Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett said Monday that the county will build and operate the initial stages of a bus rapid transit system on its own, effectively scuttling the idea of creating an independent agency for that purpose.
Leggett (D), speaking at a midday news conference, also blasted restaurant owners who are seeking to change regulations requiring that they buy alcohol exclusively from the county’s Department of Liquor Control. Should proposed state legislation allowing restaurants to buy alcohol from the private market pass, Leggett said, it will mean the loss to the county of more than $30 million in annual tax revenue.
Leggett said he has asked Montgomery’s Department of Transportation to develop less costly alternatives to existing plans for bus-only express lanes, focusing one or two routes in a projected 98-mile system.
“I am committed to serving the rapid transit needs of our county,” Leggett said. The county would finance the routes in its own capital budget, which Leggett will introduce early next year.
Leggett said he hopes that if opponents see the bus lanes in limited operation, they might be more inclined to support a transit authority.
Leggett proposed such an authority in December but dropped the idea after heated opposition for some neighborhood groups and county and state lawmakers.
The entity would have been funded by a new tax that would not count against a charter provision capping the amount of revenue the county can collect in a given year. The agency would have financed construction of the system with the sale of bonds backed by the tax revenue. The cost of building out the entire system could reach $2 billion, officials estimate.
Leggett said the authority would be the best way to avoid reliance on state funding for the planned Bus Rapid Transit network (BRT) and the initial nine-mile segment of the Corridor Cities Transitway along Interstate 270.
Leggett did not specify which routes would be undertaken in his new plan, and at what reduced cost. Three potential lines have been the focus of the county’s interest: along Route 355 from the Rockville Metro station to the Bethesda Metro station, with a current estimated cost of $422 million; along U.S. 29 from Burtonsville to downtown Silver Spring ($200 million); and along the Viers Mill Road corridor ($285 million).
With regard to alcohol sales. Montgomery’s monopoly, a vestige of the post-Prohibition era, is facing multiple challenges. A bill sponsored by Del. Bill Frick (D-Montgomery) would place a question on the 2016 county ballot asking voters whether private wholesalers should be allowed to sell to restaurants and stores. State Comptroller Peter Franchot (D) has said he will introduce a similar measure. An anti-monopoly petition drive has attracted more than 1,000 signatures.
Restaurant owners who oppose the monopoly say they have to pay as much as 20 to 25 percent more for certain products in Montgomery. They also assert that it is difficult to purchase “special order” fine wines and craft beer for timely delivery by the county. The council passed a resolution this summer asking state lawmakers to allow restaurants and stores to purchase special orders from private suppliers, but industry advocates say the change doesn’t go far enough. Critics say the county’s rules drive customers and potential entrepreneurs into the District.
“The bottom line is that it’s not good for business,” said Frank T Shull IV, chief operating officer and partner of RW Restaurant Group, which owns six establishments in the county. “I hear other restaurateurs say they’ll never open in Montgomery County because of the DLC.”
Leggett said that without a plan to replace liquor revenue, the county would probably have to increase taxes on residents to close the fiscal gap.
“What you’re basically asking would be for the taxpayers of Montgomery County to pay higher taxes for roads, for schools, and for libraries . . . in order for someone to have it more convenient for liquor in the county,” a visibly frustrated Leggett said.
Of complaints from the restaurant industry, Leggett added: “I’m sure there are some problems, but a lot of it is really overblown. But if you’re in the business, find a way to make a couple of extra dollars, you’ll hype everything up.”