Express lanes, high-speed Internet proposed for Montgomery County

April 7, 2014

Express lanes for chronically congested Interstate 270 and ultra-fast Internet speeds for Montgomery residents are among the proposals in a new long-term policy agenda released by county executive candidate Doug Duncan.

The 30-page document, called “Leadership in Action,” represents Duncan’s effort to give a forward tilt to a campaign conversation that to date has been dominated by disputes over old budget decisions and obscure political maneuvering in Annapolis.

“Instead of leading the way forward, we’re drifting,” Duncan wrote in the preface to the booklet.

As with many campaign-
season manifestos, Duncan’s is light on details. It is also heavy on broad goals that are already being pursued by incumbent County Executive Isiah Leggett, who Duncan will face in the June Democratic primary. Those goals include the closure of the achievement gap in Montgomery public schools, new mass transit projects, expansion of affordable housing and an “open data” program to increase government transparency.

Duncan’s blueprint mentions virtually nothing about the cost of his proposed initiatives, which also include the creation of a graduate research center for applied sciences and a revitalization of Wheaton. There is also no indication of how the ideas would be financed, and the plan calls for eliminating the county’s 2010 tax increase on residential and commercial energy use, projected to yield $92 million in revenue next year.

Duncan said Monday that the first step is to spark public discussion, then deal with cost.

“The first thing is you need to throw out ideas and build public support for them,” he said.

The former three-term county executive, who often chides Leggett, his successor, for an overly deliberative leadership style that he calls “paralysis by analysis,” promises some analyses of his own:

●A task force to study how Montgomery can better serve children and adults with special needs.

●To begin improving the county’s ability to attract jobs, he envisions a “strategic, competitive analysis” of all taxes, fees and regulations.

●All county buildings would be studied to determine the feasibility of retrofitting them with environmentally sustainable features such as green roofs and pervious concrete.

Scott Goldberg, Leggett’s campaign manager, dismissed the document as “a warmed-over cut-and-paste job.”

“Ike Leggett has either already done most of these things, or they are in the works,” Goldberg said.

To improve the I-270 corridor, Duncan proposes a public-private partnership similar to one the state is pursuing to build and operate the light-rail Purple Line from New Carrollton to Bethesda. Revenues from express lanes would leverage private investment and help finance the Corridor Cities Transitway (CCT), another light rail project planned for I-270.

Council member Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville) the other Democratic primary contender, said that Montgomery residents can’t wait the many years it would take to widen I-270, and that work on the CCT needs to begin as soon as possible.

The widening of I-270 has been under discussion for years. In 2009, Andrews proposed two reversible lanes from Shady Grove to the Frederick County line that would run southbound in the morning and northbound in the evening. Andrews and Leggett co-signed a letter proposing the idea to the state.

A proposal to add four express lanes was estimated to cost more than $4 billion in 2009, a price tag that would now be significantly higher.

Critics at the time said that the widening scenarios would only result in increased traffic — perhaps in the form of more super-commuters from West Virginia and Pennsylvania — creating traffic congestion on a grander scale.

Duncan said that his plan for gigabit Internet speeds — meaning 1 billion bits per second, or 100 times the average speed — would enhance the county’s economic competitiveness and improve health care and public safety.

Several cities, including Kansas City, Chattanooga, Tenn., and Burlington, Vt., have started to implement gigabit Internet speeds. The plans have varied. In Kansas City, Google introduced gigabit broadband service. In Chattanooga, it was offered through the city’s public electric utility.

Duncan’s blueprint is vague on how he would execute the idea, saying only that the county “must work with Internet providers” to achieve the enhanced speeds.

County officials said they are already working on the idea, starting with the Great Seneca Science Corridor in Gaithersburg, home to a cluster of advanced tech and life sciences companies.

But bringing accelerated Internet into the homes of county residents would require significant regulatory changes and major partnerships with the county’s two providers, Verizon and Comcast, or a relationship with a new entrant into the local market.

Blair Levin, a former senior Federal Communications Commission official who headed up the agency’s Omnibus Broadband Initiative, said Duncan’s idea is the right one to help grow the county’s economy.

“Every part of the economy is being transformed by information exchange,” said Levin, who lives in the county and is a fellow with the Aspen Institute’s Communications and Society Program. The better, faster and cheaper transmission becomes, Levin said, “the more we will have a competitive advantage.”

Bill Turque, who covers Montgomery County government and politics, has spent more than thirty years as a reporter and editor for The Washington Post, Newsweek, the Dallas Times Herald and The Kansas City Star.
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