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June 16, 2009

Simple Answer, Complex Solutions

Farrell Keough

Much discussion has been taking place surrounding the subject of Smart Growth. New plans for zoning, building, growth, and government regulations.


If this interests you, feel free to click here for the “Maryland Smart, Green & Growing: MDP and the 2009 General Assembly Session.” It has links to the bills passed for these new initiatives as well as single page executive summaries.


While many proposals have some interesting aspects to them, the central issue seems to be missing: Why is this methodology being promoted? The answer is simple – transportation. The solution(s) are much, much more complicated.


Many Smart Growth proponents push the idea that local businesses like grocery stores and other amenities need to be within walking or bicycling distance; but, truth be told, it is rare that these facilities meet these desired standards. More often than not, people must drive for even their basic needs. And, of course, people visit friends and family as well as other specialty shopping which means more driving. In short, driving will continue to be a major aspect of life for the foreseeable future.


If everyone had a job that was five or 10 minutes from their home, or better yet, within walking distance, this concept would not be gaining traction. While most driving trips are for errands, the biggest problems occur during Rush Hour, (and I do not mean from noon to three). Many of us have to drive a good distance to be able to afford our homes and meet family obligations.


Urban areas have jobs, but houses cost substantially more in those areas – not to mention a quality of life that people in areas like Frederick desire and enjoy. So, the push and pull of living affordably versus finding the job to pay for it is the struggle.


This is not new – discussions of jobs and travel have been ongoing for a number of years. What is new are the proposed remedies. Changes in zoning and proposals of more densely populated areas with all the amenities are the current rage – in short, Smart Growth concepts.1


But, as noted, this does not deal with the underlying issue – moving people from their homes to their jobs! Governments work hard to come up with various strategies, but in the final analysis, they cannot force companies to relocate. Government can provide incentives: waiving various permitting fees, offering certain logistics, (water & sewer hookups, road widening projects, etc.), promoting their workforce, allowing various business amenities, to name a few. But, in the end, the business decides if relocation is a viable option.


But, what if these businesses don’t relocate and people must drive to their workplace? There is an alternative which might accomplish both desires – rail.


But first, some information. When people hear “high speed rail” discussed in our region, more often than not this is speaking to changes in the existing rail system to speed up transportation times by five or 10 minutes. It is not a discussion of things like the Bullet Trains we hear so much about.


Having served on the Citizen’s Advisory Committee (CAC) to the National Transportation Planning Board for some time, this was news to me as well as other members. In other words, these proposals are not the 21st Century options we hope for, but rather they are basic upgrades to help the efficiency of our current system.


This is still necessary. Rail, like any method of transportation, needs regular maintenance and repair. But, this is not the road to solving our transportation and congestion problems.


One proposal is a concept called Rapid Bus Transport. This is a fairly simple concept in which new lanes are built that carry only busses or vehicles willing to pay a premium. And, most importantly, this has the option for the Stimulus2 money promoted by the Obama Administration.


This will not solve our transportation problems. But, it does have the possibility of creating new lanes on our roads – something we desperately need. If I am wrong, and people do use the busses, then this is a win. If I am right and people do not use the busses, we have a new lane built that we may be able to access once the BRT fails. Hence, BRT has the possibility of being a win-win.


But, our topic began on the concept of Smart Growth. What proposal could play into this concept?


The beauty of volunteering for a committee is that one gets the ear of people who know things and often they will speak very openly. I had that opportunity at our last CAC meeting. One of the planners was explaining the issues surrounding High Speed Rail. For instance, Maglev, (short for magnetic levitation) is a viable option, but maybe not in Maryland!


It seems that some shenanigans took place in Annapolis some years ago when a delegate was upset with the placement of another rail system. To that end, this option was denied study or passage – a very poor move considering funding may now exist through the Stimulus package.


A wise legislator could forward this option and make a huge difference in the transportation issues in Maryland. These systems can follow existing rail routes, (some changes for curves would be needed) as well as certain existing roadways since they are elevated. Creating a mechanism to get from New York – or out West – in a reasonable time period would stimulate business enormously. And, if this system could move masses of people on a consistent schedule, housing development would actually occur near the stations.


In short, options for mass transit, congestion mitigation, and Smart Growth can work – but one must address the real underlying issue first!


1 Smart Growth has many more principals and concepts. For purposes of this column, I am limiting the full range of information. If you want to read more, please try this web site.


2 While I find the implementation of the Stimulus Package severely flawed, I give credit to President Barack Obama for promoting a much needed shot in the arm to our nation’s lacking infrastructure.


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