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Politics


ACT scores Montgomery County candidates on transit and smart growth

Where do candidates in Montgomery County and statewide in Maryland stand on the Purple Line, pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly road designs, Bus Rapid Transit, M-83 and adding housing? A new scorecard by the Action Committee for Transit helps shed light on these issues.


Scorecard for countywide offices.

Maryland voters will be choosing nominees in a primary on June 24th. ACT asked candidates for Montgomery County Council and County Executive, state delegate from Montgomery County, and governor about these issues. ACT then rated the candidates based on their voting records, questionnaire answers, records in office (especially important for candidates who have held executive offices), and public statements.


Scorecard for County Council district races.


Scorecard for candidates for governor.

Here is more detail about the questions ACT asked, and why.

1. Do you support funding and advancing the Purple Line to groundbreaking as described in the Locally Preferred Alternative and the Environmental Impact Statement without qualification?

In the quarter-century and more that activists have worked for the Purple Line, plenty of politicians and citizens have claimed to support the Purple Line. However, that support has sometimes come with qualifications that would make the Purple Line either prohibitively expensive to build or ineffective.

There are those who support the Purple Line only if it were built as a heavy rail line or only if it were bus rapid transit. Some public officials have claimed to be for the Purple Line but then pushed for alternative routes that were impractical or wildly expensive. Others have said they supported the project but then added qualifications that neatly dovetailed with the arguments opponents were making against it.

The Locally Preferred Alternative Governor Martin O'Malley and the County Council selected for the Purple Line includes an at-grade light rail line with a trail alongside it on the Georgetown Branch right of way between Bethesda and Silver Spring.

Although the Purple Line is widely considered a done deal, the fact remains that any public works project this large can falter. The Purple Line has uniquely well-funded and well-connected opponents. As activists, our job is to consistently advocate for the Purple Line until the trains are running and the trail is full of bikers and hikers. ACT only gave candidates pluses if they supported the Purple Line without any qualification.

2. Would you support more transit, pedestrian, and bicycle-friendly road design in our school zones and urban centers even if it slows drivers down?

Many officials claim they want safer and more convenient roads for pedestrians and cyclists, but advocates have consistently found that support vanishes if any design changes would lower speed limits or otherwise inconvenience car traffic. It's easy to support pedestrian and bicycle friendly road design; it is very hard to support it when it requires slowing drivers down. Sadly, this is true even of school zones.

For this question, ACT gave pluses only if candidates were willing to support complete streets policies even when a change might slow down some drivers.

3. Do you support changing existing traffic lanes to dedicated bus lanes for BRT?

The basic idea of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) is that the most efficient use of road space is for those vehicles that carry many passengers. When lanes are reserved for exclusive use by buses, a road can carry more people faster. Stranding buses in the same congested traffic as cars takes the "rapid" out of Bus Rapid Transit; effective BRT requires dedicated lanes for buses.

Unfortunately, if implemented improperly, this gives highway builders an opportunity to further widen roads for extra bus lanes. In Montgomery County, the temptation exists for politicians to support dedicated bus lanes in the upcounty by widening roads, while opposing any bus lanes in the downcounty. That would mollify those who can't imagine taking lanes away from cars. It is easy for a candidate to support generic BRT; it is harder for a candidate to support changing some existing car lanes to bus-only lanes.

The BRT plan approved by the County Council last fall does not rule out widening roads to create dedicated bus lanes, and includes several chances for residents to delay or stop repurposing car lanes to bus only lanes. Advocates must continue to pressure the County Council to make sure Montgomery County gets the rapid Bus Rapid Transit system it needs.

ACT specifically asked candidates if they support changing existing traffic lanes to dedicated bus lanes, and only gave candidates a plus if they supported that.

4. Will you support stopping all spending on the M83 highway?

M83 is an environmentally destructive highway that would run from Montgomery Village to Clarksburg and cost the county at least $350 million to build. It was put in the master plans over 50 years ago, before major modern environmental laws existed.

To be sure candidates opposed it, we asked if they would support stopping all spending on M83. The question covered money from both the capital budget and operating budget, as well as any money to study it further.

The questionnaire answers are the first time all at-large county council Democratic candidates stated their opposition to any further spending on the M83 highway, marking an important turning point in the fight against the "zombie" highway.

5. How would you increase the housing supply in our urban centers?

For transit to work, it has to be where people can use it: near their homes. And if more people live near transit, then more people can use it. Therefore ACT has consistently supported development in urban areas like downtown Silver Spring and Bethesda.

In areas like these, politicians who support this sort of development frequently take a lot of criticism from people who don't want any new development whatsoever, and who feel it threatens the character of single-family neighborhoods.

Two recent projects, the Chelsea Heights townhouse development in Silver Spring and the Chevy Chase Lake plan, have typified this debate in the downcounty. ACT considered candidates' statements on those two development projects when rating them on this issue.

Many candidates chose to interpret this question as one about affordable housing programs, which misses the point. The intense market demand for transit-accessible housing means that less affluent residents will inevitably get squeezed out unless we greatly increase the supply. To ensure that housing near Metro does not become a luxury good, we must promote construction of transit-accessible residences at all price levels, including high-end and middle-income housing as well as subsidized housing.

6. Would you support a 2nd road crossing of the Potomac?

At the moment, there are no plans for a second highway crossing over the Potomac which would make an "Outer Beltway." However, some Virginia advocacy groups regularly bring the idea up at Council of Governments meetings, and there are Marylanders who are very interested. The highway lobby in both states is very supportive.

A second road bridge would invite more highway-building at the expense of funds for transit. Although the issue is currently dormant, it might become active in the future and so the ACT board wanted to know what politicians would say about it. It also seemed to be a good opportunity to find out candidates' general attitudes towards highway building and sprawl development.

7. Do you support including the 3rd track needed to allow all-day MARC service?

Right now MARC only runs a few times a day between Martinsburg, Frederick and DC. MARC runs on CSX tracks, and CSX uses those tracks for its own trains, limiting MARC service. For MARC to run more frequently, it needs a third track.


Scorecard for state senator and delegate.

"Why did my candidate get a minus when their questionnaire answers are perfectly correct?"

Some candidates answered "yes", and then followed that with an answer that made it clear they didn't get it. For example, an imaginary candidate who responded to the M83 question by saying "Yes, there should be no further spending on M83. The money should go to a highway that runs from my house to I-270," would receive a minus because they do support building more highways in our county. For the record, no candidate said any such thing.

Candidates who served in executive offices, such as the County Executive, were evaluated on their records in office as well as their public statements, voting records and questionnaire answers.

There have been a considerable number of candidate forums and other opportunities to hear candidates speak. ACT board members have attended as many as possible, not just because we are political junkies in need of help, but because we wanted to see if candidates were consistent in their positions.

We found that some candidates were inconsistent in addition to just not being clear. If a candidate's statements at a public event conflicted with the answer he or she gave on the questionnaire, that factored into the rating. The questions were deliberately written using very specific language to see who would go beyond generalities and commit to a position that might be unpopular.

Candidates running unopposed in primaries were not rated. However, their answers to the questionnaires, along with those of all the other candidates, are posted in full on the ACT website.

Politics


Wells will not run for DC Council at-large seat; Elissa Silverman declares her candidacy

DC Councilmember Tommy Wells (Ward 6) will put to rest a long period of speculation today and announce he will not run for an at-large seat on the DC Council, GGW has learned. In addition, Elissa Silverman is filing papers this afternoon to run for the seat.


Photo by Tommy Wells on Flickr.

Silverman previously ran in the 2013 special election which was won by Anita Bonds. Silverman placed second in a field which split votes among multiple self-described "progressive" challengers to Bonds, who had been appointed as interim councilmember when Phil Mendelson moved up to chairman.

Wells ran for mayor in the April 1 primary. While he was one of four councilmembers running for mayor, he was the only one up for reelection in the same year, and thus had to give up his seat to seek higher office. Meanwhile, Independent David Catania will also not seek reelection in November to run for mayor against Democratic nominee Muriel Bowser. Wells had considered running for Catania's seat to remain on the council.

Wells confirmed via phone that he has decided not to run. In a statement, he said,

The Council needs an infusion of fresh leadership, and I need to apply my Council experience to new challenges. While it takes time for newly elected council members to learn the ropes, once they do, they bring fresh energy and perspective that more than compensates for time spent on the learning curve. They are eager to get to work on fulfilling their promises, testing new ideas, and addressing the very issues that inspired them to run for officeand won them the votes of their constituents.

I am proud of what I have accomplished during my two terms as the Ward 6 Councilmember. My service has brought action, advocacy, and innovation to our city. I passed a bag fee that has dramatically reduced pollution and funded the cleanup of the Anacostia River; championed and secured funding for expanded Circulator bus lines and a streetcar system that will connect underserved DC neighborhoods to jobs and city amenities; advanced social justice reforms including the decriminalization of marijuana possession and a minimum wage increase; and worked with Ward 6 residents to make our elementary schools the envy of our city.

Wells said he is not publicly endorsing anyone at this time. However, the timing of his announcement on the same day as Silverman's move certainly raises questions about whether the timing is more than coincidental.

Mindful of the vote-splitting from past elections and given that Wells and Silverman share many ideological views (and likely voter bases), it is likely that Silverman did not want to file if Wells were running, and also likely that she discussed the possibility with Wells before making a decision.

Many other people have voiced some level of interest in running for the seat, including current Ward 7 member Yvette Alexander. Eugene Puryear won a contested primary for the Statehood Green nomination for the seat.

This post has been updated with additional information.

Budget


Arlington can't forget what made it what it is

It's a truism in politics that if you repeat a statement often enough, people will believe it, regardless of whether it's true. In Arlington, a cohort of commentators and activists has been chanting that the County Board is full of profligate spenders. Now that claim has started to have currency in county politics, even though it's grounded in little at all.


Historic photo of Rosslyn via Arlington Fire Journal.

Fifty years ago, Arlington was an aging suburb that progress had passed by on the way to greener pastures in Fairfax County. Outdated retail strips, struggling businesses and a declining population portended a bleak future. State and federal planners saw Arlington mostly as space to be traversed between home and work, and they proposed cutting up its neighborhoods for commuter roads.

County residents and leaders did not respond to this challenge by spending as little as possible in the vain hope that doing so would attract people and economic growth. Instead, they campaigned to build an expensive Metrorail subway and put it under Wilson Boulevard, with the goal of transforming it from a tired suburban strip into a new downtown. They planned walkable centers with more housing, jobs and retail, plus new streets and sidewalks.

Continue reading my latest op-ed in the Washington Post.

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Politics


Two Virginia candidates want a referendum on the Columbia Pike streetcar. That is pointless and possibly destructive.

Two Virginia political candidates have called for a voter referendum on the Columbia Pike streetcar. This is a bad idea.


Photo by wagaboodlemum on Flickr.

Alan Howze, one of the two, is running for Arlington County Board in November's special election. He just lost in a relatively low-turnout special election against John Vihstadt, who made the streetcar one of his main issues. The other is Patrick Hope, one of ten candidates vying for the Democratic nomination to succeed retiring US Representative Jim Moran.

But a referendum on the Columbia Pike streetcar is unecessary both practially and legally. It wouldn't change the status of the project in any material way and would just add extra time and expense to a process that has already been clear and democratic.

Debate is over for the streetcar

There is not much left to discuss about the relative merits of a streetcar versus its alternatives. In July 2012, the county board chose the streetcar after a thorough analysis of alternatives. This concluded a process that began in the 1980's and started considering transit options in 2004.

After the announcement, those who insisted that bus-only options could generate the same return for less cost challenged the decision. In response, the county commissioned another study by an independent firm. The results echoed the previous analysis that the streetcar is the best option for Columbia Pike.

When the facts are this clear, a prolonged campaign on the merits of a streetcar will not reveal anything new about the project. However, there would be plenty of opportunity for misinformation to spread widely and affect voters on election day.

This tactic doesn't make sense for streetcar supporters

It's understandable for opponents of a project to seek to delay implementation. They don't want to see something built and hope that a delay will give them more time to persuade people of their arguments or add time and expense to a project that will make it look worse than it is. We have seen this in DC, where delays to the zoning update have just added more time to a process and just watered down the changes more and more.

But a referendum that would just lengthen the process and muddy the waters doesn't make sense coming from project proponents like Howze or Delegate Hope. At best, the referendum would confirm the project is popular but delay the actual project. At worst, it would give ammunition to opponents and introduce further delays as political fights continue.

A referendum would also let opponents divert the argument away from facts. By just saying, "Let the voters decide," they would deflect any heat about false facts or mistruths they have spread about other options for the corridor.

Results would be meaningless anyway

In Virginia, a referendum is required when a local government wants to sell bonds. But neither Arlington nor Fairfax county plans to fund the streetcar with bonds. An "advisory" referendum would not have any material effect on the project. Opponents could have petitioned for a binding referendum, but if they thought they had the numbers for such a petition, they would have done it long ago.

Moreover, to hold any non-bond-related referendum, the counties would need permission from the General Assembly in Richmond. That means another layer of government to wade through for a local project that won't use any significant state funds.

Northern Virginia already has enough problems getting the state to give it control over specific regional issues. It doesn't make sense to punt this issue back to Richmond for something they never had to be involved with in the first place.

Is it just politics?

Supporters, including Howze himself, already argue that even if unpopular now, the streetcar will ultimately prove popular, as Metro and Capital Bikeshare, and other county transportation decisions are today. It's good that these candidates feel confident enough in the project that they think it can stand up to a direct electoral challenge. But there's no need to do so, the project is good, and the process has been clear.

So why hold a referendum? Hope might be seeking to stand out in a crowded field and perhaps draw some votes from streetcar opponents while remaining a supporter of the streetcar.

Howze seems to be trying to have it both ways on the streetcar: continue to appeal to voters who support it, but also give opponents less reason to work against his election. Howze started out his nomination campaign equivocating on the streetcar, and only later came out as a strong supporter.

Meanwhile, Vihstadt was able to bring together blocs of voters, often who opposed a particular county project. They were more motivated to turn out, especially in a special election. Howze may have a greater advantage in November when many voters might already be at the polls and would pick a Democrat purely based on party identification, but he also seems to be trying to hedge his bets by running to the middle on issues.

Instead, Howze, already on the defensive after losing last month's special election, should find ways to attract more pro-streetcar voters in the regular election in November. That would provide far more security for the project than trying to bet on its popularity via a referendum that ultimately wouldn't matter.

Politics


In November, "concern" won’t cut it for Bowser

Muriel Bowser has won the Democratic nomination for DC mayor. Do you know what she stands for?


Photo by weeviraporn on Flickr.

Bowser, who represents Ward 4 on the DC Council, has won what's typically the District's highest-profile race while generally minimizing the amount of discussion on her vision for the city. Sure, she supports better education, jobs, lower crime, affordable housing and a functional government. But every other candidate in the primary backed those things, too.

Bowser was quite adept at citing facts and figures but also showed a real talent for framing issues in a way that sounded good to everyone. She generally praised many ideas in the abstract but remained noncommittal as they became concrete.

Continue reading my latest op-ed in the Washington Post.

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Politics


DC's staggered elections give a random half of politicians an edge for higher office. That's a problem.

The system of elections in the District of Columbia gives a big advantage to councilmembers who represent half of the wards over those elected from the other half. This discourages good councilmembers from running for mayor or council chair.


Staggered lane number image from Shutterstock.

Half the council seats, for wards 1, 3, 5, and 6 and two of the at-large seats, come up for election in the same years as the mayor and council chair (such as this year). The other half, wards 2, 4, 7, and 8 and the other two at-large seats, run in the even-numbered years in between (such as 2012 and 2016).

This means councilmembers holding one of the mayoral/chair election cycle seats must choose between running for re-election or trying for higher office. Meanwhile, their counterparts in the other half of the seats can avoid taking risks and run for chair or mayor without giving up their seats.

Since half of all councilmembers must vacate their seats to run for mayor or council chair, the mayoral system dissuades some of the city's most experienced and productive leaders from running for DC's top government posts. The data show that this is indeed happening.

Since DC home rule was enacted in 1973, those in off-mayoral/chair seats have run for council chair 4 times and for mayor 17 times. Conversely, those in mayoral/chair election cycle seats have run for council chair 3 times and for mayor 6 times (and 4 of which were incumbent council chairs).

If this continues then one can expect more candidatesand more mayorsfrom Wards 2, 4, 7 and 8, thus giving an undue advantage to councilmembers and their constituents from those wards. Indeed, all three DC mayors elected with prior council experience (four if you count Marion Barry twice) came from one of those wards, and only Arrington Dixon and Linda Cropp have ascended from off-cycle seats to chair. Even Cropp is a particular exception as she won during a special election, and thus her council seat wasn't at risk.

What can be done?

DC could extend council seats to 6-year terms and have councilmembers alternate running between mayoral and non-mayoral elections. Or, there could be separate primaries for chair and mayor, similar to what we do for presidential elections.

Even better, we can follow the federal model and let people stand for two offices at once, as Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan did during the 2012 election while running for vice president. Or, perhaps DC rearranges the election calendar so all council seats come up for election in council-only elections, while the chair and mayor have their own elections.

DC should explore all options to ensure its election calendar and political circumstance doesn't discourage quality candidates. The current system is unfair to half the city. Of all places, the nation's capital needs a system that encourages its political talent to seek higher office and is fair to all its voters.

Politics


For Arlington County Board: Alan Howze

Greater Greater Washington endorsed Alan Howze for Arlington County Board in the recent Democratic caucus. He is still the best candidate in what is shaping up to be a very competitive special election April 8.


Image from the candidate website.

Howze strongly supports Arlington's streetcar plans, investment in transit, and bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. He deeply understands the connection between land use and transportation, between density and affordable housing.

While the streetcar is not the only issue in Arlington, it is the main focus of this campaign. Howze wrote a convincing argument in Arlington Streetcar Now's questionnaire explaining how streetcar is an investment that will pay dividends and support other county projects, rather than just another desirable amenity.

The recent return on investment study shows clear economic benefits for the streetcar versus the "enhanced bus" alternatives that streetcar opponents have been pushing. That has not stopped a contingent of dedicated opponents from rallying behind Howze opponent John Vihstadt, who is a member of the anti-streetcar group AST.

Vihstadt is trying to win with a coalition of streetcar opponents, residents upset about some other specific county initiative, and those who oppose county spending in general, because much of it doesn't benefit them directly. He has been trying to paint the current county board as profligate spenders, when in fact investing in projects that make the county better during times of strong budgets is a wise move.

Janet Murphy, an Independent Green, agrees very strongly with our views on many issues, but is not running a significant campaign and has raised virtually no money. Stephen W.C. Holbrook's candidacy is also marginal and he is running essentially on one issue, against a homeless shelter in the Courthouse area.

This election will likely draw very low turnout. In such a strongly Democratic county, the Democratic candidate would be the overwhelming favorite in a November election, but many Arlington residents are not paying very close attention to the issues or don't even know there is an election. Vihstadt may be able to assemble enough angry and motivated voters with his platform that opposes the streetcar and other popular county initiatives.

It is very important for Arlington voters to participate on April 8 and we urge them to support Alan Howze.

This is the official endorsement of Greater Greater Washington. To determine this endorsement, regular contributors who live in Arlington discussed the race and reached a consensus about the endorsement.

Politics


If you live in DC, vote Tuesday!

Tuesday, April 1 is the primary election in DC. If you live in DC and haven't voted early, go vote! If you're not registered, DC offers same-day registration.


Photo by Paul on Flickr.

In the Democratic primary, Greater Greater Washington has endorsed the following candidates. In some races, we didn't make an official endorsement where there wasn't clear consensus among our contributors and editors, but we provided insight into our possibly varied thinking.

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