With Amazon’s selection of a site for its second headquarters looming, County Council members bickered Thursday over whether postponing the construction of a long-planned parkway near the site pitched to the company by Montgomery County officials would impact the county’s chances of landing the project.
As the council’s transportation committee debated a proposal to defer funding for the $142 million Montrose Parkway East project in North Bethesda, some council members laid bare their feelings on the issue during a feisty debate.
Even so, the outcome of the committee’s debate was all but predetermined. Two members of the three-person committee last week had already proposed delaying construction of the parkway and diverting to other projects about $94 million of the $124 million that County Executive Ike Leggett budgeted over the next six years for building the road.
So on Thursday, when it came time for council members Roger Berliner and Tom Hucker to vote for their proposal, they did. As a result, the committee will send a recommendation to the full council to provide about $30 million over the next six years for land acquisition only for Montrose Parkway East, instead of recommending Leggett’s proposal to provide $124 million. The third committee member, Nancy Floreen, voted against diverting the funds.
The plan for Montrose Parkway East via Montgomery County Department of Transportation website.
The diversion of funds, if approved by the full council, would delay the estimated opening of the four-lane road between Veirs Mill Road and the Rockville Pike-Montrose Interchange from fiscal 2024 to around 2028.
But before the vote, the two men and council President Hans Riemer, who also supported the diversion proposal, took some heat from members of the council who questioned their plan—particularly Floreen, who referred to the men as “the three amigos.”
Floreen criticized the recommended delay, given the county’s efforts to woo Amazon. Officials have said the county is pitching the White Flint area for the company’s second headquarters. And although no one outright confirmed that location during Thursday’s meeting, it was an open secret as council members debated whether delaying the North Bethesda road project could impact whether the company chose Montgomery County. The company is considering 20 locations across the country, including the county, Northern Virginia and Washington, D.C. It's expected to make a decision later this year.
Floreen asked that the council delay any decision on Montrose Parkway East funding until the company made its decision. Berliner responded that he plans to add an amendment to the committee’s proposal that would allow the council to revert to supporting Leggett’s proposal to build the road sooner if Amazon were to choose the county.
After hearing that option, Floreen retorted, “We tell people we’re making decisions for six years of construction, then we’re going to say, ‘Oh, we didn’t mean it’… That’s not responsible. How can you suggest that? This is not a game. You cannot have it both ways. The three amigos are living in another time and world at this point. I mean, what are you smoking, I got to say.”
She alleged the three council members hatched their idea in “some secret room some place.”
All three men defended their proposal, saying that the projects they’ve suggested funding instead—such as new Metro station entrances, planning for bus rapid transit routes and bicycle infrastructure—are based on what community members want as well as Amazon’s interest in transit. They’ve previously said the White Flint area has not developed enough to generate the amount of traffic that would require the new road to be built.
“We have needs right now,” Hucker said. “There are no secret backroom conversations happening. Things will hopefully change in the future if Amazon decides to come here.”
Council members George Leventhal, Nancy Navarro and Sidney Katz—who are not members of the committee, but attended the meeting due to recent controversy over the proposed diversion of funds for the roadway—also weighed in on the issue.
Navarro agreed with the proposal to divert funding. She said investments should be made to plan bus rapid transit routes as well as infrastructure for cyclists. She also suggested some of the diverted funds be reallocated to school construction to address overcrowding issues.
Katz said he supported building the roadway—noting that it could help alleviate “considerable traffic” in the area. The project would include a 230-foot bridge over the CSX railroad tracks at Nebel Street, a 198-foot bridge over Parklawn Drive, a 350-foot bridge over Rock Creek and a 107-foot pedestrian bridge to take the Rock Creek Trail over Montrose Parkway.
Katz said the CSX intersection is the “worst railroad grade crossing in the state of Maryland.” He questioned why the council would want to delay an opportunity to correct the issue.
Meanwhile, Leventhal, who had initially expressed support for diverting funds in order to fund a second entrance and passageway under Georgia Avenue to the Forest Glen Metro Station, said he’s now concerned about how Berliner, Hucker and Riemer chose projects to fund with the money they want to divert from the road construction.
“I don’t want a three-member committee declaring to the council how funding will be reallocated,” Leventhal said. “And I have to say the preponderance of the funding is going to District 1 and District 5. I’m very much concerned about that.”
Hucker, who is running for re-election in the June 26 primary, represents Silver Spring-based District 5, while Berliner represents Bethesda-based District 1. Berliner, who must give up his council seat due to term limits, is running for county executive.
Leventhal, who is also running for county executive, did, however, maintain his support for the second Forest Glen Metro station entrance—although he suggested the construction could be funded instead with money the committee voted to divert from a proposal to widen Goshen Road in the Gaithersburg area.
Leventhal also said that the proposal from the three council members may get “a whole lot of communities’ hopes up,” which could be dashed if Amazon were to choose to locate in the county and the proposed projects were defunded.
Berliner responded that he understands “that the governor’s commitment for $2 billion includes” funding for Montrose Parkway East.
“If in fact we get Amazon, the dollars will be there,” Berliner said. He was referring to the offer of $2 billion in unspecified transportation improvements the state included in its pitch to Amazon to try to convince the company to locate in the county.
Leventhal responded that he hadn’t been informed that the state was including funding for the parkway in its pitch and was not aware of any of the proposed transportation improvements.
“It is possible that I spoke out of turn,” Berliner said. “If in fact this is, quote, confidential information, it was information that I believed to be true or I would not have given it voice.”
After the debate settled, the committee approved several other funding proposals for projects in the county—including alternative projects pitched by the “three amigos”—for the new Forest Glen Metro entrance and passageway, planning and design funds for bus rapid transit projects on Veirs Mill Road and New Hampshire Avenue and several bike infrastructure projects.
Ultimately, the full nine-member council will have to vote on each project—including the proposal to divert funding from Montrose Parkway East. With support from Berliner, Hucker, Riemer, Navarro and council member Marc Elrich—who said previously he’d like to divert the funds for building the road to other purposes—it would appear a majority of the council supports diverting the money to spend on other projects.