Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn is clearly off track in criticizing efforts in Montgomery County to create smart-growth communities reliant on transit and to suggest that we need more road capacity.
I was planning director in St. Louis when Rahn was director of the Missouri Department of Transportation. His department’s idea of an efficient transportation system was to build a four-lane highway to any small community. He failed to realize then, as he fails to realize now, that any town or community worth visiting has an efficient, vibrant transit system — and some congestion. Those communities see higher land values thanks to transit and attract people who may not own a car.
When I was Montgomery County’s planning director, I sat on the county’s economic development advisory panel with the former director of Bethesda’s Suburban Hospital. He told me that his staff, on average, faced 45-minute commutes. Many of these workers, who were critical to the local health-care system, relied on the county’s excellent bus system. Maintaining a car is expensive for many people, including those workers essential to keeping a hospital functioning.
A headline I like to show in my public presentations — “Will 23 lanes be enough?” — references Atlanta’s proposed expansion of Interstate 75, making it wider than an aircraft carrier is long. The answer to the question in that headline is “no.” There will never be enough lanes. The billions they cost will be fruitless, as you can’t build your way out of congestion.
That represents the myopic thinking of people who don’t understand how to build complete communities and thriving economies. The Montgomery County Council members I worked with were visionary and bold in considering the plans we forwarded on growth around transit, bus rapid transit and the Purple Line, linking people to jobs, education, child care and services.
Any comprehensive regional transportation plan requires a range of solutions. Take Los Angeles, a city heavily invested in highways. Los Angeles leaders have spent the past decade building six transit lines, a regional commuter rail system stretching into the suburbs and bus rapid transit systems, with a lot of federal funding. The city has rezoned some of its areas to allow more density and reduced parking spaces — and it has seen billions in downtown reinvestment.
Closer to home, check out the booming Navy Yard neighborhood to see how a Metro station can transform an industrial district of empty warehouses into a thriving mixed-use community that includes the home of the Washington Nationals baseball team, federal and city agencies, corporate offices, thousands of new apartments and condos, a riverfront park, neighborhood retail shops, a large grocery store and dozens of new restaurants.
Transit investments also are paying dividends for communities along Metro’s Orange and Silver lines in Virginia. Mixed-use buildings are popping up along the lines and near the stations because people want to be near transit. And local jurisdictions are benefiting through huge additions to their tax rolls.
To turn one’s back on transit-oriented, smart-growth policies is astonishingly shortsighted, given the high costs to the environment (carbon-emitting cars idling in traffic), society and the pocketbooks of taxpayers and commuters.
The writer, general manager of urban planning for Calgary, Alberta, was Montgomery County planning director from 2008 to 2012.