2019 | Government

To Save Corridor Cities Transitway, Council Member Wants More Development

Project could lose state’s support, but Montgomery County fights on

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Riemer

Council Member Hans Riemer.

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Council Member Hans Riemer wants to clear the way for more development in western Montgomery County, hoping to save a proposed Corridor Cities Transitway (CCT) project.

But his plan is getting pushback from County Executive Marc Elrich, planning officials, and other council members, who say it doesn’t consider legitimate concerns over traffic congestion.

The CCT, a high-speed bus line planned for western Montgomery County, has been a long-time priority for legislators and upcounty residents trying to ease congestion and promote business growth in the region. But the project appeared to suffer a serious setback in September, when the state dropped it from a draft list of long-term priorities.

Riemer is calling for amending the Great Seneca Science Corridor Master Plan, a document approved nearly a decade ago that sets development goals for the area where the CCT was slated to run. He outlined his proposal in a two-page memo sent to council members Monday night and formally introduced in a session on Tuesday.

“The way to get the CCT back on track is to approve a realistic funding plan,” Riemer wrote. He wants to amend the master plan to open up development, while directing the Montgomery County Department of Transportation to develop a financing plan for the project.

“We need to do more to commercialize our federal research presence,” Riemer added during Tuesday’s council session. “We were overly optimistic about the future of the CCT, and now we effectively have a moratorium on development in the heart of our biotech corridor.”

At the heart of the issue is the Maryland Department of Transportation removing the CCT from its latest list of priorities. The most recent draft of the Consolidated Transportation Plan (CTP) for statewide transit projects indicates that the bus system was removed from development and transferred to Montgomery County.

It was a blow to county leaders and community members counting on the transitway to boost economic development. State Del. Kirill Reznik described the decision as a death knell for the project, originally planned as a light rail line and adapted in 2012 as a high-speed bus line with dedicated lanes and right-of-way.

CCT
The first phase of the Corridor Cities Transitway (CCT) extends from the Shady Grove Metro to the Metropolitan Grove MARC station.

The full cost of the CCT is estimated at more than $800 million, with $545 million for initial construction. The state hasn’t allocated funding for the project in several years, but removing it completely would be a significant step backward and indicate a loss of commitment, said Chris Conklin, the deputy director of the county’s Department of Transportation.

If the CCT were removed from the final draft of the plan, the county would have to reapply to list it as a state priority — a lengthy process with no guarantee of approval.

A lack of state support would also endanger funding from the Federal Transit Administration’s New Starts grant program. The state previously applied on behalf of the project, but could withdraw its application if the CCT were removed as a priority. 

The county could reapply on its own for federal funding, which generally covers no more than half of a project, Conklin said, but that would further delay construction.

“Basically, it would become a county initiative,” Reznik added in a phone interview on Tuesday. “And I imagine it would be a very difficult thing for Montgomery County to fund on its own.”

Riemer has long focused on expanding biotech in Montgomery County and new ways to monetize federal research labs. He said his proposal is mostly aimed at ending limits on development in the Great Seneca Science Corridor. But the memo also frames it as a way to “simultaneously push forward on the CCT” — a hot-button political issue for many county leaders.

On Tuesday, Riemer pushed for an immediate vote on amending the master plan, which sets clear criteria for releasing developable land.

The first stage — already completed — freed up 400,000 square feet for commercial development and 2,500 new dwelling units.

The second stage would allow an additional 2.3 million feet of commercial development and 2,000 new dwelling units. But it depends on four requirements, including full funding for Phase I of the CCT, from the Shady Grove Metro station to the Metropolitan Grove MARC station.

“That puts a big cap on the total square footage that can be developed,” Riemer said in a phone interview later on Tuesday. His proposed amendment would split the second stage of the master plan into two additional phases — 2a and 2b — that could be completed separately to free up developable land more quickly.

Stage 2a would incorporate the first three requirements in the plan, including the relocation of the Public Safety Training Academy — completed in 2016 — and fully funding a shared-use trail in the Great Seneca Science Corridor through the county’s capital improvements plan.

Because all three requirements are complete, or close to it, splitting them into a separate phase would allow for the release of more land by next summer — up to 2 million square feet, Riemer hopes.

His memo also calls for the council to direct MCDOT to develop a CCT financing and implementation plan within 12 to 18 months.

Riemer later said the amendment could attract more companies to newly available commercial space, expanding a possible tax district for a portion of the project.

Securing more development could help convince the state that the CCT is a vital infrastructure project for a growing region, Riemer said. Simultaneously, the county could independently apply for the New Starts program and secure federal funding.

“The private sector — property owners along the route — have been talking for several years about taxing themselves to raise $100 million or so for the CCT,” Riemer said. “So, if you could get the federal government to pay for half and this local source to pay for $100 million, you may have a fundable request for the state. You may have chopped their piece down significantly.”

Publicly introducing the memo attracted swift criticism from Planning Department officials and some of Riemer’s council colleagues during the department’s semiannual progress update.

Officials criticized the timing — Riemer circulated the memo the day before the scheduled presentation — and the details, including his suggestion to immediately direct the department to draft a master plan amendment.

“We didn’t have a conversation about this memo nor about the specifications,” Council Member Craig Rice said at the meeting. “And for me, the entire community has to be involved before we do something like this. To run forward with a memo — that’s not what we want.”

Drafting the master plan 10 years earlier required “a tremendous amount of citizen discussion” and collaboration with the cities of Rockville and Gaithersburg, Council Member Sidney Katz said in a phone interview on Wednesday. Community buy-in largely hinged on adding the CCT as a requirement for more development in the corridor, spurred by concerns over adding more residents and businesses along crowded interstates.

“If you’re going to have development of this scale, you need mass transit in order for transportation to work effectively,” Conklin said. The master plan currently describes the CCT as the “centerpiece” of the Science Corridor, and outlines plans to concentrate the highest-density development around future bus stations.

Planning Department director Gwen Wright objected to considering an amendment before the public sees the plan and before department employees evaluate its impact.

Despite its importance to Montgomery County, where the transitway is listed as a central element in seven regional plans, the future of the CCT has been uncertain for a year and a half.

The Maryland Department of Transportation outlined plans to transfer the project to Montgomery County in 2018 after $38 million in investment covered 30% of the initial design and an environmental survey required by the FTA, Erin Henson, MDOT’s director of public affairs, wrote in an email on Wednesday.

The state finalized those plans in July 2019, she added.

But Conklin said the county consistently declined the transfer and communicated ways to improve the project. State officials previously expressed concerns over estimated costs of the bus line and the projected route, which meanders from the Shady Grove Metro station to the COMSAT campus in Clarksburg.

“The state ironically pointed out that it’s not really ‘rapid transit’ if you make it so slow that people can drive through bumper-to-bumper traffic and still get to their destination faster than the bus would,” Elrich said.

His administration’s ongoing efforts to revise the CCT plan were part of his objection to Riemer’s proposal, which he described as “giving up” on the state’s previous commitment to support the project.

Elrich said he urged Gov. Larry Hogan to reconsider the project as an economic development initiative to entice new companies to move into the state.

Staff members developed a hybrid proposal to shorten the route by breaking off the portion through new developments such as Crown Farm and the Kentlands — one of the longest portions of the trip — into a separate connector line.

At the same time, project costs have changed, Conklin said.

One of the state’s final actions on the CCT was a value engineering estimate, cutting the expected cost from more than $800 million to around $480 million. Big reductions came from eliminating some bus lanes and changing the design of a planned bridge over I-270 at the Shady Grove Road interchange.

Henson declined to say if the state would support the project as adapted. She linked to a brochure on the department’s BRT policy, released in 2018, which urges local jurisdictions to “carefully consider whether BRT can be an effective solution to their transportation needs.”

MDOT’s decision to partner on a BRT project is based on whether the bus line connects multiple jurisdictions in more than one county or contributes significantly to regional transportation, Henson added.

The CCT has been planned as a bus line since 2012. Riemer and Elrich argue that the line would be a boon to multiple counties, including residents in Frederick, who would have a new transit option on the way to Washington, D.C.

“The more you encourage economic development in Montgomery County, the more money you’re bringing back to the state,” Elrich said.

While their proposals to save the bus line differ, Riemer and Elrich agree that the county could take on the project if the state withdraws support. Both said a special tax district on commercial properties within the Science Corridor could help fund it.

Elrich supports adding the project to the county’s capital budget and financing construction with long-term bonds.

But county planning and transportation employees have doubted the feasibility of taking on a project always based on significant state backing. Montgomery County is struggling to fund the FLASH, a separate BRT line with corridors planned along several highways, Conklin said. 

The county has only funded construction for a portion — a bus line between Burtonsville and downtown Silver Spring.

“So, it’s hard to imagine a project of this scale getting completed without state funding,” Conklin said of the CCT. “There’s no room in our current [Capital Improvements Program], obviously.”

Steve Aldrich, a supervisor with the Planning Department, echoed those concerns in an email.

“Given our recent [Capital Improvements Program] process, I am 100% certain that MCDOT does not have the resources or funds to move on this project without significant funding from [the Maryland Transit Administration],” he wrote in September.