Democratic candidates for Montgomery County executive sniped with one another Wednesday over Capital Beltway widening plans, with County Council Member Hans Riemer claiming he’s largely stood alone in advancing the project.
“If we don’t have a strong connection with Virginia, the strongest economy in the region, then we’re going to wither on the vine,” he said during a candidate forum hosted by the Greater Bethesda Chamber of Commerce. “That’s what’s happening already.”
But with what he calls the county’s “most important economic development issue,” Riemer contends that two of his opponents — incumbent County Executive Marc Elrich and businessman David Blair — have been sitting on the sidelines.
Elrich, on the other hand, argued that he deserves credit for exhorting Gov. Larry Hogan to help rebuild the American Legion Bridge, which carries Montgomery County commuters to and from Virginia. And he returned fire at Riemer, accusing the council member of derailing his negotiations with the state over the road-widening project.
Riemer last year helped lead negotiations to resolve conflicts between Hogan’s office and county officials over the Beltway project. Elrich contends that without Riemer’s intervention, the county might have convinced state officials to go after more federal dollars for the project and rely less on toll revenue.
“The idea that we’re not trying to get federal money from a federal government that’s talking about its infrastructure plans and put this solely on tolls, which means putting it on you, was a huge mistake,” Elrich told the chamber crowd. “And if Hans had let us finish negotiating with the state rather than giving in, we would’ve gotten a better deal.”
For his part, Blair said he agrees with the importance of replacing the American Legion Bridge, but he also doesn’t see that as a long-term solution to the county’s congestion woes.
The larger problem, he said, is that so many county residents are leaving the state each day to get to work. And he faulted business-unfriendly policies with keeping employers and jobs out of the county.
“We need to start unwinding some of these poor decisions and get these jobs back,” he said. “Because we won’t be able to build a bridge big enough if we don’t start creating jobs in Montgomery County.”
During Wednesday’s forum, the three Democratic rivals faced off against Peter James, a tech company CEO and their opponent in the July 19 primary. They also debated two Republican executive hopefuls, Shelly Skolnick and Reardon Sullivan.
In left-leaning Montgomery County, the executive race is almost always decided in the Democratic primary.
The six candidates also shared their visions for encouraging energy conservation and spoke about how those goals dovetail with economic development.
Sullivan said he opposes the building energy performance standards adopted by the County Council last month — and is generally against “having standards that are developed by, quite frankly, some people in an ivory tower.”
“It is just stifling to business,” said Sullivan, who had experience with green building design.
Though Blair agreed that the county needs to address building energy consumption, he also raised reservations about enacting government requirements that are too onerous.
County buildings should move toward attaining “net zero” status, meaning they produce as much energy as they consume, Blair continued. But he voiced concern about landlords passing compliance costs on to tenants and about putting the county economy at a competitive disadvantage.
“I also worry about the level playing field and making sure that we don’t create one more reason not to do business in Montgomery County,” he said. “So I’d like to move forward as a region as we implement these standards.”
However, Riemer advocated for taking action at a local level, saying that controlling the climate crisis will mean overhauling transportation networks and building systems, as well as switching to clean energy.
Elrich said he thinks new construction will be able to follow the county’s energy conservation guidelines but acknowledged the challenge of converting existing buildings. And while he believes the state and federal government will have to pitch in and help, he said “this is absolutely the right path to be on.”