Who Owns the Streets?
Who gets to decide the proper width of a road, or whether turns are blocked at certain hours, or whether traffic calming devices are installed? Is it the people who live along the roadway, the people who travel on it, or the people who paid for it?
The number of people involved gets larger as you go up that scale, but transportation planners and public officials don't necessarily decide the issues that way. Post reporter Ann E. Marrimow writes today about one such debate, in a Bethesda neighborhood considering whether to install speed humps to slow down drivers.
Cromwell Drive is a shortcut between River Road and Massachusetts Avenue, and too many drivers are going too fast through the residential neighborhood. Now, their are arguments among traffic engineers and travelers about whether speed humps are effective. Some drivers get used to them and wind up taking them at speed, some try to outwit them by driving at speed over by the edge of the hump, some get annoyed at having to slow down and speed up after crossing the hump.
But I think the larger question in road control is, Who gets first consideration in deciding a road's future? I go to many meetings about transportation projects. Most of the people who attend these sessions and submit comments are people who live along the route of the project and have specific objections to it.
Drivers write to me and insist that Interstate 66 inside the Beltway must be widened. Virginia comes up with an incremental plan on how to do that, on the westbound side, and holds hearings. Who goes to the hearings? The people who live along 66 inside the Beltway. Do they want the highway widened? No! So that's what dominates the citizen input on the project. In fact, they want the state to convert the existing roadway into a vegetable garden.
I've heard from scores of commuters who can't understand why there's not another Potomac River crossing west of the American Legion Bridge. What happened in 2001 when people discovered that the study requested by Rep. Frank Wolf might produce a bridge in their neighborhood? Headline: "Wolf Pulls Plug on Techway Over Potomac."
The Intercounty Connector isn't a county road. It's a state road, and it's designed to serve statewide interests in travel and economic development. Neighborhoods along the route have a strong interest in the outcome, but they're not the only legitimate parties to the debate over building the highway.
Every decision on limiting access to a street during rush hour or adding speed humps is a miniature version of this same tension between those who live along a roadway, those who use it and those who pay for it. (Often overlapping groups, and some people hit the Trifecta.)
In Montgomery County, residents along the street that would get the speed humps get to vote on it. The issue on Cromwell Drive, as Marrimow says, is whether residents on the side streets will get to vote. Outsiders get no vote at all.
But beyond the boundaries of Cromwell Drive, the County Council is considering a proposal by County Executive Isiah Leggett to ease conditions for installing speed humps. This has a long and tortured history in Montgomery County.
Once Montgomery started installing speed humps in 1995, they popped up like mushrooms over the next couple of years. That led to a counter-revolution. So the county tightened the rules for installing them. Now Leggett is proposing to lower the threshold again, and the council is going to hold a public hearing. (See the current rules for speed hump installation here.)
These local vs. regional interest debates aren't limited to road projects. We see them in Tysons over the Metrorail extension project, and in Maryland over the Purple Line and the Corridor Cities Transitway.
What's your take? How much sway should very local concerns have in deciding whether to move ahead with a transportation plan?
June 16, 2009; 9:50 AM ET
Categories: Driving , Transportation Politics | Tags: Dr. Gridlock, Interstate 66, Montgomery County, neighborhood speed humps, traffic calming
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