Friday, May 23, 2008

Hanson: Tolls an option for Montgomery

Report on congestion, worst intersections leads planners to weigh a new approach to traffic control

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Gridlock trends and predictions for even more traffic outlined in a report released last week could signal the need for Montgomery County to consider ‘‘congestion pricing” to better manage roads, said Royce Hanson, chairman of the county Planning Board.

Congestion pricing is a system under which governments charge drivers to use a road during peak hours. The purpose is to reduce traffic by encouraging people to abandon their cars in favor of walking, biking or public transit.

The New York legislature recently blocked an attempt to establish congestion pricing in Manhattan. Congestion pricing is being used in San Diego, Orange County, Calif., Lee County, Fla., and in cities abroad such as London and Singapore, according to a 2006 report from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Hanson suggested the time may be coming in Montgomery to consider new traffic management approaches ‘‘rather than continue to do what we’re doing.”

His remarks came during a Planning Board meeting last week at which planning staff presented the 2008 Highway Mobility Report. The report identifies the 10 most congested intersections in the county and discusses traffic trends and needs countywide.

The report’s data shows little or no progress in reducing overall traffic congestion in the county during the study period of 2004 to 2012 and raises ‘‘serious questions about the extent to which we want to improve traffic flow at intersections versus moving to a system of congestion pricing,” Hanson said.

Other members of the Planning Board agreed that the trends highlighted in the report indicate it could be time to consider a change in the county’s approach to improving traffic flow.

The list of the 10 traffic crossings most likely to set drivers’ teeth gnashing are all over the county. Topping the list is the Muddy Branch Road-Great Seneca Highway intersection in Gaithersburg. The list also includes the Georgia Avenue-Randolph Road intersection in Wheaton, where Md. 355 meets King Boulevard in Rockville, and the Connecticut Avenue-Jones Bridge Road intersection in Bethesda.

The role of congested intersections is one of the most prominent parts of the mobility report that also found about one in seven intersections in the county, or 14 percent, is carrying excessive traffic, according to standards in the county’s new rules governing growth. The report also found trends showing that the county’s transportation capacity is running about even with the rate of new development, meaning that congestion remains excessive in many areas.

The report also said some traffic in certain areas is so bad, developers should meet tough — some critics would call them impossible — traffic mitigation standards before construction can proceed.

Some people disputed some of the math used in the mobility report.

Marilyn Balcombe, president and CEO of the Gaithersburg-Germantown Chamber of Commerce, said the county is using faulty methods in determining that traffic in the Germantown East area requires 100 percent traffic mitigation. Those requirements are so stringent that they have the practical effect of blocking all development in the area, she said.

The standards involve a list of traffic-limiting options for developers. They include adding road capacity, improving transit options, and encouraging commuters to reduce their reliance on cars.

The county, using an analysis called Policy Area Mobility Review, has determined that Germantown, Gaithersburg, the Montgomery VillageŽAirpark area and North Potomac have too much development for their roads to carry. Balcombe argued that the Policy Area Mobility Review fails to distinguish between neighborhoods with good access to buses and light rail and those such as Germantown, where mass transit is spottier.

Under the mobility formula, heavily populated neighborhoods with good access to mass transit are allowed to have more traffic congestion before they reach a limit that would require traffic mitigation.

‘‘It just doesn’t make sense to apply the same calculation to a suburban neighborhood as it does to an urban setting,” Balcombe said.