Gaithersburg road problem highlights area’s lack of cooperation, leadership

Robert McCartney
Columnist April 18, 2012

Gaithersburg city official Tom Lonergan crossed the Potomac on Tuesday in the hope of finding a regional solution to a community problem. He came away disappointed, and his experience highlighted how our area is hampered by weak cooperation and a shortage of leadership even in the face of well-known, common challenges.

Lonergan is Gaithersburg’s economic development director. The city in central Montgomery County has been trying for nearly a decade to get $140 million for its top infrastructure priority: building a highway interchange for Watkins Mill Road at Interstate 270.

Robert McCartney’s column on local issues appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Post’s Metro section. View Archive

The project is critical to relieving severe traffic on nearby roads, where the state already lists an intersection as failing. Opening the interchange also would trigger a major spurt of residential and commercial construction that would create jobs.

Looking for funds anyplace he could find them, Lonergan went to Arlington on Tuesday for a high-level forum on how an innovative financing mechanism — government-backed infrastructure banks — might raise money for projects such as his.

The discussion, co-sponsored by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments and other prominent regional groups, could hardly have been more timely. The Maryland and Virginia state legislatures both balked in their recent annual sessions at raising taxes or other revenue to replenish chronically depleted state transportation funds.

The forum, at George Mason University’s School of Public Policy, was designed largely to build public support for a regional bank to address transportation and water system needs that the states are neglecting. A bank would help raise the many billions of dollars that the Washington area will require in coming years to repair or replace aged roads, bridges, transit systems, water mains and sewer lines.

The basic idea is to create a bank with a relatively small amount of government money, raised from the District and surrounding suburbs. Then the bank would issue bonds to borrow much larger sums from the private sector, to be repaid with streams of revenue from tolls and water-use fees.

“If they all pooled their bonding capacity, then there might be a good fund,” said Richard Suisman, chairman of Our Nation’s Capital, the advocacy group that originally proposed the forum. “If the two states worked together, and with the District, they could solve some of these problems instead of fighting it out on their own turf.”

But the speeches and discussions made clear that it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to set up such a bank given the myriad rivalries that divide our region.

It would be hard enough to get the District and the nearby suburbs to cooperate, speakers said. But it was even less likely that the state governments in Annapolis and Richmond would permit local jurisdictions to go their own ways to work on a regional approach.

The Maryland and Virginia state governments depend so much on tax monies drained from our area — the economic engine for both states – that they’re loath to encourage us to keep more for ourselves.

“I doubt if they’ll give money to a body that’s not accountable to them in some way,” said Jonathan Gifford, associate dean for research at George Mason’s public policy school. “There is capital available [in the private sector], but do we have the institutional capacity to take advantage of it?”

Lonergan concluded that a regional bank wasn’t an answer to Gaithersburg’s needs, partly because he couldn’t set up a toll booth to help repay bonds floated for a Watkins Mill Road interchange. In addition, he was skeptical that such a bank could be created in the first place, because of competition within the region.

“It would be incredibly unfortunate if parochial politics and jurisdictional boundaries prevented us” from doing it, Lonergan said. However, he said, “given the complexities of two states and the District pooling and competing for relatively limited resources, I’m not sure how likely it is to happen.”

So, what to do? Several speakers emphasized the need to hear more support for regional cooperation from top area businessmen, elected officials and other civic leaders. At present, the nonprofit community is shouldering too much of the task.

“Academics and think tanks and nonprofits are good, but we’re missing some serious top-level leadership. Building a leadership coalition of that ilk has got to be one of our priorities,” Suisman said.

Are you listening, Washington area leaders? Gaithersburg and scores of other communities need more help from the regional level to solve troubles at the grass roots.

I discuss local issues at 8:51 a.m. Friday on WAMU (88.5 FM). For other columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.

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