“Fiscal constraints” guided the county’s latest $4.23 billion capital improvements program, unveiled by County Executive Marc Elrich at his “State of the County” address on Wednesday morning.
The CIP, a six-year agenda for major construction and infrastructure projects, is funded largely through impact taxes, bonds, and transfer taxes — a fee tacked onto home sales. An expected 29% decline in school and transportation impact taxes from the last approved CIP is expected to drag down total funding by 2.5%, limiting the county’s ability to pay for improvements.
“What departments need — and what they legitimately need — exceeds the resources that are available,” Elrich said during his address. His recommended CIP reflected his administration’s priorities, he said, including a focus on affordable housing, transit, and pedestrian safety.
That included the introduction of a new fund to leverage private investment in affordable housing — a model that’s been successful in some nearby jurisdictions, including Fairfax County.
Some County Council members criticized the plan for its failure to fully fund a record-breaking budget request from Montgomery County Public Schools. In October, Superintendent Jack Smith asked the county for roughly $1.8 billion to fund its own improvements plan, which includes nine major school construction projects.
Council Member Hans Riemer said he was “deeply disappointed” by the shortfall in a statement he released after Elrich’s address. In a phone interview, Council Member Andrew Friedson said it would force the council to make hard choices as it amends the CIP in the coming months.
“The county executive had his opportunity to weigh in with his priorities,” Friedson said Wednesday. “Some I agree with, some I don’t. Now it’s our job to take it up and make some tough decisions.”
The recommended CIP kicks off a months-long budget process for county legislators as they review and amend Elrich’s proposed spending plans.
Council members received a copy of the recommended CIP on Wednesday morning. Elrich will release his proposed operating budget for fiscal year 2021 on March 15. The council will review and pass final versions of both plans in May.
A new CIP is released every two years, but every plan sets long-term goals for the county’s development. Many of Elrich’s biggest priorities fell into four main areas:
Elrich’s recommended CIP includes roughly $1.7 billion for MCPS — more than 94% of the agency’s total request, but $103.8 million less than what Smith proposed in October.
Smith and Board of Education President Shebra Evans echoed Riemer in a statement on Wednesday, saying they were “deeply disappointed” by the county executive’s recommendations.
“This recommended decrease comes at a time when our enrollment has increased by more than 10,000 students in the last five years and our aging building infrastructure continues to be strained,” the statement reads. “We ask that the County Council closely examine this recommendation and work to ensure MCPS has the funding needed to provide safe and functional classrooms and schools for our growing student population.”
Council analysts found the difference was particularly stark in the first few years of the CIP. Council members would be forced to make bigger cuts in other areas if they chose to amend the plan to fully meet MCPS’ request, Riemer said — a particular challenge given the overall decline in resources.
Council Member Nancy Navarro was less critical, acknowledging that Elrich faced significant barriers when drafting his recommended CIP.
“It’s always important to understand we are challenged by resources,” she said in a phone interview on Wednesday. “And so I understand when the county executive says he wants to provide as many resources as possible, but there are so many competing interests.”
Elrich’s recommended CIP assumes that state aid will remain the same over the next six years. But Navarro said there’s hope that the county may receive more state funding as the General Assembly and Gov. Larry Hogan continue to emphasize education and school construction.
The CIP also includes $26.7 million in early education funding, including $16.7 million to renovate the county’s existing child care facilities and playgrounds. MCPS would receive $13.5 million for a permanent early childhood education center.
Elrich’s recommended CIP calls for a “record” $132 million investment in the county’s Affordable Housing Acquisition and Preservation fund. But Riemer was critical of the claim, arguing that the overall investment remained the same over the next six years.
Council analysts said the figure was considered an increase because previous CIPs included only two years of affordable housing at a time. When stretched over six years, Elrich’s $132 million investment averages to $22 million a year — the same level of funding included in previous plans.
Riemer was more receptive to a new Affordable Housing Opportunity Fund introduced in the recommended CIP. Aseem Nigam, the director of the county’s Department of Housing and Community Affairs, said the county would contribute $20 million to the fund over the next two fiscal years.
That initial funding would be used to leverage another $20 million to $30 million from private companies. The money would be used as short-term financing for affordable housing developers, allowing them to buy or renovate new properties as they worked to secure longer-term investments.
Elrich has long been a proponent of bus rapid transit — sophisticated bus lines with their own designated lanes and elevated platforms. His recommended CIP includes $15 million to complete preliminary engineering studies for the development of BRT routes along Md. 355 and Veirs Mill Road. It also includes $14 million for “system development and planning costs” associated with adding BRT lines on New Hampshire Avenue and the North Bethesda Transitway.
Elrich also touted a recommended $40 million investment in Purple Line projects, including a south entrance for the Bethesda Metro station. But Riemer and Friedson criticized him for not funding a northern entrance at the White Flint Metro Station — a major priority for community advocates.
“We’ve clearly indicated how important it is to realizing the vision for White Flint and the progress we want to make in urbanizing North Bethesda,” said Friedson, whose district includes the station.
Like Riemer, he was disappointed that the plan didn’t include funding for a proposed tunnel on the Capital Crescent Trail. Transportation officials have released draft designs for the project, which would run underneath Wisconsin Avenue and link the trail with downtown Bethesda.
Riemer called the tunnel a “huge project” related to the success of the Purple Line. Advocates say it would provide a direct route to the Bethesda station for pedestrians and cyclists, who would otherwise be forced to cross a busy arterial road.
Amid a clamor of concern over pedestrian safety, Elrich touted more than $266.6 million for Vision Zero-related projects. The safety plan calls for a drastic reduction, or even elimination, of traffic-related fatalities and severe injuries by 2030.
Elrich’s recommended CIP includes $9.3 million for the county’s Pedestrian Safety Program — a plan to add more traffic signals, bicycle signage, fencing, and other safety measures along county roadways. The spending plan also calls for $4.2 million in sidewalk improvements, $4.5 million for safety features near planned Purple Line stations, and $2 million to complete the Amherst Avenue Bikeway in Wheaton.
Elrich’s full recommended CIP can be viewed on the Office of Management and Budget’s website.