County council members are questioning why a position that was deemed critical to reducing pedestrian deaths hasn’t been filled — a year after it was supposed to be.
Under a timeline set in the county’s Vision Zero program, a coordinator should have been hired at the start of 2018, months after the plan was first released.
The position is seen by some county officials as vital to efforts to prevent pedestrian deaths and injuries. Eleven people have died on county roadways in 2019. More than 70 have been seriously injured, according to county data.
The coordinator would be tasked with managing the county’s 41-point Vision Zero plan, synchronizing efforts between county’s Department of Transportation, the Montgomery County Police Department, and the Maryland State Highway Administration, which oversees some of the area’s busiest roads.
“Implementing those steps takes a full-time coordinator to make sure the necessary agencies are collaborating,” said Council Member Evan Glass, a member of the Transportation and Environment Committee. “We have far too many people dying on our streets, and it requires an all-hands-on-deck approach to make things safer.”
Glass, like several other council members, has questioned why the position hasn’t already been filled by the county. The Vision Zero plan, released in 2017 by then-County Executive Ike Leggett, called for hiring a full-time coordinator by January 2018.
In the spring of that year, council members designated $108,000 to fund the position.
But Wade Holland, a data analyst for the Montgomery County Department of Transportation, told Bethesda Beat that the hire got tied up in bureaucracy, slowing down the process. The Leggett administration decided the position should be filled by a contractor in 2019 due to budget constraints.
That required drafting a lengthy request for proposal and researching potential contractors, said Holland, who’s been acting as the county’s, interim coordinator for the last two years
When County Executive Marc Elrich was elected in November 2018 — bringing a platform of priorities that included pedestrian safety — his administration questioned why the position was being filled by a contractor.
“But at that point, we said, ‘Well, let’s just try to see this through,’” Holland said. The department had already drafted the request, he said, and was getting ready to solicit bids from private companies.
The request for proposal was sent out in May of 2019, but none of the submissions met the county’s criteria, Holland said. Late last summer, Elrich and the county transportation department decided to create a full-time position within the county executive’s office.
Holland said the job application was released on November 14 after another few months of creating— and funding — a new county position. He decided to extend the application window to a month to give people more time to apply around the holidays, he said.
The application closes on December 13. The county aims to fill the position by February 2020, Holland said, despite the extension.
As the interim director and leader of the county’s Vision Zero steering committee, he also has high hopes for the role.
“I always talk about the Vision Zero coordinator being the face of the plan,” Holland said. He and his co-workers are looking for a candidate with project management and communication experience to coordinate between departments and schedule meetings with concerned residents and community groups — something Holland didn’t always have time to do.
“To be honest, I didn’t think we needed a full-time coordinator until I started doing it,” he said. Holland now spends between eight and 40 hours a week on the Vision Zero program in addition to his full-time job, relying on other transportation officials to step in when he has scheduling conflicts.
Of the current program’s 41 items, 11 are behind schedule, not started, or not funded at all. Those include establishing a fatal crash review team (behind schedule), purchasing new county vehicles with crash avoidance systems (not started), and setting up a grant fund for Vision Zero education initiatives (not funded).
Thirty are complete or in progress, including a comprehensive sidewalk survey to examine pedestrian safety issues (complete) and streetlight improvements across the county (in progress).
The streetlight improvements are part of MCDOT’s capital budget program, Holland said. The department is currently working on updates in Bethesda, with plans to move onto Silver Spring in 2024.
The county’s current Vision Zero plan actually ended in November of 2019 without accomplishing its stated goal of reducing severe and fatal collisions by 35%. In a November briefing with the County Council, Holland and transportation director Chris Conklin said the department would begin drafting a 10-year plan by the end of the year to extend safety initiatives to 2030.
Glass said the county has been making progress on its goals, but needed a full-time coordinator to keep the plan on schedule.
“There are no silver bullets to ending incidents and deaths on our roadways,” Glass said. “But the reason our strategy has so many action items is because there are so many departments and agencies that need to play a role. And that requires a full-time coordinator to facilitate communication between all of them.”
The hire will move the county closer to neighboring jurisdictions, including Washington, D.C., which added an entire Vision Zero division to its Department of Transportation last January, Holland said.