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As Long as We Remember...

December 16, 2009

Getting There The Hard Way Part 2

Farrell Keough

Yesterday in this space we discussed some of the political and consensus aspects to long-term transportation planning. We will now pursue some of the myths that surround transportation and determine some of the factors necessary to develop solutions to these problems.


During times of no money, (unless the government borrows more or prints it) that is when planning should take place. For instance, planning for high speed, elevated rail (maglev) may be one of the multi-modal long-term solutions. Of course, many other realistic – but long-term – solutions need to be fully vetted and if they are deemed to offer a real alternative modality, we need to start the planning process so money, logistics, and, of course, the legal issues, (environmental and land acquisition) can begin.


Another point that people are not made aware is the aspect of “high speed rail.” This term does not always mean what it sounds like. For instance, if an existing rail system is funded for improvements around at-grade crossings over streets, that is sometimes referred to as a “high speed rail improvement.” This may gain from two to 15 minutes travel time for the existing rail system. Calling that “high speed” is rather disingenuous.


Many people push a concept of “Smart Growth” or “Sustainable Living” to mitigate travel. While this can work, it is density dependent. In short, this means many, many people living on smaller lot sizes – and that is not single family homes. High rises, well over three stories, must be built to truly achieve these ends.


Again, this discounts rural areas like Frederick County. While plans are being proposed for these types of communities in our area, truth be told, it will mean areas with tall buildings, (condos and the like) and a radical change in who chooses to live in these types of structures. To date, the majority of the population in our area is opposed to such frameworks or communities – generally we find this kind of living arrangement in Montgomery County or Baltimore City. In our area, if mass transit options are promoted, affordable parking will be a necessity.


Finally, how much do automobiles pollute? Many myths surround this issue and are generally the driving force behind trying to get people out of their cars – mainly through draconian measures to make using your automobile as difficult as possible.


For instance, on Exhibit 3 of the Fairfax study on emissions of Volatile Organic Compounds, we find that the correlation between speed and discharge is direct. In other words, a vehicle idling in traffic will emit more of these substances than one moving at 55 mph. And that difference is significant!


But, lest you believe that our congestion issue is damaging our air quality, a Draft Constrained Long-Range Plan 2009 study, from the Transportation Planning Board showed that while congestion has increased, so has the quality of our air in this region! In other words, the technology within our vehicles has improved so dramatically that even with increased congestion, the effects on our air quality have been de minimis – our air has improved!


A Draft Air Quality study presented by the Transportation Planning Board has shown this to be the case. Exhibit’s 4 through 8 show significant declines in emissions from 1990 to the present, (with estimations for future years). Volatile Organic Compounds, Ozone, and NOx have all been monitored – generally at areas with heavy congestion – and all have shown tremendous improvement. These improvements are well below the “budgeted” amounts designated by the Washington Regional Council of Governments and the Environmental Protection Agency.


So, what does all this tell us?


First, automobiles are not the pariah they are made out to be. Technological improvements have made our vehicles use less gas and emit fewer pollutants. But, we have to recognize that building more or wider roads will not solve our problems. Yes, they will provide relief, but without other modes of transportation or different ways of living, we will soon see the same levels of congestion we are experiencing now.


Second, if people want to pursue different growth plans to leverage mass transit alternatives, we have to accept that will mean taller buildings with much more dense living arrangements. While proposals can be made for alternative communities around existing train stations, if the underlying objective is to limit growth in other areas and establish it within this proximity, we will need to accept that the buildings will be taller.


Third, there will always be movement down the road to jobs in metro areas. We must face the fact that we abut our nation’s Capital and land costs move people to outlying areas if they choose not to live in high rises. While we should pursue getting more businesses into our area, which will never replace the movement of people toward the D.C. and other urban areas.


Speaking of land costs; keep in mind that zoning requirements are often a major focus of transportation planners. This has a two-fold aspect of which we need to keep abreast.


First, it has the potential to affect the sovereignty of both states and local governments. And secondly, some areas will be chosen for growth, while others will not. This means that some areas may reap the benefits while other areas will be forgotten. It can also mean that some areas will be forced to grow in ways they may not desire. As history has shown, when government inserts itself in the market place, the consequence is generally increased costs with limited benefits.


Finally, the solutions will not be singular or draconian. For instance, the concept of High Occupancy Vehicles has its basis in trying to diminish pollution from vehicles – more people in less cars means less emissions. As we have seen, technology was the real solution to this problem. Hence, measures such as taking a lane and making it inaccessible to most drivers no longer has a good rational for its original basis. It is now argued that it will help to lessen the congestion, but that argument is dubious. Allowing these lanes to be open to traffic during rush hour would provide for more vehicle movement.


We also will need to plan for other alternatives to moving people. Creating things like high speed, (true high speed) rail will take years to complete. As noted, when you have no money, that is the time to plan.


We can no longer sit back and allow the various constituencies to oppose all forward movement. We need leadership willing to make wise compromise and present viable alternatives. This is not a Republican or Democratic issue – it is a human issue and needs solutions. Since I was elected to be on the Citizens Advisory Committee for next year, I hope to be some small part in adding to the solutions.


Woodsboro - Walkersville Times
The Morning News Express with Bob Miller
The Covert Letter

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