County Executive Isiah Leggett has revived the group that first laid out how a countywide bus rapid transit system might work to examine his controversial proposal for an Independent Transit Authority. The Transit Task Force has met once as a full group and once in smaller working groups to look at if Leggett's transit authority idea could be improved. After an unfavorable report from a Council analyst and heaps of criticism from civic leaders, Leggett asked state lawmakers to withdraw a state bill that would've enabled the creation of the Independent Transit Authority, or ITA, earlier this year. On April 6, Leggett sent a letter to Transit Task Force Chair Mark Winston explaining how he hoped the group can help improve the idea:
As you know, last December I proposed enactment by the General Assembly of legislation (MC-24-15) that would have enabled Montgomery County to establish a transit authority, and accomplish other purposes. That proposal became controversial and, since it was obvious that it would not be enacted in the 2015 Session of the General Assembly, I asked that it be withdrawn. However, while I have been open to other proposals that might be made that would allow the County to pursue its goal of having a comprehensive transit system at the earliest practicable time, I continue to believe that my proposal for a transit authority is the best approach.
I ask that the Task Force study the legislation that I proposed, develop procedures for soliciting community and commercial input to its deliberations, offer its comments, and provide advice and recommendations on how it may be improved.
County spokesperson Patrick Lacefield said Leggett hopes the Task Force can, "take a look at how to wrestle this problem to the ground," and that while Leggett is still open to other funding suggestions, "he also feels like he's got a good proposal." As first proposed, the ITA would plan, design, engineer, build, fund and operate the county's existing Ride On bus service and planned Rapid Transit System. It would do so through a new transit tax and by issuing its own bonds. Critics pointed out the ITA would be able to create that new transit tax without being subject to the county's Charter limit.
"Among other issues the Task Force will want to consider are: (a) whether removing this unique investment in transit development and operation from the constraints of the Charter limits is necessary and appropriate in order to finance the development and operation of the RTS network," Leggett wrote.
Winston said the Task Force is aiming to finalize its recommendations by the Sept. 30 deadline and that "there is no foregone conclusion" that the group will support the ITA.
The group, made up of county government leaders, regional transportation officials, transit advocates, chamber officials and several community representatives, will next meet at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, May 6. Meetings are usually held at the Executive Office Building in Rockville and are open to the public.
"From the Task Force standpoint, our goal is going to be to make the process open, to welcome public comment and to take that comment into consideration," Winston said. "There's no question that has to happen."
On Friday morning, the county was still working on some sections of the new Transit Task Force web page. A list of members, agenda from the April 22 meeting and other documents were posted.
The proposed countywide system of 10 bus rapid transit corridors and more than 80 miles could cost anywhere from $800 million to $1.5 billion to build.
County officials said in March that studies of a Rockville Pike/Wisconsin Avenue corridor should produce cost estimates, phasing plans and ridership studies by the summer of 2016. Those studies will also include the Route 355 North, U.S. 29 and Veirs Mill Road corridors.
Leggett also asked the Task Force to look at public-private partnership funding, how the ITA would work with the state agencies that have jurisdiction over the roads and if the county should put existing services such as Ride On under the ITA banner.