Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan yesterday promised that the proceeds from a raft of proposed tax increases would go into a special fund that could be used only for transportation projects.
As he works to muster support for a 3-cent increase in the property tax rate, Duncan (D) said he wants to avoid a repeat of "the concerns we saw in Northern Virginia," where voters refused to approve increasing the sales tax rate, in part out of fear that the money would be diverted away from transportation initiatives.
"I want to guarantee that new revenue is earmarked for transportation projects and programs," Duncan said.
At a Rockville news conference, he asked the County Council to support his plans for $44 million in new projects, including the purchase of 14 Ride On buses and the expansion of roads in Germantown, Rockville and Gaithersburg.
Council President Michael L. Subin (D-At Large) stood at Duncan's side and pledged cooperation, a reminder to some that Duncan now holds significantly more sway with the council.
Ending gridlock was the theme of Duncan's recent reelection campaign and of his effort to stack the council with allies. The election left him with enough votes on the council to reverse opposition to such major road projects as the intercounty connector, a proposed highway link between Interstates 95 and 270.
Subin said council members will work enthusiastically with Duncan: "I think moving ahead on this is clearly going to be welcome at this point."
Council members have not committed, however, to Duncan's plans for financing the projects. He proposes raising $27 million next year by increasing the property tax rate by 3 cents per $100 of assessed value, costing homeowners an average of $85 more annually. In some quarters, there remains opposition to components of Duncan's package, including the heavy dependence on road projects as the solution to gridlock.
"Unfortunately, there's now an imbalance on the council, with the majority wanting to put new roads through the northern and western part of the county," said Dan Tuten, treasurer of the Neighbors for a Better Montgomery political action committee, which raised $68,000 to fight Duncan's allies on the council. "All that will do is open new areas to development and induce more traffic."
Meanwhile, in Annapolis, Duncan has started working with lawmakers to get a large chunk of the funding needed to pay for the effort. He said that Del. William A. Bronrott (D-Montgomery) would be introducing legislation that would allow the county to collect a share of vehicle registration fees. House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Sheila Ellis Hixson (D-Montgomery) will sponsor a 10-cent-a-gallon increase in the state's gas tax, he said.
The county's share of money raised by those measures, should they pass, would also be locked into the local transportation fund, Duncan said.
State and federal funds will also be needed for the two largest components of Duncan's 10-year, $10 billion "Go Montgomery" program: the intercounty connector and a proposed Purple Line train that crosses Montgomery and Prince George's counties.
Duncan has discussed both projects with Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), and he held a brief conversation Friday with Ehrlich's choice for transportation secretary, Howard County Del. Robert L. Flanagan (R). Duncan faces significant obstacles in accumulating the revenue he will need. Ehrlich has said that even a 5-cent increase in the gas tax rate is unlikely this year.
And with budget concerns already dominating the legislative session that got underway in Annapolis last week, there is already resistence to top-loading the state's list of transportation priorities with Washington-oriented projects.
During a budget hearing in Annapolis, Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden (D-Baltimore) protested the lack of improvements slated for his district.
"The pigs get fed, the hogs get slaughtered," McFadden said. "We're the hogs. We're the economic engine of the state . . . yet we have an antiquated transportation system."
But Sen. Ida G. Ruben (D-Montgomery) said there will be considerable support for Duncan's plan among legislative leaders. "Anything we can do to improve our transportation system has to be done," she said. "We are totally choking our county to death now."
Staff writer Nelson Hernandez contributed to this report.