Wes Vernon Commentary
November 2011

The Deep Roots of Montgomery County's Traffic Snarl

At a Passenger Trains on Freight Railroads conference in downtown Washington on October 25, Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph Sazbo pointed to an article in Fortune magazine describing a huge transportation project.

The magazine's point (that the undertaking had all the appearances of a boondoggle) raised the following issues:

1 - It's too big.

2 - Who's going to pay for it?

3 - It is intended to fight the recession (as opposed to providing genuinely needed transportation).

4 - It will expand federal power.

5 - It won't work as a stimulus scheme.


Then, as if he had bagged a "gotcha" moment, the administrator informed his audience that article appeared in 1958, and the huge "boondoggle" it was describing was the Interstate Highway system then its infancy.

Mr. Szabo's point was that much of the criticism of the grandiose highway plans of 53 years ago is being heard in today's warning about his agency's plans for High Speed Rail (HSR) in the 21st century.

So what about today?

One need not get into the weeds about the administration's HSR ambitions to make the following points to Administrator Szabo as I did in a discussion with him after he completed his talk:

The barriers cited by Fortune in 1958 dealt with what turned out to be an unprecedentedly huge infrastructure project that went far beyond mere transportation in the sense of getting "from here to there."

The Interstate highway, as is obvious today, brought about radical alterations of our landscape and lifestyles - extreme sprawl whose effect was to force Americans to haul two tons of rubber and steel for virtually every trip, no matter how short. Sidewalks even disappeared from many neighborhoods. In some metropolitan areas, people "think nothing" of driving 150 miles to work each weekday. Those who "think something" of it, in some cases, are left to pound sand.

And who's holding the bag

The argument has been made that a comprehensive truly national HSR map, especially if it fills out with transit connections at its stations, will result in uprooting of those whose whole lives and pursuits center around what the automobile/asphalt complex hath wrought. To what extent can landscape and lifestyles be reversed or revised in a significant way? Are we not trying to unscramble an egg here?

Administrator Szabo responded that he and his cohorts at FRA were well aware of those infrastructure issues, and that they are factors "in everything we do," in part because some of the consequences of the Interstate highway were "unintended."

He added that the additional 100 million human beings expected to be added to our population by 2050 would be primarily concentrated in the "mega-regions" of the nation more amendable to the urban environment that is compatible with high-frequency HSR. This time, according to Mr. Szabo, consequences hopefully will be "intended."

The conversation ended at that point. We don't intend here and now to get into a discussion of whether on he one hand, in the next generation suburbs will deteriorate as the populace is lured to a "back to the city" movement in which many end up living in pillboxes above a subway stop (a nightmare haunting critics with an extreme "country squire" mindset) or, on the other hand, we end up rejecting one extreme without necessarily ending up with the other.

In retrospect

Fortune magazine was not entirely wrong to be concerned about the Interstate system. As a matter of fact, as President Eisenhower enthusiastically signed the Interstate legislation into law, he believed it would provide jobs, jobs, jobs so that the mid-fifties recession would not slide into a depression and make a Herbert Hoover out of him.

And here at home?

In our own backyard, Montgomery County is choking on its traffic. The county fathers (and mothers) have taken stock of the situation. They cannot help but note that across the river, their friends in Northern Virginia are in the midst of building a whole new Metrorail line (albeit with growing pains duly noted in this space) as Tysons Corner is being developed into a walkable, transit-oriented community.

Montgomery County, however, is seriously considering building 150 miles of "dedicated" bus lanes.

This column will give it to you straight-up. We are suspicious of bus lanes. They can be easily dismantled, especially given the fact that that members of a Task Force are set to recommend that said lanes "not take asphalt from motorists." (Huh? So then they want to whack off somebody's front yard?)

The 150 miles of BRT lanes, we are told, will be "reversible." The problem is that Montgomery County, whose growth followed the mid- to late 20th century pattern of development accommodating to the automobile, has (on most cross-town routes, at least) relatively little one-way heavy traffic in rush hour. In much of the county, traffic at peak commuting times can be a nightmare in both directions.

Transit advocates in Montgomery point a finger at (A) Councilman Marc Elrich supposedly using the BRT as a fig leaf for his opposition to any transit plan that might actually get built and (B) the County DOT's unwillingness to change its policy of treating bus passengers as "second-class road users."

(We now pause for yet another history note: Back in the twenties, thirties, and forties, a cabal set up a dummy corporation to buy up the electric trolley and interurban rail systems, tear up the tracks, send the trains to the scrap heap, and replace them with buses, all the while knowing that at least half the train riders would drive automobiles rather than switch to buses, and anyway the GM cabal would manufacture the buses. Gotcha covered coming and going, baby).

In 2011, bus passengers in Montgomery (and most other places) are destined to be "second-class road users." One hates to use a cruelly ironic metaphor here, but "that train left the station" a long time ago.

Update on history

What Montgomery County needs to do is focus on proposed rail transit projects.

The badly needed cross-town light-rail Purple Line linking four Metrorail stops (including both legs of the Red Line, as well as the Green and Orange lines) is slowly, ever so slowly, progressing through the bureaucratic sausage factory. That's where the focus of attention should be, even though an October 22 Washington Post article assured as that the bus lanes are separate from that. Yet, County Executive Ike Leggett wants to take money that should be going to the Purple Line and instead spend it on road widenings and interchanges at Science City.

Also there is the envisioned Corridor Cities transitway (about which we have written here) involving light-rail service on Rockville Pike combined with an extension of the Shady Grove Metrorail line. This plan has not left the maps, and its construction is even further in the future than that of the Purple Line.

Montgomery County has a lot of work to do to provide rail service upgrades. No BRT "fig leaves," please.