Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Open forum: Fiscal responsibility, traffic congestion

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by David H. Brown

The difference between issues and problems is that the former needs only definition, while the latter requires solution.

Fiscal responsibility and traffic congestions are problems that are badly in need of non-bureaucratic solutions. They can be compared with a major eyesight affliction, myopia. The dictionary definition is ‘‘lack of foresight⁄a narrow view.” Too many decisions seem to use the Dutch Boy’s Finger in the Dike approach, plugging one hole at a time without getting to the realistic cause of those problems.

Problem No. 1: Fiscal responsibility.

The county’s budget woes did not occur overnight; they were years in the making. Therefore, they cannot be corrected overnight. Decision-makers were lulled by a burgeoning economy, never anticipating that the economic bubble could burst. Any non-political economist will assure you that revenues can fall just as easily as they can rise. The county spent and spent and spent. If it needed more money, either it figured out a way to raise taxes, or it often cut well-meaning community programs. That became a matter of robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Years ago, I pleaded publicly for the county to hold an economic ‘‘summit” of non-political financial planners to advise political decision makers. I even suggested using college students majoring in economics to produce fresh new insights into how to balance the county’s budget. That fell on deaf bureaucratic ears, with no help from the media.

Certified financial planners advise their clients not only how to balance their budgets, but also how to plan for the future if income drops. Successful business and industry executives use the same approach. Why shouldn’t the county do the same? Perhaps the reluctance stems from the possibility of vastly different economic assumptions leading to vastly different conclusions that could result in vastly different decisions.

Decision-makers should view the county as if it were a corporation, with residents as shareholders. There may be a misperception that residents are not smart enough to understand the intricacies of bureaucratic budgeting.

It is not too late for the county to pioneer a new economic approach.

Problem No. 2: Traffic Congestion.

Virtually every vehicular congestion survey the county has done lacks the understanding of where traffic actually begins, stops along the way and ends. All these surveys do is count the number of vehicles entering and leaving intersections. They do not even indicate the variety of vehicles involved. This results in false positive conclusions. Congestion does not begin or end in one particular area; it can begin and end many, many miles away even as far away as bordering states.

Case in point: North Bethesda. (Since the 1992 master plan uses the term North Bethesda and not White Flint, the area should be called the former. After all, a section of Gaithersburg has been known as North Potomac for years. Also, the conference center at White Flint is called Bethesda North. White Flint is too confining, and confirms a restricted area.)

When hearings for the conference center⁄hotel were held, development partner Montgomery County took traffic counts only during morning and evening rush hours, Monday through Friday despite the fact that functions often took place at night and during the weekends. Rockville Pike is just as crowded at noontime as it is any other time, but the county persuaded the hearing examiner to accept only a restricted and unrealistic time frame. And, the area of consideration for traffic flow only covered abutting intersections.

Another case in point: Montrose Parkway. No survey for this the most expensive per-mile project in county history addressed the beginning-middle-end implications of vehicular traffic. To compound the problem, money was approved only for the first section from Interstate 270 to just west of Rockville Pike. The second section, involving a tunnel under the Pike to connect with Randolph Road, required state funding. When that was not readily forthcoming, the county ‘‘loaned” the money to the state, a rare type of action. That portion, plus the final section, could be years away. Meanwhile, motorists continue to suffer through the congestion nightmare caused by the incompleted parkway.

For years, I urged the county to conduct a very low-cost realistic survey of traffic by installing bar codes in test vehicles, and having the data analyzed by college students studying statistics for classroom credit. Such surveys would help the Planning Board, an arm of the County Council, better address true traffic impact on developments.

Two old sayings come to mind to help the county develop better approaches to the above two problems: (1) Measure twice, hammer once; (2) Hope for the best, but plan for the worst.

David H. Brown had campaigned against the North Bethesda conference center, arguing that it would worsen already congested traffic. He lives in North Bethesda.