After a week of questions and withering criticism, Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett withdrew his proposal Saturday for a new independent agency to finance and operate a planned network of bus-only traffic lanes.
The County Council had been expected to vote Monday on whether to support state legislation, introduced on Leggett’s behalf by the Montgomery delegation, letting the county create the agency. The agency would be funded by a new transit tax that would not be counted against the charter cap limiting the amount of revenue the county can collect. It would fund construction with bonds backed by the tax revenue.
Leggett (D) said he asked County Council President George L. Leventhal (D-At Large) to remove the bill from Monday’s agenda but hasn’t decided whether to amend it or set it aside entirely. He said he wanted to confer with council members and state lawmakers first. “We’re kicking around some ideas,” he said.
Leggett had pitched the transit authority as the quickest and surest option for building two long-discussed projects designed to relieve chronic traffic congestion by getting commuters out of their cars. The independent agency, Leggett said, would lessen the county’s reliance on state funding for the 98-mile Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system and the first nine-mile segment of the Corridor Cities Transitway (CCT).
Under the bill’s provisions, the council would set the transit tax rate and decide which BRT segments would be built first. Fares, operating budgets, schedules and other matters would be controlled by a five-member board, appointed by the county executive with council confirmation. The county’s existing Ride On bus service would be moved from the transportation department into the new agency.
But the bill’s rollout proved to be an unusual misstep for Leggett, a cautious and deliberative politician who seldom makes a major move without covering his bases.
The plan got a wary reception last Monday from council members, concerned about ceding control and accountability for a major public works project. They were also irked that they received little notice from Leggett before the measure was introduced in Annapolis on Jan. 23. Filing of the bill touched off a small firestorm among neighborhood activists, some of whom never liked BRT to begin with. One accused Leggett of trying to create “a rogue taxing agency” under the public radar.
Late Friday, members received a detailed critique of the bill from Deputy Council Administrator Glenn Orlin, who said the council already had most of the legal and financial wherewithal to build the system on its own, at lower cost and with greater efficiency.
Orlin said the council already has the power to create special taxing districts to finance the system’s capital costs outside the charter cap. The county might be better off, he said, pursuing state legislation that would allow a similar exemption for operating costs. The county also has the option of creating two different taxing districts, one with higher rates for areas close to transit stations.
Although the legislation could be amended, he said “an even better approach” would be “to shelve the bill for now and work on a comprehensive solution over the next six months,” then file a revised state bill.
Time is not a factor, Orlin said. Planning studies for what will likely be the first BRT segments, along U.S. 29 and Rockville Pike, won’t be complete until fiscal 2017. Final design of the CCT, which would run from the Shady Grove Metro station to Gaithersburg, will also not be ready until then.
At a hearing in Rockville that stretched deep into Friday evening, the Montgomery delegation got an earful from both sides, starting with Leggett, who said there was no attempt to slip the proposal by the public.
“This is not something that is new or that fell out of the sky,” said Leggett, who mentioned the idea of an independent authority — albeit briefly — in his December inaugural speech. It was also included in the recommendations of a transit task force that finished its work more than two years ago.
He essentially encouraged everybody to get a grip, saying the bill was only enabling legislation.
“We will have an exhaustive opportunity at the local level to address elements of the bill,” Leggett said.
Supporting Leggett were an array of transit activists, builders and representatives of institutions such as Johns Hopkins, which wants the CCT to serve its Shady Grove campus, and Percontee, the company spearheading the development of the White Oak science campus.
But the council chamber was packed with skeptics and opponents. “We just finished the elections in November 2014. If Mr. Leggett, or indeed any of you, had been forthright in communicating to the public that plans to implement taxing authority had been in play, the elections might have gone very differently,” said Christina Ginsburg, treasurer of the Twinbrook Citizens Association.
Leggett said Saturday that he understood some of the negative reaction but that transit improvements will be impossible without new thinking.
“I don’t see any way forward unless we make some changes,” he said.