Greater Greater Washington

Budget


Montgomery's proposed budget takes transit funding and gives it to wealthy homeowners

Yesterday, Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett unveiled his proposed budget, and it has no good news for transit riders. Ride On will get more state aid and hike fares, but it will not run any more buses. Instead, transit revenue will be used to cut real estate taxes.


Photo by Adam Fagen on Flickr.

The cost of running Ride On, as shown in the budget will go up $3.5 million, from $98 million to $101.6 million. Meanwhile, the county will receive $7 million in new revenues, double the cost increase. $5 million in new state aid will come from the gas tax increase passed last year. And fares will rise $2 million, likely a result of matching Metro's fare increase.

Where will this money go? The county's "mass transit tax," a component of the real estate tax, will drop by $5 million. Bus riders, many of whom have low incomes or are renters, will pay more while a tax cut disproportionately benefits the county's wealthiest homeowners.

When Maryland discussed a gas tax increase last year, many groups complained about "raids" on the state's transportation trust fund, including county governments, legislators, conservatives, and the highway lobby. It will be interesting to see how these groups react to this diversion of trust fund money to non-transportation purposes.

Ride On could put the new money it is getting from the state and its riders to good use. The system lacks relief buses, or vehicles on standby, stationed around the county to fill in when other buses break down.

The county counts all late buses equally when it tracks Ride On's performance, but for a rider, there's a vast difference between a replacement bus that comes late and a bus that doesn't come at all. If there's no replacement, the next bus half an hour later might be so full that you can't get on.

Other needed upgrades include restoring the connection to Frederick County buses in Urbana, straightening out the tangle of bus routes around downtown Bethesda, and better weekend service. Funding is also needed for Metrobus's Priority Corridor Initiative, which would improve service on several of the county's highest-ridership routes.

The budget now goes to the County Council for approval. Hopefully, bus riders will find friends there.

Ben Ross was president of the Action Committee for Transit for 15 years. His new book about the politics of urbanism and transit, Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism, is published by Oxford University Press. 

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Ride On Service (particularly management) is possibly the worst transit agency in the region. Buses routinely leave their starting points early, which compounds along the route (arrive early at one stop = no riders waiting = arrive even earlier at the next one).
Several bus stops in our neighborhood were removed with no notice to the community, and they refuse to share their data with the NextBus type apps that every other transit agency in the area uses.
The schedule for the "VanGo" circulator bus in Silver Spring accounts for three buses, but they never run more than two.
Between that and the Silver Spring Transit Center mess, I've doubled the number of days that I drive to work.
It doesn't surprise me that Ike is refusing to invest in RideOn, he's let it degrade this far, why not keep going?

by Joe in SS on Mar 18, 2014 2:05 pm • linkreport

We are shooting ourselves in the foot. Our county leadership keeps trying to do the same bad ideas to pander to the crankiest old-minded overly privileged residents at a time when we need investment in transit and urban areas. The next generations who want good urban areas and transit are the future tax base, not the crankiest over-privileged residents.

by Cavan on Mar 18, 2014 2:25 pm • linkreport

RideOn has their own app for Android and iPhone and they provide an API so developers can include RideOn in their apps:
http://www.montgomerycountymd.gov/DOT-Transit/rideonrealtime.html

You can also just go to the real-time site on your phone and there is a mobile-specific interface.

by MLD on Mar 18, 2014 2:28 pm • linkreport

However, the information in the RideOn app is usually not the real-time info, but scheduled time, in my experience.
And the app is crappy.

by alurin on Mar 18, 2014 2:35 pm • linkreport

What? You want them to stop discriminating against renters and transit users? Never going to happen. Montgomery (and Fairfax) is a microcosm of the larger US. We're creating a first world nation and a parallel third world nation. Just look at the recent gas explosion in NYC. More specifically, in Harlem. Because no one fights for their infrastructure and safety. If this had happened on physically on Wall Street, you can bet people would be screaming, the media would be fully engaged and Congress/New York lawmakers would get off their duff to make sure that region of the city wasn't effected again. But in Harlem, it bubbles up and is then quickly swept under the rug. Same for transit (and school inequity)in Montgomery County.

by Mike on Mar 18, 2014 2:51 pm • linkreport

Note that low- and moderate-income renters also pay property tax; it's just built into their rent payments and prices paid to brick-and-mortar suppliers. If property taxes are lowered across rental and commercial real estate, competition in those markets could lead to lower rents and prices (or slower increases).
I'm not claiming the article is wrong, or that this hypothetical is correct. And higher transit fares are what they seem to be when they fall on inelastic demand segments (it's expensive to be poor). But the author should keep in mind the finding from public finance, that the statutory incidence of a tax and its economic incidence are not generally the same.

by JLK on Mar 18, 2014 2:53 pm • linkreport

alurin:

The app was updated recently to include real-time info. It actually works pretty well now.

by Ben on Mar 18, 2014 3:05 pm • linkreport

Thanks for this important article. The point of the gas tax increase was to reduce congestion by providing improved transit. Very disappointing to see that that is not being done.

by Ronit Dancis on Mar 18, 2014 3:09 pm • linkreport

JLK:
It's more likely that landlords and business will simply take the tax reductions for themselves. The county is giving them a nice bump to their margins, why would they rationally want to give that away (unless they are just exceeding nice) There are vary few economic incentives for them to pass along these savings to lower rungs of the economic ladder. Unless there was an oversupply in the rental market, and they needed to unload inventory faster. But I don't believe that to be an issue in the current market, so the "trickle down" effect will be minimal, and property owners will simply pocket the savings, screwing renters & consumers.

by Mike on Mar 18, 2014 3:14 pm • linkreport

Likely some of the savings will be passed along to renters, but that is just a sidestep to the real issue, which is that #1, the extra money should be put into better transit service and #2, that this kind of tax cut stands to benefit the upper classes way more than those down the totem pole.

by MLD on Mar 18, 2014 3:20 pm • linkreport

Caught red-handed.

Book 'em Ben-Oh.

by Capt. Hilts on Mar 18, 2014 3:38 pm • linkreport

"It's more likely that landlords and business will simply take the tax reductions for themselves. The county is giving them a nice bump to their margins, why would they rationally want to give that away (unless they are just exceeding nice) There are vary few economic incentives for them to pass along these savings to lower rungs of the economic ladder"

Funny, when people who are against the abolishment of parking minimums and the related expense to the developer, they are "poo-pooed", every poster here claiming that the corresponding prices WILL be reduced, yet are saying the exact opposite here.

It can't be both ways folks, and this is about as apples to apples as it gets.

by Parking Minimum on Mar 18, 2014 4:23 pm • linkreport

PM - It's not that there will be no tax reduction on low-rent housing. It's that the tax saving on a unit of low-rent housing will be much less than the saving on an expensive house. The resident of that unit pays the same bus fare as the resident of the expensive house, and probably rides the bus more.

by Ben Ross on Mar 18, 2014 4:42 pm • linkreport

@ PM

It is nice to be so focused on the parking issue that you see shadows of it everywhere.

I never said that developers would create more affordable housing, so it was not everybody. I simply want there to be fewer cars clogging my streets and for developers to determine if the market will bear the cost.

by fongfong on Mar 18, 2014 5:36 pm • linkreport

A reduction in parking minimums for new developments will likely in some part be passed on, as will a reduction in property tax. They are not quite the same, as the reduction in parking minimums will impact specifically NEW development which will change supply. A reduction in property taxes will largely go to landlords of existing buildings. Imagine a world where the number of buildings was fixed - none of the tax reduction would be passed along (as none of a change in tax on land is passed along.)

Now new developments are impacted, and old developments filter up and down, so a property tax change should impact supply.

Funny how anti-smart growth folks are so sure filtering is a myth, yet believe property tax reductions are passed on to renters, even though filtering is a key economic mechanism that accounts for passing on (by making supply sensitive to owners profits)

by AWalkerInTheCity on Mar 18, 2014 5:43 pm • linkreport

MLD - I have the RideOn app. My issue is that for my trips (most often involving University Blvd, Colesville Road, Georgia Ave, Randolph Road), Metrobus routes overlap with RideOn routes, so I need to open two of them to see what bus is coming next, because the only RideOn app out there is the proprietary one.
If someone knows of a single android app that covers both, I'll buy you a beer on the day the Transit Center opens. ;-)

by Joe in SS on Mar 18, 2014 6:06 pm • linkreport

Joe in SS,

Try "The Transit App" (logo is a green shield with a twisty line) - it works in dozens of cities, and pipes in both WMATA and Ride On data in Real-Time! And it is free!

Best public transit app to me by far!

by A. P. on Mar 18, 2014 6:19 pm • linkreport

Thanks, A.P.!

by Joe in SS on Mar 18, 2014 7:28 pm • linkreport

Well, as someone sort of alluded to in comments, it makes sense that Montgomery County wouldn't prioritize transit, because its identity is so tied up in the idea of suburban automobility. And identity is tied up in the idea of expensive housing there, so it makes sense, especially in an election year, that the priority by an official up for election would be to diss transit.

Granted RideOn was created to move people to Metrorail stations without driving, and originally was more focused on that and getting subdivision residents--NOT POOR PEOPLE--to the stations.

Over time, more point to point routes were created that are less intertwined with moving people to Metrorail stations, at least in the same manner as when the system was first created.

As I have argued that Metro/WMATA needs to update and rebuild the regional consensus concerning commitment to transit given the 50 years almost since the WMATA Compact was created, maybe RideOn needs to do the same thing.

- http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com/2014/02/wmata-40th-anniversary-in-2016-as.html

(... not that WMATA is doing it)

Ironically considering the complaints, in the transit industry, RideOn is considered a best practice suburban transit system.

It would be interesting to see a peer review of the kind that SF (http://openbook.sfgov.org/webreports/details3.aspx?id=1718) and Seattle (http://www.seattle.gov/transportation/docs/tmp/briefingbook/SEATTLE%20TMP%205%20Peer%20Review.pdf) have done.

It would be a nice project for the Council Research Office to undertake.

2. Note that this makes me think more deeply about the resistance to bus rapid transit in some quarters in the County.

AND that a simultaneous effort on improving the RideOn transit system as it currently exists should have been/should be undertaken.

by Richard Layman on Mar 18, 2014 10:15 pm • linkreport

(When I worked for Baltimore County Planning, that year, the #1 transportation priority by the County Executive was to assist poorer people to acquire cars. The Red Line light rail was a lower priority.)

by Richard Layman on Mar 18, 2014 10:16 pm • linkreport

wrt AWITC comments -- I don't see how anyone could argue "filtering" is a myth, since as the concept of "ecological succession" it has been discussed in planning (first by the U of Chicago sociologists) since the 1920s. It was only started to be called filtering in the 1960s/1970s.

And yes, I agree with AWITC that it is very rare for property tax decreases if they happen, which is rare for commercial properties anyway, to be passed on to renters.

by Richard Layman on Mar 18, 2014 10:18 pm • linkreport

My experience with Ride-On is that MoCo runs it as a stepchild. On time performance is terrible on the lines I've used even in the middle of the day. It's lifeline service, but it doesn't fit the Tiffany image MoCo has of itself and its essential role for relatively powerless people guarantees that bus riders won't be well served. Sticking it to bus riders is the equivalent of what DC did to library users for decades--fewer hours of service and no maintenance on the buildings.

by Rich on Mar 18, 2014 10:23 pm • linkreport

Rich, I waited for 20 minutes at noon for a Ride-On to Friendship Heights. I couldn't even see one on the horizon, so, in order to make it to Georgetown on time for a meeting I gave p and drove.

You are exactly right that Ride-On has an economically more vulnerable constituency than drivers and homeowners.

Shame on the County trying to slip this one past us.

by Capt. Hilts on Mar 18, 2014 10:27 pm • linkreport

Looking at the bigger picture compared to all the other regional systems, Ride On does provide a far better level of service. I can think of at least three Ride On routes running 20 minute or better service in Mid Day. I don't think FFX, PG, or Dash have a single line between the three that runs such service. The only other line in the region that does is ART's 41.

Weekend service is far better in MoCo than it is in PG which lacks any "The Bus" service at all.

Equipment, though admittedly tattered to a good degree, is far more rugged than the sad cutaways operated by CMRT, and even ART.

And I don't see the hourly headways that are permissible by the service standards of agencies like FFX and DASH.

All things told, Ride On could certainly be better, but comparatively, runs the best service levels and spans of the bunch.

by A. P. on Mar 19, 2014 8:09 am • linkreport

This is a very unfair criticism. Leggett had no choice regarding the property tax. Did you miss this statement from the Washington Post:
"His budget, which now goes to the County Council, would cut the tax rate from $1.01 to 99.6 cents per $100 of assessed value, bringing the average annual property tax bill down $17. The reduction is a legal necessity: Without the trim, rising home assessments would result in Montgomery taking in more revenue than allowed by county law."
On the other hand, Ike wisely resisted calls to cut the energy tax, which is the county's only way to tax federal government workplaces. It is so easy to say to point to one part of the budget and say the money cut here is going some place else. But it undermines the credibility of this blog.

by Woody Brosnan on Mar 19, 2014 8:15 am • linkreport

I don't like Ike.

by Redline SOS on Mar 19, 2014 8:36 am • linkreport

Woody - Yes, the charter provision drove the tax cut. But it's grossly unfair to make bus riders pay for it by taking away money designated for bus service. Especially after so many complaints were heard about "raiding" the transportation trust fund.

Meanwhile the county still pursues expensive and destructive road-building projects, some of their cost paid for with current tax revenues and the rest paid for with future tax revenues.

by Ben Ross on Mar 19, 2014 9:13 am • linkreport

This was a decision in Montgomery County? I'm SHOCKED. shocked I say. There are a million potholes on the streets that need fixing, and that's what gov is supposed to work on and pay.

by asffa on Mar 19, 2014 9:16 am • linkreport

Woody, they're all line drives in the box score. The result of acts of omission or commission in this case, hang lower income taxpayers out to dry.

by Capt. Hilts on Mar 19, 2014 9:17 am • linkreport

Then why not say transit revenue will be used on roads or on schools or on more police? The school budget is going up $26 million over Maintenance of Effort. No, you wanted to imply that Leggett was deliberately looking for a way to cut property taxes so he raided transit funds. And that's simply not true. I agree with you that there are probably some unnecessary road projects in the budget. And if you want to identify a few and suggest shifting the money to bus service I am with you. But don't suggest that he could raise property taxes or not cut property taxes to cover the additional money for Ride-on because that's not the case.

by woody brosnan on Mar 19, 2014 9:24 am • linkreport

Montgomery's proposed budget takes transit funding and gives it to wealthy homeowners

The question for me is whether this forum, which is seeking monetary support, is going to be used for honest discussion or just cheap political rhetoric as evidenced by the headline above. First, as I've established, the property tax cut has nothing to do with transit funding. And of course the property tax cut applies to all homeowners, wealthy or not wealthy.
If you want to make the argument that transit funds are being shifted to roads and potholes do so. Let's have a discussion of Phil Andrews budget, which would cut the energy tax and cut schools while adding $12 million for roads and potholes.

by woody brosnan on Mar 19, 2014 10:42 am • linkreport

This blog is bull. Property taxes will continue to rise as they do every year because assessments rise. Mont Cty and the State are investing billions in transit. 2/3 of the recent priorities are going to transit projects. Please let's have some honest discussion of the facts. The budget went up 3.5% this time. Most of the rise is due to increased school funding. There is no tax break to homeowners. Ride On service could definitely be improved but let's stick to facts.

by JB on Mar 19, 2014 8:22 pm • linkreport

JB, it's the relative gains - and losses - that are important, here - not the absolute ones.

by Capt. Hilts on Mar 19, 2014 8:52 pm • linkreport

I'd like to echo @A.P.'s important point: It is disappointing that the proposal isn't to bolster funding for RideOn. If the county is all about creating a bus "rapid" transit system (quotes intentional, especially given some of the watering down of dedicated lanes and the like), one would expect them to at least beef up the non-rapid bus transit.

With that said, relative to Montgomery County, how many *tens* of millions of dollars are Fairfax and Prince George's, for example, devoting to lowering property taxes rather than improving transit? IMHO, *that* should be a GGW headline.

by EMD on Mar 19, 2014 11:39 pm • linkreport

Transit funding overall is increased 3 percent under Leggett's budget, mirroring the overall increase. Funding for Ride-On specifically goes from $98 million to $101.6 million with expanded hours for kids-ride-free and senior programs and 31 new buses to replace older ones. It may not be as much as advocates want but those are the facts, which are readily available on the executive's web site at: http://www.montgomerycountymd.gov/OMB/Resources/Files/omb/pdfs/FY15/psprec/transit.pdf

by woody brosnan on Mar 20, 2014 7:31 am • linkreport

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