When I decided Monday to attend the next day’s Montgomery County Council debate about an ambitious new plan for express buses, I immediately reached out to the best person I knew to give me a thorough, fair-minded preview of the project’s pluses and minuses.
But Ron Kirby never got my e-mail requesting a chat.
The Washington region’s top expert on its top problem — traffic congestion — had been fatally shot that day in his Alexandria home. No one has been charged in his homicide.
Today I am one of many journalists, officials, politicians and activists mourning the loss of a man who came as close as anyone I know to being a model public servant.
Kirby, who was 69, was the well-informed, honest broker who won esteem from all sides in the high-stakes battles over roads, transit and land use. He did so by combining a powerful intellect (which earned him a PhD in applied mathematics) with hard work and a cordial, diplomatic manner.
It’s probably safe to say that most people in our region have only a hazy notion of Kirby’s duties as director of transportation planning at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, or COG.
But everybody is familiar with his legacy. In 26 years at COG, Kirby played a central role in shepherding such major projects as rebuilding the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, building the Intercounty Connector between Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, and procuring increased funding for the Metro transit system.
He also helped launch programs to promote telework, carpools and bike sharing and to improve communication in a snowstorm or terrorist attack.
Much of Kirby’s work was behind the scenes, prodding politicians and promoting compromises. Local officials especially valued his advice on how to satisfy federal laws and obtain federal funding.
“His fingerprints are everywhere. He didn’t cut the ribbon on the Wilson Bridge, but he made sure the deals took place to make it happen,” said John Swanson, who worked under Kirby at COG as a principal transportation planner.
It’s telling that Kirby drew equally positive reviews from two leading activists who usually are on opposite sides: Bob Chase, of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, and Stewart Schwartz, of the Coalition for Smarter Growth.
Chase, who typically wants to increase spending on roads, lauded Kirby for making sure proper procedures were followed so controversial projects would survive court challenges.
“People listened to Ron. They crossed their t’s and dotted their i’s,” Chase said.
He said Kirby was somebody whom everybody respected. “People knew that the numbers he had, and the information he had, it wasn’t politically motivated.”
Schwartz, who usually favors more money for transit, also praised Kirby as “a neutral arbiter” who helped overcome differences among the area’s multiple jurisdictions.
“We are an interconnected region, and [COG] is the one place where we all come together. He provided the place where plans were knit together,” Schwartz said.
Although Kirby strove to be evenhanded, he had an agenda.
One of his principal causes was pushing local politicians to provide adequate funding for Metro. In an interview in September, he told me that the region couldn’t rely on the federal government to pay for necessary expansion of the transit system in the long term.
“We’re going to have to pay ourselves. We are going to try to get everybody [in the region] to commit to that,” Kirby said.
He also was an early advocate of “congestion pricing,” which means adjusting tolls on highways in real time depending on how crowded the roads are. His support helped make such tolls a reality on the Intercounty Connector and the new Express lanes on much of Virginia’s stretch of the Capital Beltway.
Above all, Kirby had a positive attitude. He didn’t let bureaucratic frustrations and political infighting discourage him.
“He really thought the stuff was fun. There’s a lot of Eeyores in our profession, but he was a glass-half-full kind of guy,” Swanson said.
Expertise. Diplomacy. Vision. Optimism. That’s a fine summary of traits for an outstanding civic leader.
Ron Kirby leaves a legacy not only in asphalt and steel, but also in the example he set for others to emulate.
I discuss local issues Friday at 8:50 a.m. on WAMU (88.5 FM). For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.