WHEN YOU’RE IN A DEEP HOLE: Infrastructure Deficits in Montgomery County

My post was originally published on the Seventh State blog, August 8, 2017

In a recent meeting with the capital improvements team at MCPS, I suggested that it would take $1 billion in extra capital funding to provide enough classrooms and to fix dilapidated schools. The staff responded that the number was more like $2 billion or more. Ouch.

My guess was based on the basic cost for classroom space of $40K per student. So, an elementary school for 750 kids would cost $30 million. And we have 9,000 kids in portables ($360 million worth of classrooms) and we’re adding 2,500 new students each year ($100 million). I guessed at double that for renovations, but apparently that number is way worse than my rough guess.

In transportation, the situation is even worse. Not only is our system the most congested in the country, but in 25 years the congestion is projected to be 72% worse! In the past 15 years, we’ve added several hundred thousand new residents to the mid- and up-county, and the population will grow by 20%. We’re not keeping up.

The National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board (TPB) made projections based on the regional long-range plan, which includes all the projects proposed and expected to be funded. The TPB recently looked at the 500 projects proposed but not expected to be funded, and building all of them “only” makes congestion 28% worse. I repeat: building every project proposed still makes congestion 28% worse!

One problem for the TPB is that the projects on their list are proposed by local jurisdictions: the states, counties, and cities, and are most often focused on local needs. There is no central authority over regionally significant ideas that will serve to improve transportation for everyone.

Another challenge is that there is such a huge focus on new transit that it crowds out roads. If you build a new Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) on a Metro Station and 60% of the new residents use Metro, then there are still 40% of the new residents in cars. One mode is not enough, and the current plans look like they are out of balance, with the vast majority of trips by auto in 25 years but most funding going to transit and not highways. To be clear: in 25 years with $100 billion spent on transit in our region, we increase ridership by 2% for work trips, with a huge increase in auto trips and little improvement in our road network.

The TPB bravely took it upon ourselves to develop a list of 10 “potentially game changing” projects, programs, and policies to study, to learn if there are ways to actually reduce congestion instead of surrendering to it. This has been a controversial process thanks to inclusion of a new northern Potomac crossing, but the TPB has recognized that desperate times require desperate measures.

So, where would the money come from to fix these problems, assuming we find good answers and the political will to address them?

For transportation, Northern Virginia has taken the lead. The Northern Virginia Transportation Authority collects a small surcharge on some taxes to create $330 million in new funding to reduce congestion. Under this new program, the state and the local jurisdictions are not allowed to reduce transportation funding, so the money goes directly to new programs.

For schools as well as transportation, Adam Pagnucco suggested that Montgomery County’s annual revenue grows by about $140 million each year due to increased income and property tax revenue. How about dedicating all this growth to infrastructure for the next few years, instead of operations? In five years or so, we could be all caught up.

These aren’t the only ways to get out of the hole. We could build schools like the Monarch Global Academy in Laurel, which cost one-third to one-half what MCPS spends on each school. That would stretch our dollars. We could look at the cost-effectiveness of transportation projects already in the pipeline and refocus on ones that make more of a difference.

I hope with the big election year in Montgomery County next year, we can direct the candidates to solve these big challenges as their top priority. We need to understand what projects will actually help and then find ways to pay for them.

Whatever we do, we know one thing – when you are in a hole, first stop digging.

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Predictions from the CEO of Mercedes

The CEO of Mercedes posted an article with predictions of the future. Here is a selection focused on public policy matters:

• Autonomous cars: In 2018 the first self-driving cars will appear for the public. Around 2020, the complete industry will start to be disrupted. You don’t want to own a car anymore. You will call a car with your phone, it will show up at your location and drive you to your destination. You will not need to park it, you only pay for the driven distance and can be productive while driving. Our kids will never get a driver’s license and will never own a car.

• It will change the cities, because we will need 90-95% less cars for that. We can transform former parking spaces into parks. 1.2 million people die each year in car accidents worldwide. We now have one accident every 60,000 miles (100,000 km), with autonomous driving that will drop to one accident in 6 million miles (10 million km). That will save a million lives each year.

• Insurance companies will have massive trouble because, without accidents, the insurance will become 100x cheaper. Their car insurance business model will disappear.

• Real estate will change. Because if you can work while you commute, people will move further away to live in a more beautiful neighborhood.

• Electric cars will become mainstream about 2020. Cities will be less noisy because all new cars will run on electricity. Electricity will become incredibly cheap and clean: Solar production has been on an exponential curve for 30 years, but you can now see the burgeoning impact.

• Last year, more solar energy was installed worldwide than fossil. Energy companies are desperately trying to limit access to the grid to prevent competition from home solar installations, but that can’t last. Technology will take care of that strategy.

Some conclusions: these changes would/will have a profound effect on infrastructure. We would reclaim the land now reserved for parking lots. The power grid is greatly diminished (don’t invest in electric utilities!). With electric automobiles, the oil business goes in the tank — which is why they are fighting so hard for every dollar they can get today.

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Time for Balance

In an era of left-right political strife, it looks to me like we can forget the basics. While we are arguing about policy and allocating resources right or left, we forget to provide the essentials that everyone needs government to provide.

When I led the large HOA in Kentlands, it became very clear that everyone cared a lot about a few things — collecting the trash, managing the pool, plowing snow from our alleys, maintaining common buildings and amenities, and making sure we were fiscally sound. Everything else was nice to have, but only once the basics were covered.

In municipal government, it’s much the same — collect the recycling, plow the snow, maintain the roads, manage parks and events, and keep everyone safe. Educating the children and keeping traffic moving are on the list, except they are out of our control as a municipality. When I joined the council, I made it my mission to work with outside agencies to improve the areas outside of the city’s direct control.

As a commuter, our region is a bit of a nightmare. We have some of the worst traffic congestion in the country. I spent some time commuting from Gaithersburg to Reston — no job is worth that daily commute. Coming home on Fridays could take 2 painful hours. It’s not like I made the choice to live here and work there — when I bought my house I worked locally, but things change. And I could not understand why one of the wealthiest regions in the wealthiest country in the world could not manage its transportation.

Classroom space in our schools is another huge issue. My nearest elementary school was built for 650 students and has well over 1000 now, and growing every year. I see schools all over Gaithersburg and beyond at higher capacity.

Our infrastructure is stretched because of many factors. Our region is attractive — good jobs, good schools, safe streets — so people want to live here. Even when we don’t build more housing, people keep coming — the number of people in a household keeps growing.

The answer is to balance infrastructure with the demands of a growing population. The answer is many things — more transit, more roads, more schools. We’re out of balance. To catch up with school capacity would cost close to a billion dollars — that would get all the kids out of portables, build new schools to accommodate the 2500+ new students added to MCPS each year, and repair or replace the schools that are becoming dilapidated. That’s a lot of money in a system where we are happy when the state provides an extra $10 million in a year for school construction — not enough for a single school building.

The transportation system is a much bigger challenge. WMATA just determined that it needs $25 billion (with a B!) over the next 10 years to catch up on its infrastructure, and Metro only handles 15% of the work commutes in the region. Many officials believe that focusing new construction at Metro stations is the answer — but unless ALL the new residents use Metro, the new housing adds still more congestion to our roads.

It’s time for a new approach — we need to look at how we are allocating the budgets in the region and re-think where the money goes. From what I see of budgets in the region, a lot of the new spending is going anywhere but to the basic infrastructure and services that are so desperately needed here.

I’m not running for anything, I was elected to the Gaithersburg City Council in 2015 and I’m just trying to do the job that I was elected to do. I am not advocating for or against growth, but I am observing that growth happens and we’re not doing our region justice by ignoring the infrastructure to keep up. We can get there if we balance our priorities and take care of the essentials.

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Tax dollars well spent! Data-driven Road Maintenance in Gaithersburg


Last night, the Public Works dept. presented the results of the new system for monitoring the conditions of our roads, using a special truck that laser-scans the roadways. Our roads rated 10-points higher than surrounding jurisdictions! This leads to a process where inexpensive methods can be used to extend the life on sections in good condition, much more cost effective than major repairs on deteriorated roadways. Kudos to Public Works for forward-looking projects and data-driven decision making. Click to see the PowerPoint:


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Bus Rapid Transit

At the August 31 work session of Gaithersburg’s Mayor and City Council, there were two presentations: an update on the Corridor Cities Transitway (CCT) project, and the findings of a study of the proposed 355 Bus Rapid Transit project that focused on right-of-way and cost issues.

As a quick summary, the CCT would be an upgraded bus system running in new, dedicated lanes from Shady Grove through King Farm, past Crown Farm, through the proposed Johns Hopkins development at Belward Farm, past Kentlands and ending at the Washington Grove MARC station. No auto lanes would be lost, and the dedicated bus lanes would provide a traffic-free (but not stop-light free) route, speeding up movement for commuters along the West side of Gaithersburg and nearby.

The focus of the state’s update on August 31 was on the environmental impact of the project, mainly the need to take away a “de minimus” amount of parkland alongside Great Seneca Highway, putting up retaining walls and providing reforestation. Several acres of forest (not formal parks) would be relocated if the project moves forward with the current plan.

In addition to the discussion about the CCT’s environmental impact, Mayor Ashman noted that he has requested that options be examined for providing two separate routes, one that ends at Belward Farm and the other bypassing Belward to shorten travel times to Kentlands and Metropolitan Grove. The Maryland Transit Administration representatives indicated that a response to this suggestion will be forthcoming in about a week.

The CCT project is approaching the 30% design phase, and is funded through completed design and through acquisition of the necessary rights-of-way. Actual construction funding is not yet approved. A consortium of businesses is supporting the CCT project, along with the Montgomery County government. Some residents have questioned the state’s ridership assumptions.

The 355 BRT project is at an earlier stage. It would run from the DC border all the way to Clarksburg, including about 4 miles in Gaithersburg. The goal is to improve transit and provide opportunities for the City to promote much-needed redevelopment along its aging commercial corridor. The city commissioned a consulting firm to examine some areas that would provide challenges for this project, either because of narrow roadways or because of the cost of acquiring the right-of-way alongside the existing road. The consultants looked at cost, road capacity, and speed of travel for the BRT system.

The options examined ranged from providing two dedicated “guideway” lanes (northbound and southbound), to a single dedicated lane (requiring some waiting time or having some buses run in normal traffic lanes), and even looked at (and quickly rejected) all buses running in traffic. The challenges in particular are at the Father Cuddy Bridge over the CSX Railroad tracks and, north of the bridge, the area passing a cemetery.

After going through the options, the consultants recommend a hybrid approach. The northern segment would have two dedicated BRT lanes and maintain the existing road lanes, while segments farther south would have a single dedicated lane, and the narrower bridge segment would eliminate one of the northbound auto lanes.

In addition to the right-of-way, the consultants looked at potential station locations. The 355 BRT line through Gaithersburg would have seven station stops. The stop locations in the original County documents had some issues, and the consultants proposed relocating several. For example, instead of a station at Montgomery Village Avenue, one of the busiest intersections in the City, the station would move south to Lakeforest Blvd, in the heart of one of the busier shopping areas.

The presentations can be found on the city’s website here. As you can see, the consultants did a thorough job in evaluating the trade-offs, and the result is a system that cuts the cost and minimizes the impact on existing properties. However, the consultants have not looked at how their recommendations effect the ability of the road to move people – ridership was outside of the scope of their study. I wonder if reducing the cost by narrowing the system to a single dedicated lane, and by losing one of the northbound automobile lanes on the bridge, would reduce the number of people that the road could move.

The purpose of the 355 BRT project is to increase the number of people we can move through the corridor and to our commercial centers. If we end up with a system that costs less but does not achieve this goal, then how are we helping our economic development? I’ve asked our Planning Department to see if they can look at this data based on the proposal and to make sure we are going to recommend a plan that does the job it’s supposed to do.

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