- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 7, 2003

Montgomery County is using a get-tough tactic to reduce traffic congestion, one that would fine employers that fail to offer workers alternatives to driving alone to their jobs.

County officials have been notifying employers that they must submit plans describing how they will encourage employees to use public transit, telecommute, walk to work or carpool more often.

Employers of 50 or more workers must meet a Jan. 1 deadline if the county has notified them they must submit plans. Employers with 25 to 49 employees have until Jan. 1, 2005.

About 100,000 employees would be affected.

The county ordinance, which took effect March 6, allows employers to be fined up to $75 per day if they fail to submit the “traffic-mitigation plans” or if they submit inadequate plans. They could be sentenced to jail for refusing to pay the fines.

“It’s just like with parking tickets, if you don’t pay them you could go to jail,” said Sandra Brecher, Montgomery County Commuter Services administrator. “We are hoping not to impose any penalties.”

The strategy is the first in the D.C. area to propose fines for employers that fail to comply with a traffic-reduction plan. It applies to employers in densely populated areas, such as Silver Spring, Friendship Heights and Bethesda.

It was adopted as part of the county’s annual growth policy, a strategy for ensuring that public facilities such as roads and schools are adequate for the demands placed on them.

“The reality is that 71 percent of people in Montgomery County drive to work alone,” said Steve Silverman, Montgomery County Council president. “If we continue at a 71 percent drive-alone rate, there aren’t going to be enough roads that could be built in the Washington area to accommodate the traffic congestion.”

The legislation requiring traffic plans, which was approved unanimously by the County Council, is an effort “to put some teeth into these programs,” Mr. Silverman said.

Requirements on employers are minimal and intended merely to create a groundswell of support for alternative transportation, he said.

“If they wanted to comply with the law, the minimum they would need to do is provide information to their employees about transit options,” Mr. Silverman said.

Montgomery County modeled its plan on programs in Los Angeles, Seattle and Phoenix.

The flexible standards consist largely of responding to a 23-point checklist of alternative transportation options.

In the past six months, more than 130 Montgomery County employers have submitted their traffic plans.

“Their plan has to be reviewed and accepted by the county,” Miss Brecher said. “We also have developed a model plan for them to use. We will not accept a plan that says, ‘We will do nothing.’”

Bethesda employers Lockheed Martin Corp. and Marriott International Inc. have submitted plans saying they reserve parking spots near entrances to their buildings for van pools and provide bicycle racks for employees.

County officials say they never have fined an employer for failing to comply with the county ordinance and downplay the risk of penalties.

The ordinance also requires employers to participate in the county’s annual commuter survey and submit annual reports describing their progress in reducing traffic congestion.

Bob Grow, Greater Washington Board of Trade spokesman, said other local officials have considered but never implemented such tactics.

“It didn’t go anywhere,” Mr. Grow said. “People need to use their cars often to get to work and to run trips. It’s a commendable effort. Its success in reality remains to be seen.”

Nick Ramfos, commuter-services director for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, said, “This is the first time something like this has been tried. It’s going to be interesting to see how it gels together. I think there are some positive things that are going to come out of it.”

Montgomery County’s Department of Public Works and Transportation started mailing employers notification letters in the spring giving employers 90 days to submit their plans.

Miss Brecher said the county would follow up to ensure employers are complying with the strategies.

Among employers already participating in the program is FDC Reports Inc. of Chevy Chase, a health care industry newsletter company. It offers its 106 employees transit discounts and a guaranteed-ride-home program.

“It really hasn’t been a problem for us,” said John Zakotnik, FDC Reports vice president. “It just hasn’t required that much time. There’s a little paperwork, but it’s not onerous.”

Pat Lute, spokeswoman for Discovery Communications, said the Silver Spring company had no objections to the traffic-plan requirement.

Other counties and cities in the D.C. area require businesses to submit plans for reducing traffic, but the laws consist mostly of requiring large real estate developers to contribute to a fund that promotes alternative transportation.

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