Multifamily housing bans near transit is unethical
Limiting billions of dollars in public spending to a small number of rich households weakens the case nationally for more transit spending
An underground metro system connected to a major city is a luxury that few places in the United States have. It the sum of the efforts of thousands of engineers, politicians, construction workers, architects and administrators. An incredibly complex project that yields an extremely efficient mode of transportation. Underground heavy rail metro is something few cities or states are attempting to pull off today with most new transit projects occurring in the United States opting for cheaper light rail systems like the Purple Line as they can avoid tunneling. Tunneling in the United States costs an average of a $1 billion per mile which is extremely high relative to peer countries making new underground metros prohibitively expensive. In cities and towns that have the luxury of having underground metro stations, they form the back bone of the transit system as they can serve tens of thousands of riders per day. Greater Bethesda is blessed with 3 Metro stations and 2 upcoming Purple Line stations, the latter coming in at a cost of nearly $10 billion for construction and a 30 year operations agreement.
The Federal Government, The State of Maryland, Montgomery County and Washington D.C. have collectively invested billions in dollars in the transit systems that serve Greater Bethesda. The dollars spent on the transit systems are public tax payer dollars. When a government spends billions of public tax payer dollars on transit systems, it has a moral obligation to let as many people as possible live near the public infrastructure. Bethesda, despite being an extremely connected transit center funded by public money, is surrounded by low density single family home neighborhoods enforced via County zoning ordinances. Another way to think about this is the Montgomery County government has explicitly banned thousands of people from using a public good that multiple governments spent billions of dollars and decades creating. Is it ethical to spend billions on public goods and then effectively ban usage of that public good?
Thinking about transit investment this way can illuminate how it is treated differently from other public goods. Would we be okay with a government building a public school but only allowing it to be filled to 50% capacity? Would we be okay aywith building parks but only allowing a small amount of people to visit them? Of course we wouldn’t. So why does the County limit the number of people who can live near public transit?
The Metro, Purple Line and Bus systems are forms of transit with a much lower carbon footprint than driving cars. The County and Greater Bethesda residents cannot claim to be in favor of solving climate change while fighting to ban people from living near low emissions transit and walkable neighborhoods.
3 Metro Stations and 2 Purple Line Stops with a 1.5 mile radius - Link
ZTA 20-07 introduced by Councilmember Will Jawando aimed to tackle this problem. It was a good start to the discussion but does not go nearly far enough. Small scale development near multi-billion dollar public infrastructure doesn’t confront the size of the issue at hand. A $10 billion public transit project cannot bow to arguments of “house scale” and “neighborhood character”. If Greater Bethesda wants to change its reputation from an elitist and exclusive enclave, the Council and Planning Board need to be bolder in their approach to up-zoning single family neighborhoods. “Gentle Density” will not do. The recent Silver Spring Downtown and Adjacent Communities Plan was encouraging but ultimately a very modest build out of an even more transit rich area. The correct amount of density is whatever the market will produce. If there is demand to build multiple 300 ft. apartment buildings on parcels with detached single family homes near the Greater Bethesda Metro and Purple Line stops, then the most inclusive response is to allow those buildings to be built. Otherwise the government is limiting the use of public goods from people who helped pay for it.
When the County uses other people’s tax money to pay for public infrastructure, the County has an obligation to make sure that infrastructure gets used as far and wide as possible. Otherwise it becomes and inefficient and unproductive use of money that only serves to make the wealthy homeowners in the land surrounding the stations even wealthier. The County cannot force people to take the Metro or Purple Line anywhere but it can stop banning people from living near the stops. Anything short of market maximum density is a failure on the part of Montgomery County residents and its leaders to address climate change, housing shortages and responsibly use public money.
It took decades and billions of dollars to create the stations, the county should be looking to maximize the utilization of these public goods. Federal tax payers from Alaska to Nebraska, Maryland tax payers from Garret to Wicomico and Montgomery County tax payers from Poolesville to Colesville paid for these stations. It is egregious to limit the use of the station to a handful of wealthy families who live in mansions. Opposition to building denser housing within a multi-mile radius of the station is nothing short of a hoarding of public money by the richest households in the state.
The Yellow represents area zoned for Single Family Homes
It should be noted, billions of investment in transit systems is a fantastic thing. It’s one of the lowest carbon emitting forms of transportation that exists, it allows cities to thrive and economies to benefit from scale and agglomeration effects. Less space can be dedicated to parking lots and more dedicated to economically productive buildings when public transit exists. It is a testament to the perseverance and dedication of citizens that the transit systems do exist. But large scale public infrastructure projects only have justification if they are opened for use by as many people as possible. The amount of money spent per person within a 1.5 mile radius (10 minute bike ride) of the station is staggering if the County Government that goes through hell to build the systems then bans people from living near them.
The Montgomery County Council needs to think bigger and more inclusively in its approach to land-use regulation near major transit stops in Greater Bethesda. Banning everything except multi-million dollar mansions near multi-billion dollar transit systems weakens the case nationally for building more of them as they become seen as an amenity for the very wealthy. Democrats become hypocritical when they lecture Republicans about climate change and public transit investment at the Federal level but under-utilize public transit in their own jurisdictions. By-Right dense development needs to be allowed with a 2 mile radius of all MARC, Purple Line, Metro and BRT stops with 0 parking minimums, increased Floor to Area ratios and no height limits. Greater Bethesda is falling flat on its stated progressive values with most of the transit investment being restricted to the ultra-wealthy via land-use regulation. It is time for some change. The County Council should pass an amended version of ZTA 20-07 that makes sure we are getting the most out of our transit systems.