an interim growth policy this year.
"Basically, this report says that there are additional things government can do over the next two years to encourage commuters to shift from private automobiles to public transport," said Richard Tustian, Montgomery's planning director.
The report recommends cash subsidies for employers or employes who provide van pools or participate in ride-sharing programs, increased car registration fees to make multiple-car ownership less desirable and more money for pedestrian and bike paths for the estimated 5,000-plus commuters who pedal to work each day.
Special relief measures, the report said, should be targeted for the high-growth areas of West Germantown, East Gaithersburg and the Fairland-White Oak region along Rte. 29, where the report predicts that 9,000 houses -- or at least 44 percent of all new housing -- will be built during the next two years.
Montgomery's congestion is not unique in the region or the state, but the debate about how best to manage growth has become a volatile election-year issue in Montgomery where numerous candidates are vying for countywide office.
Tustian and others say Montgomery's traffic woes are part of the price it pays for being a prime real estate market. The report said new office space in the high-tech service sector accounted for more than half of the county's new construction since 1983 when the national recession eased. In 1985, office space alone accounted for 62 percent of nonresidential development.
The county's work force is expected to grow by more than 30,000 between 1985 and the end of this year and by another 13,000 by the end of 1987, the report predicted. Nearly all new households have at least one car.
Most of the new corporate employers are attracted by Montgomery's proximity to Washington, the good reputation of its schools and the general quality of life available there, the report said. "But the same employers are stressing the community's traffic capacity to the limit," Tustian said.
Some of the report's recommendations are drawn from European examples, where cities are more compact and pedestrian zones and heavy use of mass transit or bikes have long been the rule.
A driving system limiting use of cars to odd- or even-numbered days, based on their license plate numbers, is now in use in Athens. The report said such a system would only be "politically acceptable in a grave crisis," but said a centralized, computerized traffic signal system for the entire county is feasible, as are aggressive education programs to encourage motorists to cut down on the number of car trips.
The report recommended allocating more money for these programs as well as use of a police helicopter to monitor congestion and to feed information to a central system and clear up rush-hour accidents.
The report also says that the county's highly successful Share-A-Ride program is suffering from lack of staff. Under this plan, commuters are matched with other drivers in their neighborhood.
The report said developers in Germantown, North Bethesda and the White Oak-Fairland areas have agreed to spend $240,000 annually to implement ride-sharing programs and that these efforts should be supplemented by the county in Gaithersburg East and Silver Spring. The report also suggested that the county discount subway or bus passes by perhaps 15 percent to employers who would then sell the passes at an additonal 15 percent discount to their employes as one way of promoting mass transit. Increasing parking fees at lots in urban areas while at the same time providing more commuter fringe parking is another way to entice commuters to leave their cars behind.
The imposition of mandatory staggered work hours is an option the report urges county officials to consider in congested areas, along with requiring employers to provide shuttle service to nearby subway stations.