Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Ike Leggett


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.


Bikeshare comes to Montgomery County

On the heels of its third anniversary, Capital Bikeshare makes a big expansion into Montgomery County. Local officials celebrated the first of 50 new stations that will open here today in Rockville with a large crowd of well-wishers.

Montgomery County opened its first Capital Bikeshare station today in Rockville. All photos by the author unless noted.

"It's no secret that the Washington area has the worst traffic," said County Executive Ike Leggett. "That's why Montgomery County is committed to increasing its transportation options . . . Bikeshare is another cost-effective option that can help reduce the need to drive, especially for short distances."

State delegate Al Carr, County Executive Ike Leggett, and County Councilmember Roger Berliner try out the new Bikeshare bikes.

According to Art Holmes, the county's director of transportation, 14 stations and 218 bikes will open today in Rockville, Shady Grove, Bethesda, Friendship Heights, Silver Spring, and Takoma Park, communities where cycling is most popular. Eventually, there will be 50 stations and 450 bikes. The county seal now appears on the bright red bikes along with the logos of DC, Arlington, and Alexandria, which already have Capital Bikeshare.

Map of where the new stations are in Montgomery County from CaBi's website.

Several local officials attended and spoke at the announcement, including county councilmembers, state delegate, and representatives from the Montgomery County Department of Transportation. Bike advocates, including the Washington Area Bicyclist Association were also there in force. Passers-by stopped to admire the bright red bikes and ask questions about the new service.

Passers-by admire the first of 50 new Bikeshare stations in Montgomery County.

The federally-funded expansion is one of the nation's first bikesharing projects in a suburban area. If it's successful, it could be an example for how to encourage cycling outside of large cities.

But first, county officials need to make area streets safer for bicyclists and pedestrians. Councilmember Valerie Ervin recently told WTOP she wants to fill gaps in the county's trail network and ban right turns on red.

At today's event, Councilmember Hans Riemer said he believes Capital Bikeshare will help Montgomery County attract businesses and younger residents who don't want to drive everywhere. "Every time you see a red bike," he said, "Recognize that we're moving forward."


Leggett tries again to defund Bethesda Metro entrance

In last year's county budget, Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett proposed delaying funding for a new entrance to the Bethesda Metro station. The County Council restored funding in last year's final budget, but the Leggett administration resubmitted a similar misguided proposal for this fiscal year.

The new Bethesda Metro entrance would be an elevator bank that connects with the southern end of the platform. Photo by Gautam Rishi on flickr.

The Bethesda Metro station was originally designed to accommodate a southern entrance. A bank of high-speed elevators would transport passengers to street level, like in Friendship Heights. When built, the Purple Line will also use the new elevators as both an entrance to its station and as a convenient direct transfer to and from the Red Line.

The county has always planned to finance this new entrance on its own, because it will benefit Red Line riders on the day it opens, Purple Line or no.

In addition to offering an alternative when the existing escalators are out of service, it will bring the station up to modern safety standards by providing a second entrance for emergency personnel and a second evacuation route in the event of an emergency.

Sadly, Maryland does not yet have the funds lined up for its portion of the Purple Line costs, and Leggett is citing potential Purple Line delays as a reason to postpone the Metro entrance as well. From the Bethesda Patch:

"Due to the current lack of state construction funding for these projects, this reduction is not likely to cause a delay in the project," read the county release announcing the CIP amendments.
This statement is very puzzling because County Executive Leggett has been an excellent advocate for increasing transportation revenue at the state level, teaming with Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker, both counties' state delegations, and other counties' delegations.

Governor O'Malley has made it clear that a significant piece of the increased transportation revenues would go towards constructing the Purple Line. One would think that the Leggett Administration would be more publicly optimistic about future state revenues, based on its own hard work.

Further, the Maryland MTA has already stated that construction on the entrance would have to begin by 2016 in order to meet a projected 2020 start of operations for the Purple Line. Last year's budget kept the project on schedule to break ground by 2016. Any delay would put the project too far behind schedule to be open when the Purple Line begins operation, if the Purple Line gets the funding it needs.

This proposal continues the pattern with this administration of trying to defund smart growth-oriented projects while proposing lavish spending on sprawl-oriented road projects.

When the County Council restored the Metro entrance funding during the 2012 budgeting process, it deferred some wasteful new road projects the Leggett administration has proposed. Those include building Montrose Parkway East, and widening Snouffer School Road and Goshen Road in Gaithersburg. It's unclear if the Gaithersburg area road widenings are linked to the M-83 "Zombie Road" proposal that MCDOT continues to study.

The County Executive's office now wants to defer the Metro funding, though for less time than in last year's proposal, and restore many of these same road projects.

Just like last year, the County Council can rein in the county Department of Transportation's least considered road-widening impulses. It's up to us to contact them and let them know that the electorate supports smart growth and economic development projects, such as the new Bethesda Metro entrance.


Clarksburg crosswalk would cost $27 million

Only in Clarksburg would it cost $27 million to get a marked crosswalk so that children can walk to school safely and conveniently. That's because the Montgomery County Department of Transportation refuses to install one until it spends $27 million on road construction.

Clarksburg strip mall. Photo by Mr. T in DC.

Clarksburg, Montgomery County's last master-planned development in the I-270 corridor, is an on-going planning headache. One reason is that the 1993 Master Plan envisoned Clarksburg as a "transit- and pedestrian-oriented town", but there is little to walk to and almost no transit.

12 years after construction began in Clarksburg, the planned shops and supermarket at Clarksburg Town Center are still vacant land. There will be no library in Clarksburg until after fiscal year 2018, if then, according to Montgomery County's Capital Improvement Plan .

While the residential part of Clarksburg's Cabin Branch development is proceeding, the future of the associated 2.4 million square feet of commercial development is uncertain since the Maryland Health Commission ended Adventist HealthCare's plans to open a hospital in Clarksburg.

Clarksburg's transit still consists of 2 weekday-only buses and a tiny MARC station 4-5 miles away.

Although the County Council recently put the next phase of Clarksburg development on hold, this was not because the Clarksburg built to date falls so far short of the 1993 Master Plan's promise. Instead, the County Council worried that construction would degrade the Ten Mile Creek watershed and further reduce water quality in WSSC's Little Seneca reservoir.

And earlier this year, the Montgomery County Department of Transportation (MCDOT) turned down a request from Clarksburg parents to mark a crosswalk at Stringtown Road and Observation Drive. Parents in the Gateway Commons development use the unmarked crosswalk to walk their children to the elementary school that is literally within sight of their homes.

The parents persisted, asking Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett to reverse MCDOT's decision. But last week, Leggett instead supported MCDOT's denial. Why?

Because, he explained in an e-mail, the county will not install a marked crosswalk at this intersection until the county has built a 2-mile, multi-lane, divided road (Observation Drive Extended) between Germantown and Clarksburg.

It's bad enough that Stringtown Road did not include a marked crosswalk when the road opened in 2007. After all, the Montgomery County Planning Board approved the site plan for the Gateway Commons development in 2003, and the elementary school has been there since 1909.

Did nobody think that people living on the southeast side of the road might want to walk to the school on the northwest side of the road? Was the road's $8.8 million budget too small to pay for a marked crosswalk?

But Leggett's explanation actually makes it worse. The Stringtown Road construction project did include curb cuts and pedestrian refuges at the intersection with Observation Drive. The parents assumed, reasonably, that the county had included these pedestrian facilities so that pedestrians could use them.

But this assumption was incorrect, Leggett's e-mail explained. Rather, the reason the Stringtown Road project included the pedestrian facilities was "to minimize the expense and operational impacts on the roadway when Observation Drive [Extended] is constructed".

Observation Drive Extended is not on the county's Capital Improvement Plan. But it is possible to get a rough estimate of its construction costs, if the county were to build the road today. The similar 1.2-mile extension of Father Hurley Boulevard in Germantown opened in 2011 and cost $10.9 million, or roughly $9 million per mile. So Observation Drive Extended might cost roughly $18 million.

$8.8 million for Stringtown Road plus $18 million for Observation Drive Extended adds up to $27 million that must be spent before parents and children, in a town planned as pedestrian-oriented, can cross at a marked crosswalk on their safe, convenient walk to school.

At that cost, it's no wonder that, as Leggett's e-mail said, "[t]he County simply does not have the resources to provide crossing guards or other control measures at every potential crossing location to make them as safe as possible for everyone who wishes to use them."

Instead, these parents will have to continue to choose between crossing safely at an inconvenient, marked crosswalk and crossing conveniently at an unsafe, unmarked crosswalk.

As Leggett's e-mail explains, "When in the judgment of our engineers and school transportation professionals it is better to compromise the convenience of a pedestrian...than to potentially compromise their safety, I will back that decision. Like them I believe that installing a marked crosswalk at this location may not improve the safety of those who wish to cross there."

But why must there be this trade-off between pedestrian convenience and pedestrian safety? Surely MCDOT is capable of designing a marked crosswalk at this intersection that would allow pedestrians to cross both conveniently and safely. Such a crosswalk would, however, compromise the convenience of drivers.

The Clarksburg Master Plan says that it will "carefully guide the growth of Clarksburg from a rural settlement into a transit- and pedestrian-oriented town". Ike Leggett says that he supports "mak[ing] our area more pedestrian-friendly". MCDOT says that the county supports improvements to "the walkability of our communities".

Why is it so hard to get Montgomery County to do what it says?


Montgomery County has changed. Has Doug Duncan?

Montgomery County's feeling nostalgic for former county executive Doug Duncan, who announced earlier this week that he'll run for a 4th term in 2014. While he presided over 12 years of prosperity and growth, it's worth asking whether he's prepared to guide a county that looks quite different than it did just a few years ago.

Doug Duncan in 2006. Photo by Tancread on Flickr.

Duncan's long list of accomplishments has made him popular among many residents, who proposed naming the Silver Spring Civic Building for him. Yet political commentators, like Josh Kurtz of Center Maryland and David Moon of Maryland Juice, note that Duncan hasn't won a competitive race since he first took office in 1994 and hasn't been politically active since his aborted run for governor in 2006.

More important is the possibility that Duncan, who pushed for growth in the county but staunchly opposed the Purple Line between Bethesda and Silver Spring, is no longer in tune with what Montgomery voters want.

Since 1994, the county has become more diverse, more urban and now faces greater social and economic issues. As a result, the traditional growth-vs-no growth debate that's driven Montgomery County politics is falling apart, presenting new challenges to Duncan or any of the other contenders for county executive.

When Duncan took office, the county was still predominantly white and still had a reputation for being what former Councilmember Rose Crenca called the "perfect suburbia," save for the occasional scandal. During his tenure, the county's population grew larger and more affluent.

Meanwhile, the county's budget nearly doubled as Duncan racked up a long list of accomplishments, including the revitalization of downtown Silver Spring. The main political rift in the county was between the business community, who naturally wanted more development and backed Duncan, and civic organizations like the Montgomery County Civic Federation, which sought less or no growth.

Today, whites are a minority, with substantial immigrant enclaves in places like Germantown that were farmland a generation ago. The county is largely built out and quickly urbanizing. Rockville Pike is now known as much for authentic Chinese food and skyscrapers as it is for big-box stores.

As this shift occurs, the old guard of anti-growth civic leaders are gradually being replaced by a new, diverse group of young adults and families, minorities and immigrants, that somewhat resembles the "coalition of the ascendant" that reelected President Obama. These groups are generally open to growth, especially if it provides much-needed jobs, affordable housing or other amenities.

That's because despite being one of the nation's wealthiest counties, Montgomery County is beginning to struggle. It has created no net jobs in 10 years even as Greater Washington has added jobs, putting the county at risk of falling behind Fairfax County and a newly ascendant DC. The county faces growing poverty and social issues, while dwindling tax revenues during the recession have resulted in an ongoing budget crisis.

Ike Leggett Speaks
Ike Leggett speaks at a Purple Line rally in 2009.

As a result, the pro-growth and no-growth coalitions are becoming more dynamic. In 1994, Duncan earned the support of Montgomery's business community by supporting the Intercounty Connector, which would support development on the fringes of the county, while opposing the Purple Line between Bethesda and Silver Spring, which he called "spending millions to go nowhere." He continued to fight the Purple Line as an administrator at the University of Maryland.

But today, it enjoys strong support from nearly all of the county's elected officials and a cross-section of business, environmental and civic groups, who all agree that the project can support a new generation of infill development, reduce traffic and pollution, and revitalize older neighborhoods.

Looking Back Towards Ellsworth
As the county becomes more diverse and more urban, there are new challenges and opportunities for elected officials.

Perhaps the biggest sign of how things have changed in recent years has been the tenure of County Executive Ike Leggett, who succeeded Duncan in 2006 and may run for a third term. Though Leggett ran on a slow-growth platform, he has tentatively (sometimes very tentatively) embraced a more urban future for the county.

Over the past 6 years, Leggett's administration has pushed an ambitious, if flawed plan for the redevelopment of downtown Wheaton, while his Smart Growth Initiative will relocate county facilities to make room for a new neighborhood at the Shady Grove Metro station. In an interview with Rockville Patch, he stressed the need for infill development that can grow the county's tax base.

At the same time, Leggett's administration has often held the county back, suggesting that an old-school Montgomery politician can only bend so far. He tried to strip funding for the Purple Line from this year's budget and spent most of 2011 promoting an controversial and ineffective youth curfew. Though he supports a countywide bus rapid transit network proposed by Councilmember Marc Elrich, Leggett and his Department of Transportation have been reluctant to do anything that would take road space away from drivers.

Shortly after Duncan was first elected, the Post gushed that "Montgomery County finally has a chief executive who looks as prosperous as Montgomery County." While the county may be ready to prosper again, Duncan's past record doesn't really fit where the county's going.

It remains to be seen whether he, or any of the other candidates for county executive, will be able to transcend the old debates over growth and move the county forward.


Montgomery builds BRT-hostile roads as it plans BRT

Montgomery County's transportation policy is descending toward inco­herence. Policymakers want to put dedicated Bus Rapid Transit lanes on the county's highways. Yet they continue to prioritize expensive projects that will increase car volumes on those same roads.

A prime example of the contradiction between these 2 policies is a planned underpass taking Randolph Road under Georgia Avenue, near Glenmont Metro. Construction is scheduled to begin in 2014.

Image from Maryland State Highway Administration.

Both Georgia and Randolph are part of all versions of the county's BRT proposal. But the underpass will get in the way of the future bus network. Buses on Randolph, unable to use a tunnel that gives them no place to stop, will have to slow down for a traffic light that cars can bypass.

To avoid the buses stopping in the turn lanes, the stops will have to be located on the far side of the light. Riders connecting to the other BRT line will have to double back on foot and wait for the light a second time.

Yet the county, which has already thrown $14 million of its own money at this project, urges the state to plow ahead with the underpass. It has not asked for a redesign to accommodate BRT. And, through its adequate public facilities ordinance, it blocked transit-oriented development around the Metro station until the underpass got funding.

Just this week, the County Council reaffirmed the adequate public facilities ordinance. It toned down some of the worst features, but the basic principle remains in place: it assumes that if only the county built the right road infrastructure, all traffic would flow freely. Almost a century of road building has proven that's not the case, but that truth hasn't yet penetrated into the policy.

Indeed, the two elected officials who initiated the county's turn toward BRT, Councilmember Marc Elrich and County Executive Ike Leggett, are also the strongest partisans for what Elrich calls "free-flowing highways." That's a contradiction, because if highways actually could flow freely, buses would move at full speed, and Bus Rapid Transit wouldn't be necessary.

In recent decades, the county has accomplished much while building rail transit and new roads at the same time. The Red Line has been a stunning success, and the Purple Line promises to match it. But rail lines are expensive and transportation budgets are getting ever tighter. Montgomery's leaders have chosen to de-emphasize further expansion of rail beyond the Purple Line.

The county switched its preference for the Corridor Cities Transitway from rail to bus and has found no room among its transportation priorities for the state's plan for all-day service on MARC. Many see the BRT network as a way for transit to keep growing in an era of fiscal stringency.

BRT simply won't work if we pretend that we're still in the 1950s and keep trying to move more cars at higher speeds (a strategy that is doomed to failure in any case). It requires rebuilding roads and neighborhoods for a more livable urban future, where people rank ahead of automobiles. Striving after two contradictory goals on the same roadways is a recipe for failure.


Wheaton's limits may also be its strength

On Tuesday, the Montgomery County Council unanimously turned down a plan by County Executive Ike Leggett to rebuild a portion of downtown Wheaton, favoring an alternate plan instead. Residents who supported Leggett's plan are frustrated at the defeat, but this wasn't the best path for redevelopment in Wheaton.

Photo by the author.

In recent months, Leggett and the council have disagreed on how to begin the redevelopment. Leggett proposed spending $42 million to build a new town square and a platform over the Wheaton Metro station for future development, while the County Council proposed spending $55 million to build the town square and offices for county agencies.

The council ended up voting for a a combination of both proposals, providing funds for a county office building and town square now and to study building the platform later.

The decision ends a long and often acrimonious debate over how to spark the redevelopment of downtown Wheaton. In February, Leggett's administration claimed that there wasn't enough money to pay for revitalization in Wheaton and a new Metro entrance in Bethesda, pitting supporters of both projects against each other.

When the council found funding for both projects, the conversation turned to the merits of Leggett's proposal. While County Council analyst Jacob Sesker wasn't opposed to building atop the Metro, he created the alternative proposals because he felt it wasn't feasible in the immediate future. Meanwhile, the Coalition for a Fair Redevelopment of Wheaton has expressed concerns about local businesses, calling for a more substantial town square or a community benefits agreement.

MetroPointe & Wheaton Station
A platform may be built atop the Wheaton Metro station, but not for a while.

These questions led to accusations that the council was being meddlesome and was opposed to making Wheaton better. After the vote on Tuesday, resident Henriot St. Gerard wrote a scathing blog post on Wheaton Patch calling it a "show of disrespect" to the community.

I understand that people in Wheaton are impatient for change. I grew up in East County and started blogging six years ago because I wanted to see the kind of amenities that residents of Rockville or Bethesda enjoy right in my own backyard. But I too have had to grapple with a few uncomfortable truths:

Jobs are concentrated on the west side of the county and will remain there for a long time.

In 2010, there were 506,000 jobs in Montgomery County, 70% of which are located along the I-270 corridor. Bethesda alone has 87,000 jobs, more than Silver Spring, White Oak and Wheaton combined. Plans for additional employment growth in White Flint, the Great Seneca Science Corridor, and Germantown ensures that the west side will continue to remain the county's job center.

Companies located in East County aren't sticking around.

Last year, defense contractor BAE Systems moved a branch office from Aspen Hill to Rockville. The empty building added to an already high vacancy rate in the Kensington-Wheaton area, where nearly a quarter of all office space is empty, compared to just 11 percent countywide. Lee Development Group, which owns the building, will replace it with a Walmart because they concluded that the area was "a retail destination, not an office center."

Companies already located on the west side aren't interested in going east.

The county is planning to create a research and development center in East County called the White Oak Science Gateway around the Food and Drug Administration's new campus. Though the area enjoys the lowest office vacancy rate in the county, with just 6 percent of offices sitting empty, it's unclear who will fill them.

A recent report from planning consultants surveyed research and development firms located at the county's existing Life Sciences Center in Gaithersburg and found that wouldn't move to White Oak because they appreciate the proximity to other R&D firms along the I-270 corridor.

Officials are more concerned about keeping jobs in the county than where they specifically end up.

In addition to planning for future job growth on the west side, the county also gave subsidies to one company in exchange for moving there. Next year, Choice Hotels will move their headquarters from Silver Spring to Rockville with $4.3 million in loans and grants from the county, state and City of Rockville and additional tax credits.

Choice Hotels wanted to be closer to a Metro station, so having them move to Wheaton would've met both their needs and Leggett's goals. But after seeing firms like Hilton Hotels and Northrup Grumman pass up Montgomery County for Northern Virginia, county leaders were surely relieved that they decided to stay here at all.

Concept rendering of downtown Wheaton from a 2004 charrette.

Wheaton has many strengths: stable neighborhoods, diverse population, and a compact downtown well-served by both transit and major roads. But as a potential job center, it competes with larger and more established places like downtown Bethesda, the I-270 corridor, and others throughout Greater Washington. That's why earlier recommen­da­tions for redeveloping Wheaton, both from the public and planning experts, focused on housing, retail and entertainment in the short term, with offices coming later if demand warrants it.

Residents are both eager and worried that redevelopment will turn Wheaton into a place like Silver Spring or Bethesda, but we shouldn't be limited to those examples. Skeptics of Leggett's proposal don't lack faith in Wheaton's potential. They recognize that Wheaton's constraints and strengths, if properly harnessed, will let it grow into something else entirely.

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