MoCo’s Thrive 2050 Plan Will Keep You Stuck in Traffic

The new plan neglects to reexamine existing transportation assumptions hampering the county and instead doubles down on failed strategies

Bumper to bumper traffic on the Beltway

Albert Einstein famously said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. If applied to Montgomery County’s planners and policymakers, room should be made at a state behavioral health facility.

Montgomery County is currently undertaking a review of its long-term plan. Thrive Montgomery 2050 is the county’s proposed update to the Wedges and Corridors Plan, which originated in the 1960s and was last updated in 1993.[i] The county’s Planning Board approved a draft in April.  This past Wednesday, County Council committee members indicated that they expected that the full council would act on it by the end of the year.

Thrive Montgomery 2050 is unflinching in recognizing the consequences of county government’s failed policies: 

  • “The total number of jobs in the county grew by five percent from 2004 to 2019, while 20 similarly sized counties across the country grew their employment base by an average of 21 percent.
  •  “[H]ousehold income growth in the county lagged the national average (-2 percent vs. 10 percent) and was the slowest in the region.
  • “Montgomery County added jobs, albeit slowly, but growth came largely in lower-wage sectors of the economy.”
  • “Montgomery County experienced the slowest rate of business formation in the Washington region from 2010 to 2019.”
  • “From 1980 to 2018, the average number of dwellings built each year in Montgomery County has steadily declined, both in absolute terms and relative to the rest of the region.”
  • “[W]eak household income and job growth shrinks the county’s tax base, constraining its capacity to provide high-quality amenities and services and limiting the ability of many county residents to buy homes, a key tool for building household wealth and investing in their communities.”

However, Thrive Montgomery 2050 neglects to reexamine many of the existing transportation assumptions hampering the county. Instead, it doubles down on past failed strategies.

Thrive 2050 recognizes the county’s severe transportation shortcomings: “Even for travel within Montgomery County, our legacy road network has serious shortcomings. [It] leaves more commuters stuck in traffic and pushes jobs and people to other jurisdictions. The result is that the county loses residents, jobs, and tax revenue while simultaneously increasing traffic congestion as more people drive through the county on the way to jobs and homes in other places. We remain heavily dependent on automobiles, with more than two-thirds of workers in the county driving alone to and from work.”  However, instead of directly addressing automobile congestion, Thrive Montgomery 2050 would continue the strategy that essentially relies on making driving as miserable as possible in the hope of forcing drivers to public transit.

Yet, as the document notes, “Seventy percent of private-sector jobs are more than ½ miles from a Metrorail or MARC station, Montgomery County has among the lowest percentages of commuters in the region who walk, pedal, roll, or ride transit.”

Acknowledging that 70% of private-sector jobs are farther than a half-mile from a train station underscores the flaw in over-relying on transit to address transportation needs.

County Executive Marc Elrich’s own commute is illustrative.  According to Google Maps, it is 25 minutes by car and 75 minutes using public transit.  Not surprisingly, most of Elrich’s constituents with similar time as money cost benefit choices pick driving over a farebox.

Thrive Montgomery 2050 acknowledges that the “addition of new highways, travel lanes and grade-separated interchanges may help to relieve congestion in the short term, but new highways, wide roads, and high-speed access ramps are fundamentally at odds with efforts to design neighborhoods and districts to encourage human interaction and foster a sense of place.”  Evidently getting home at a reasonable time is less important to Montgomery County’s planners than fostering “a sense a place.”

Thrive Montgomery 2050 rejects road improvements and instead proposes: “Build a network of rail, bus rapid transit, and local bus infrastructure and services that make transit the fastest, most convenient and most reliable way to travel to centers of economic, social and educational activity and opportunity” and “Convert existing general-purpose traffic lanes to dedicated transit lanes.”

Public transit’s declining share of the region’s travel demonstrates the futility of this continued approach.

Been there, done that, and Montgomery County residents are still stuck in traffic.