County Executive Ike Leggett faced significant opposition from speakers who assailed his plan to set up an independent transit authority at Wednesday night’s public meeting of the county Transit Task Force.
The opposition isn’t new. After a public outcry, Leggett withdrew a state bill in January the county had asked state lawmakers to consider that would have provided the ability to set up the transit authority.
But Leggett hasn’t given up. At Wednesday night’s meeting, he said the county can’t improve its Ride On bus system, let alone construct a new bus rapid transit system, unless it finds an alternative to funding other than through the existing capital budget process.
Opponents, however, said they’re against the attempt to set up the agency because it would be funded by a transit tax imposed outside the county’s voter-approved charter cap limit.
The cap mandates that the county can’t collect more property tax revenue in a year than the rate of inflation plus the real estate value of new construction, unless all nine council members vote to exceed the limit. In effect, it forces the county to make incremental, if any, property tax increases.
However, Leggett explained that due to the significant upfront construction costs needed to build a bus rapid transit system, it would be more prudent to set up an independent entity focused solely on managing the transit system, which would have a consistent stream of revenue.
“One thing is true,” Leggett said, “that you do need to have some other ability to finance it.”
Leggett is pushing for the creation of the transit authority now as a way to quickly construct the system, which he believes can help alleviate traffic issues in the county.
He said the only way to fund bus rapid transit through the existing capital budget process is to push aside other priorities like school construction projects or receive a “boatload” of money from the federal or state government, actions that he considered unlikely.
The number of opponents outnumbered supporters who testified at the meeting Wednesday, which was attended by about 50 residents.
Much of the opponents’ testimony reflected a common theme—taxpayers don’t want taxes raised and if the county does decide to build the system, it should be done under the existing budget process and managed by a county agency.
“The bill does nothing that can’t be done by the existing council…except skirt around charter limits,” Steven Poor, a county resident, said. “If you need money above the limit, make your case and put it on the ballot. Make your case to the voters.”
“The BRT boondoggle will probably end up as the Silver Spring Transit Center on wheels,” Silver Spring resident James Williamson said.
In response to opponents who said the ITA would lack accountability, Leggett said the transit tax would be set by the County Council, which would also approve the authority’s work plan.
“I think there’s some level of purposely misleading people,” Leggett said about opponents’ concerns.
Other concerns reflected the lack of information surrounding the bus rapid transit system. The county has described three main routes where it would like to build dedicated bus lanes and stations—The Corridor Cities Transitway in Gaithersburg; on Route 355; and along Route 29.
However, neither the county nor the state, which is aiding in the effort because the routes would be constructed on state roads, have provided detailed estimates about how much each route would cost or data showing how the network would alleviate traffic in the county.
“There’s a need for cost-effectiveness and cost-benefit analysis,” said Richard Levine, president of the Locust Hills Citizens Association, a Bethesda neighborhood group.
A $1.8 billion estimate was floated during the testimony Wednesday, but Leggett said that number is not accurate.
“No one is suggesting a $1.8 billion system,” Leggett said. “That analysis is all wrong.”
Several speakers asked why Leggett can’t take an incremental approach using the county’s existing budget and approval process. One idea was to finish designing the Corridor Cities Transitway, take it through the approval process and then evaluate its effectiveness once it's built.
The Corridor project, which would connect business centers in the Gaithersburg area with rail stations, is the farthest along in the state’s design process. The state is scheduled to complete design on the project in the fall of 2016.
Leggett said the incremental approach is possible, but that the county may need the independent transit authority to fund the Corridor Cities project.
Labor interests such as the AFL-CIO and UFCW Local 1994 MCGEO, which represents about 8,000 local workers, testified Wednesday that they aren’t comfortable with an independent authority operating the transit system.
“What we don’t agree with and we don’t agree on is that to get a more reliable system, we need to privatize the whole system,” Joslyn Williams, president of the Metropolitan Washington Council, AFL-CIO, said.
Williams also said the union wouldn’t support a public-private partnership model either. That model has been used in recent years to build expensive state transportation projects and is also being proposed as a way to construct the Purple Line.
County Council member Roger Berliner said Thursday that while he agrees with Leggett that bus rapid transit is important to the county’s future, he doesn’t agree with the timing of this proposal.
“I have not been convinced it’s necessary in this moment of time,” Berliner said. “To ask the public to support a proposal which does create less accountability, and which does foreshadow tax increases prior to public understanding and hopefully acceptance, I think, is a mistake.”
Berliner said the county has the power to move forward with construction of bus rapid transit in the short-term by raising funds through special taxing districts.
“My recommendation to the county executive has been to urge the state to speed up its timeline for the engineering and design work that’s necessary,” Berliner said. “My fear is the county executive’s proposal creates a backlash that makes it harder, rather than easier to achieve our mutual objective.”
Marc Korman, a state delegate who represents Bethesda in District 16, is also hesitant about the transit authority. Korman serves on the Transit Task Force.
“I think there’s a lot of good things in it conceptually, but the devil is in the details and it needs a lot of work,” Korman said. “We need a much more robust discussion about alternatives to that approach.”
Despite the possibility that the political opposition could be fierce in the General Assembly and on the County Council, Leggett said creating an independent transit authority remains a high priority.
“It’s high because the county will be in a position looking back and have no reasonable alternatives,” Leggett said. “It’s going to be challenging because you can’t build enough roads.”