Council Has Concerns With Leggett’s Move For Transit Authority

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The Friday introduction of a state bill that would let Montgomery County create its own “Independent Transit Authority” caused quite a stir over the weekend and has some members of County Council concerned.

County Executive Isiah Leggett first alluded to the idea of an Independent Transit Authority (ITA) in December as he kicked off his third term. On Friday, the county put out word of a fact sheet and website detailing the proposal. Also on Friday, the county’s state legislative delegation introduced the bill that would enable the county (with County Council approval) to set up the ITA.

By Sunday, someone had already started a blog railing against the proposal called: “Stop the Backroom Montco Transit Authority Deal.”

Today, in a regular meeting on the county delegation’s agenda in Annapolis, a few members of Council said Leggett’s proposal needed more vetting before it gets their support.

“Everybody got hit with this over the weekend,” Councilmember Roger Berliner said. “You’re asking for a yes vote on a Monday afternoon meeting? The rest of the world was really in the dark with respect to this and we may need a little bit of time to catch up.”

Tom Street, an assistant chief administrative officer in Leggett’s office, said the ITA would give the county its best chance of actually financing and building the proposed Rapid Transit System, also known as bus rapid transit.

“This is the only way that the county can move its transit agenda forward,” Street told the Council. “[Leggett] recognized, as I’m sure many of you, the federal funding of transit programs is — the chance of getting significant funding is slim to none. He also wanted a new partnership with the state and believed that this was the best way to do it.”

But the specific proposal, which wouldn’t be subject to charter tax limits and would replace the county’s existing transit tax with a new one, apparently caught some off guard.

It wasn’t included in the county delegation’s original batch of proposed legislation.

Glenn Orlin, the Council’s chief staff expert on transportation issues, said Monday that he had about an hour-and-a-half on Monday morning to analyze the bill before the afternoon meeting. He came up with more than half-a-dozen areas of concern — such as how the ITA and existing county Department of Transportation (MCDOT) might overlap and how the taxing authority would relate to funding operating costs.

Orlin also said the ITA would likely mean the Council would lose its ability to directly set fares or add money to the Ride On budget.
Besides Ride On and bus rapid transit, the ITA would take up coordination responsibilities with WMATA and the state for Metro, Purple Line and MARC train issues.
It would take over management of the county’s four Parking Lot Districts, including the one in downtown Bethesda. The departments in the county’s existing Department of Transportation and Department of General Services that deal with transit operations would be moved under the ITA banner.
Street said that in order to build the bus rapid transit project, MCDOT would have to hire new project managers, designers and construction managers with expertise in bus rapid transit.
“This is one of the largest suburban transit operations in the country. It deserves a singular focus, a singular mission,” Street said. “We would be adding resources anyway and it should be to an agency that would have this singular focus.”
The county’s legislative delegation is holding a public hearing on Friday at 6 p.m. in Rockville, which could be the only nearby public forum on the ITA bill. Councilmember Nancy Floreen noted that’s not such a convenient time, especially on just a week’s notice.

The Council agreed to study the issue through the rest of this week, and decide whether it will support the effort during next Monday’s state legislative meeting.

The ITA would be far from a done deal if the bill passes in Annapolis. It would still require approval from the County Council, which would mean a much longer public process and discussion of a number of other issues raised Monday.

Councilmember Marc Elrich shared concerns about the ability to apply a higher transit tax on commercial property owners than residential ones, as is done in Tysons Corner.

Councilmember Tom Hucker, a former state delegate, said he’s concerned the creation of a standalone Montgomery County transit entity would mean state officials provide less transit funding for county projects.

“The more we go our own way,” Hucker said, “the weaker it makes our case to say, ‘You owe us this.’ Isn’t it going to be easier for them to say, ‘We hear your case, but you’re all set up to raise your own revenue, so be my guest?'”

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