After two rulings that have resulted in a year of delays for the Purple Line, backers of the light rail project have finally gotten a break.
An appeals court ruled Wednesday that Maryland can continue working on the project even as a lawsuit continues, overturning a lower court decision that put work on ice. Most critically, it means that the state can pursue hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding for the project, which would connect 16 miles between Bethesda and New Carrollton.
“The order will allow construction to commence and we will continue to do everything we possibly can to keep the Purple Line moving forward,” Maryland State Attorney Brian Frosh said yesterday.
Republican Governor Larry Hogan gave the project a surprise green light two years ago. Construction was slated to begin in late 2016 on the 16.2-mile light rail line. It would be run by the Maryland Transit Administration, not Metro, though there are connections to the Red, Green, and Orange lines along some of the 21 stops.
But it has faced fierce opposition from an organized group of neighbors, who at one point considered focusing their fight on the environmental impact to a tiny, shrimp-like creature.
Instead, they’ve had successes arguing that transit officials failed to sufficiently account for the impact of Metro’s safety and ridership issues. A U.S. District Court judge ruled in August of 2016 that the MTA needed to re-do its ridership calculations. This May, the same judge said that the state hadn’t sufficiently completed a “hard look” at the issues posed by WMATA and ordered additional study.
The project’s backers worried that it could mean the end of the line for the Purple Line, as it put already appropriated federal funds in jeopardy and meant the state couldn’t proceed on work or seek more federal funding.
Yesterday’s ruling overturned the 2016 decision, and reinstated the Purple Line’s federal environmental approval.
“The Purple Line is essential for access to jobs, for revitalization inside the Beltway, and for providing a transportation and smart growth option that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” said Stewart Schwartz, the executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. “We hope this means that the full funding grant agreement can be executed and funding flow to the project.”
The Department of Transportation will now determine if there is enough certainty to sign a funding agreement and begin dispensing the hundreds of millions of federal dollars that have already been appropriated.
As long as traffic congestion remains of one the Washington area’s most vexing problems, the idea of building another Potomac River bridge may be the most divisive potential solution, guaranteed to spur contention whenever it resurfaces in ongoing efforts to improve regional mobility.
This was in evidence on Wednesday, when the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board (TPB) voted to include the bridge idea on a list of 10 major highway, transit, and land use initiatives warranting further study to assess their possible benefits to the region’s transportation system.
During the two-hour TPB meeting, the bridge was the only issue debated, completely overshadowing the other projects to be studied, including toll lanes on the rest of the Beltway, I-270, Dulles Toll Road, and Route 50; bus rapid transit in Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties and Northern Virginia; free public transit rides for poor residents; and placing more offices and housing near undeveloped Metrorail stations.
While no specific location for a new span was decided upon, some officials on the northern side of the Potomac condemned the possibility that it could be built upriver from the American Legion Bridge, connecting Rt. 28 in Virginia to the I-270 corridor in Maryland through Montgomery County’s agricultural reserve.
Montgomery County Council member Marc Elrich, who represents his county at the TPB, proposed removing the bridge study from the final list of initiatives but his amendment failed to garner adequate support. On Tuesday, the County Council unanimously passed a resolution to oppose another study.
Indeed, opponents argued on Wednesday that the idea already has been studied for decades by both Democratic and Republican administrations in Virginia, who repeatedly failed to convince their neighbors in Maryland to support such a project.
And a recent study, which focused not on a new span but instead on traffic and transit volumes at 11 existing Potomac River crossings, cast doubt on the potential benefits of building another bridge upriver from the hopelessly congested American Legion Bridge.
The study by the Virginia Department of Transportation concluded in 2015 that extending toll lanes across the American Legion to I-270 “be the top priority for addressing western Potomac River crossings,” although the recommendations did “not eliminate the benefits of a future ‘outer crossing’ to address the needs for interconnectivity/crossing the Potomac River.”
The conclusion was based on research that showed only a fraction of cars crossing the American Legion Bridge during rush hour originated from western Loudoun and Fairfax Counties with destinations, after crossing the river, to the north and west.
More study to come
Mountains of past studies notwithstanding, the Transportation Planning Board’s staff and consultants will take another look at it. To supporters, it is a no-brainer: a region expecting another million residents in the coming decades needs more ways to cross the Potomac.
Evan Pritchard, the executive director of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, said the region should have built multiple bridges across the Potomac decades ago to avoid the current traffic quagmire.
“The need for additional river crossing north of the American Legion Bridge is as apparent today as it was half a century ago,” Pritchard said in testimony to the TPB.
To opponents, another bridge would pave the way to more suburban sprawl, minimal congestion relief, and drain finite dollars away from more pressing transportation needs, including Metro.
Stewart Schwartz, the head of the Coalition for Smarter Growth which opposes major highway projects, said the region’s future lies in public transportation.
“If you build it, you will certainly induce new land use in those outer areas that will induce more traffic, and you will be left with a new crowded bridge plus an old crowded American Legion Bridge,” said Schwartz, who said the idea of ‘outer beltway’ belongs in the 1950s.
After studying the 10 initiatives for next few months, the TPB is expected by the end of 2017 to decide which ones should be added to the region’s long-range transportation plan, likely provoking another public debate like the one that engulfed Wednesday’s meeting.
But TPB chair Bridget Donnell Newton, the mayor of Rockville, sought to refute the notion that Marylanders have made up their minds. She called on officials on both sides of the river to approach the study with an open mind.
“It behooves us to take off our parochial hats, put on our regional hats, and work together,” she said. “It is difficult for people to do that. Sometimes it is because we become entrenched in our decisions and we don’t want to hear new information.”
WASHINGTON — Over strong objections from Maryland, Montgomery County and other leaders, the region’s Transportation Planning Board voted Wednesday to study a new Potomac River crossing north of the Beltway’s Legion Bridge.
It is part of a broader effort to identify big-ticket, regionwide projects that could improve the region’s terrible traffic.
Virginia business groups, AAA Mid-Atlantic and groups that generally lobby for increased road construction across the region spoke in support of the additional Potomac crossing, which has been considered for years.
Speaking against it were environmental groups; groups that support transit options; the Coalition for Smarter Growth; and representatives from Montgomery County, Prince George’s County and the state of Maryland.
“A northern crossing is antithetical to everything our county, and I believe our region, is committed to: smart growth, environmental stewardship, preservation of agricultural lands, and greenhouse gas reductions,” said Montgomery County Council President Roger Berliner during a public comment period.
‘We need real solutions’
“We need real solutions to address [terrible traffic], not fantasy solutions that will never happen — I repeat — never happen. And, just as importantly, [that] don’t truly contribute to solving the problem,” Berliner said.
Berliner cited Virginia Department of Transportation studies that found most drivers on the congested Legion Bridge are going to or from a point near the Beltway.
He and his Montgomery County Council colleagues support a greater focus on toll lanes along I-270 that would connect across a widened Legion Bridge to the I-495 Express Lanes in Virginia.
Expanding toll lanes even more to cover the entire Beltway as well as other roads like U.S. 50 is a separate part of the 10-item proposal.
Transportation Planning Board Staff Director Kanti Srikanth said that toll and express bus expansion is based on the idea that most highways around the region are “hopelessly congested” at rush hour.
Supporters of an additional bridge crossing argue it could be built along with improvements to the Legion Bridge and that it could provide an important backup option in the event of any issues.
“I hope that we don’t go another 10, 20, 50 years without looking at filling the missing gaps in our transportation system in this region,” said Loudoun County Supervisor Ron Meyer. “This has been a missing gap for 70 years. Our role as the Transportation Planning Board is to look at long-term plans, so talking about who’s governor now for the next year … it’s not a part of the conversation we’re having … we have to look long term here.”
Prince William County Supervisor and Northern Virginia Transportation Authority Chairman Marty Nohe supported keeping the outer crossing on the list of projects for further study because the list is expected to be narrowed down in December based on preliminary analysis.
“If in fact this project is so terrible, if it really is that bad, then the analysis will prove that and Ron and I will look really stupid,” Nohe said. “But I don’t know that yet because I don’t have the analysis yet.”
While the plan does not provide a specific location for the bridge, the expected location is between Virginia State Route 28 near Dulles Town Center and somewhere just across the river in Maryland that would allow for the construction of a highway connection to Gaithersburg.
Montgomery County Councilmember Marc Elrich, who unsuccessfully moved to remove the outer crossing from the board’s analysis, said there is no money or political will to pave over parts of Montgomery County’s agricultural reserve.
Montgomery County and the state of Maryland have consistently opposed the idea of a bridge, but would be responsible for much of the cost because the river is technically controlled by Maryland.
“Why would we put this into something to study? I would not do this to any other jurisdiction,” Elrich said. “For a lot of us, this is just a bridge too far.”
Concerns over who benefits
Prince George’s County Councilmember Dannielle Glaros expressed concerns that the project would only help Fairfax, Loudoun or Prince William counties rather than serving as the type of regional project the TPB is hoping to champion under this new aspirational section of the region’s long-range plan.
“It really talks about a narrow portion of the region … that has been the most-favored region, and could actually exasperate the east-west divide that clearly exists in our region,” Glaros said.
“I wish I could take you all out to Sterling and Herndon, Virginia, and walk you through those neighborhoods where we just had a young girl killed by an MS-13 gang member, and you can walk those neighborhoods and tell me that we don’t need economic empowerment in those neighborhoods,” Loudoun County Supervisor Ron Meyer responded.
“If you want to empower Sterling, empower Herndon, empower one of the most economically depressed areas in our region, this bridge would be the No. 1 thing that could do it, that could give them access to jobs and give jobs access to them.”
Arlington County Board Chair Jay Fisette reminded the board that it has no real power to force even the plans that are ultimately selected as priorities, but he hopes regional agreement and pressure could lead to changes that cut down on traffic issues.
“Nothing we do … can require any jurisdiction to alter any existing or future plans … we don’t have the authority to do it,” Fisette said. “We do have the authority to say no to a project.”
Fauquier County Supervisor Peter Schwartz worries that the analysis that will be done over the next few months may not show the true impacts of some of the proposals because planners have struggled to accurately project how the addition of a new road or transit project would change people’s choices and habits.
“That future behavior has always sunk all of our projects by overwhelming the additional capacity because it led people to change,” Schwartz said.
He worries that means people will read the analysis to support pre-existing views on certain projects like the outer crossing.
“It will be the same food fight that it’s been every time it’s come up in the past, and was frankly evidenced by the public comments and some of the discussion that’s gone on today,” Schwartz said.
Hopes for wide-ranging solutions
As the list is narrowed down, business groups hope for wide-ranging solutions.
“The Express Lanes travel network, the commuter and Metro rail enhancements, and a northern bridge crossing will serve as major opportunities for our region to preserve and attract talent and business,” said Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce vice president Mike Forehand. “It’s our hope that further study will beget action, as we do not have time to wait.
Whatever options are chosen, Metro planner Shyam Kannan emphasized that the region’s existing issues need to be addressed first.
“Before we get ahead of ourselves and start to think about these wonderful things that could make this region much more mobile, I think it’s important to remember … we can’t even begin to think about these things until we resolve the funding crisis that is WMATA,” Kannan said.
“We are beyond levels of incredulity with regard to the conversation. The Board discussion last week … involved essentially trying to raise money by holding bake sales at Metro parking lots on Thanksgiving. We are scraping the bottom of the barrel. That’s how bad it’s gotten.”
July 19, 2017
Executive Director, Coalition for Smarter Growth
Washington, DC — In response to today’s Court of Appeals ruling on Purple Line, the Coalition for Smarter Growth’s Executive Director Stewart Schwartz issued the following statement:
“We are very pleased that the Court of Appeals ruling today appears to allow the Purple Line to proceed while appeals to the District Court ruling continue. We hope this means that the Full Funding Grant Agreement can be executed and funding flow to the project. The Purple Line is essential for access to jobs, for revitalization inside the Beltway, and for providing a transportation and smart growth option that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”
The Coalition for Smarter Growth is the leading organization in the Washington DC region dedicated to making the case for smart growth. Its mission is to promote walkable, inclusive, and transit-oriented communities, and the land use and transportation policies and investments needed to make those communities flourish. smartergrowth.net
An old transportation idea is back, and it remains as divisive as ever.
On Wednesday, the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board is scheduled to decide whether to include a proposed new Potomac River bridge among nine other major transportation projects on a list for further consideration.
Studied and debated for decades, the idea to build a new span west of the congested American Legion Bridge, is again splitting officials on either side of the river who have different visions of improving regional mobility.
In Virginia, some public officials and business interests are calling for another study of a bridge that could connect Rt. 28 in Virginia to Maryland. In Maryland, key decision makers remain steadfastly against even studying, let alone building, a multi-billion dollar bridge.
The mere presence of a bridge study on the planning board’s agenda spurred the Montgomery County Council to unanimously approve a resolution on Tuesday condemning the idea.
The county opposes building a new span west of American Legion Bridge for several reasons, according to Council President Roger Berliner: First, the bridge would land in an agriculture reserve; second, it would contradict the county’s smart growth principles, and third, it would drain state transportation dollars from more pressing priorities, namely WMATA.
“We do have real problems with congestion. We need real solutions, not fantasy bridges that will never happen,” said Berliner, who said the idea has been studied many times over the years, most recently in 2014. Virginia shut down that study because Maryland officials remained opposed to the bridge concept amid disagreements over its actual congestion-relief benefits.
“It should not be studied for another nanosecond,” Berliner said.
Bob Buchanan, a real estate developer and president of The 2030 Group whose members include regional business leaders, said it would be wrong to dismiss the potential benefits of a new bridge for regional mobility and the economy.
“It’s really a shame that one jurisdiction wants to hold the rest of the region hostage to its political views,” said Buchanan, who said business leaders in Montgomery County may differ from the stance of their elected leaders.
“Let’s study and understand what our options are. I think it would be unwise not to do that. Our congestion is getting worse,” said Buchanan, who said Metro’s troubles have received attention disproportionate to its importance to ordinary commuters.
Metro “constitutes less than 20 percent of all our daily trips. No one is talking about some of the big regional priorities when it comes to roads.”
In a news release, the Coalition for Smarter Growth, which derisively calls the bridge idea an “outer beltway,” criticized Buchanan and other real estate developers for lobbying for new road construction to open up rural land to development.
“The upper Potomac Bridge and other segments of an outer beltway are back, as a result of the latest multimillion dollar lobbying campaign that began back in 2010,” said the coalition’s executive director Stewart Schwartz in the statement.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
July 18, 2017
Stewart Schwartz, Executive Director, Coalition for Smarter Growth
703-599-6437 (c), email@example.com
They have a bridge to sell us…again. Coalition pushes back on yet another lobbying campaign for an upper Potomac Bridge
Washington, DC – Tomorrow, the region’s Transportation Planning Board will vote whether to include an upper Potomac Bridge for study as one option to add to the region’s long range transportation plan. Northern Virginia also has a draft transportation plan out for public comment (deadline of July 23) that includes not only the northern bridge, but also a southern bridge to Charles County, and the Bi-County Parkway between Prince William and Loudoun Counties – segments of an outer beltway long sought by developers of rural land in outer areas of the region.
“The upper Potomac Bridge and other segments of an outer beltway are back, as a result of the latest multimillion dollar lobbying campaign that began back in 2010,” said Stewart Schwartz, Executive Director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, whose partners in opposing the outer beltway include the region’s leading conservation and transportation reform groups.
In 2010, longtime Virginia developer John “Til” Hazel, the CEO of NVHomes Dwight Schar, and Montgomery and Loudoun developer Bob Buchanan, formed the 2030 Group with what we believe is an underlying and primary goal of pressing for an upper Potomac Bridge (Buchanan testimony in 2015 to Virginia Commonwealth Transportation Board) as part of an outer beltway including the Bi-County Parkway. They in-turn provided funding to the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance and jump-started the Suburban Maryland Transportation Alliance (SMTA). The two groups did what many consider to be a “push-poll” to try to demonstrate support for a new bridge. The poll did not include information about costs, trade-offs, induced demand, land use, or other factors involved in real world transportation and land use planning.
“This is just the latest campaign spearheaded by Mr. Hazel and others for the bridge and outer beltway,” said Schwartz. Previous efforts took place in 1980, 1988, 1997, 2000, and 2003.
“These projects would be totally at odds with the region’s vision in the Region Forward Plan and would undermine the network of transit-oriented development which is so much in demand today. It would worsen auto-dependent sprawl and traffic, worsen the east-west economic divide, and undermine efforts to fight climate change. Because of induced driving demand, it would add new traffic without reducing traffic at the American Legion Bridge,” said Schwartz “The upstream bridge would also represent a threat to the region’s drinking water supplies – creating a risk of toxic spills upstream from drinking water intakes during bridge construction and from tanker truck spills.”
“The bridge has been studied a number of times before and shown to not be needed while also risking great harm to neighborhoods and the environment,” said Schwartz. “Moreover, during a time when the market is demanding urban, transit-oriented environments, and when we need to reinvest in Metro to the tune of about $25 billion while fixing other existing needs like the American Legion Bridge, this upper bridge proposal is a wasteful diversion of time and potentially billions of dollars.”
“The TPB should not have to study it yet again, and Northern Virginia officials should be taking the bridges and outer beltway out of their draft plan,” said Schwartz.
In 2003-2004 VDOT and the TPB did an “Origin-Destination Study,” which tracked every morning rush hour license plate crossing the American Legion Bridge. It showed that only a small percentage of the trips could be considered the so called “U-shaped” commutes from Loudoun/W Fairfax to Frederick/Upcounty Montgomery that might use a new bridge. The overwhelming commutes were radial or to/from destinations on, inside or near the Beltway.
In 2015, VDOT did another study, this time looking just at Virginia commute origins and destinations and reconfirmed that just a small percentage of commutes were U-shaped — with the overwhelming majority radial or “L-shaped.” The study showed that the Rosslyn Metro tunnel carried the largest share of cross-Potomac trips, and concluded that the Rosslyn tunnel and American Legion Bridge were the locations needing high-priority investment.
An earlier study in 2000-2001 of actual upriver route options between Virginia and Maryland by the Federal Highway Administration, and initiated at the behest of Congressman Frank Wolf, resulted in a huge outcry on both sides of the river. The impact to neighborhoods was so severe that Congressman Wolf ordered the study to be halted. The following extract from the Fairfax Times, May 29, 2001, study captures what happened:
The Federal Highway Administration announced late last week that it was canceling its year-long, $2 million review of the so-called Techway at the request of U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-10th), who said it’s creating too much heartburn among area homeowners.
“I’m not going to be at war with the people I represent, saying this is better for you,” Wolf said to a gathering of Times reporters and editors Tuesday.
Wolf said communities in northern Fairfax and Loudoun counties and those in southern Montgomery County, Md.,–particularly on the proposed bridge corridors–were simply too densely packed with homes.
Wolf presented a map with a spaghetti-like maze of proposed routes for the new bridge and parkway, all bisecting mature communities. One proposal even had the road cutting across the heart of Great Falls before crossing the river near McLean.
But the threat of taking homes has always been a factor with this project, and Wolf couldn’t say why it’s taken so long for planners and elected officials to reach this conclusion.
Moving the route further west put the bridge into Maryland’s agricultural preserve and too far out to make a difference for commuters, Wolf said.
“I asked the Federal Highway Administration what the chances were of this road being built, and they said 10 percent was an optimistic figure,” Wolf said.
“Our groups urge the Transportation Planning Board to drop study of the upper Potomac Bridge – but if they do study it, they must ensure that the study accounts for induced development and induced traffic, harm to communities and the environment, the opportunity cost compared to other investments, and the impact on the east-west economic divide,” said Schwartz.
“At the same time, the TPB’s proposed transit packages, along with land use, and demand management represent the most sustainable and effective set of solutions that will reduce driving demand, improve access to jobs and housing, and reduce air, water, and greenhouse gas pollution.”
“Finally, we also urge the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority to delete the northern and southern bridges and the Bi-County Parkway from their draft ‘TransAction’ plan,” said Schwartz.
About the Coalition for Smarter Growth
The Coalition for Smarter Growth is the leading organization in the Washington DC region dedicated to making the case for smart growth. Its mission is to promote walkable, inclusive, and transit-oriented communities, and the land use and transportation policies and investments needed to make those communities flourish. smartergrowth.net
The idea was ambitious when Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett pitched it in 2008: transform 90 acres of county-owned industrial land at the Red Line’s Shady Grove terminus into a transit-friendly urban village.
Leggett’s Smart Growth Initiative would be a break-even proposition for taxpayers over time, he said, and might even make money as the county got an attractive new residential neighborhood and replaced outdated warehouses and garages with state-of-the-art facilities elsewhere.
But nearly a decade in, as Leggett (D) nears the end of his 12-year tenure, this signature project has not gone forward as expected. Only a fraction of the money anticipated from land sales to private developers has been paid so far. And the county’s difficulty in finding a new site for a school system bus depot has slowed progress on a major portion of the planned Shady Grove community, including a new park and elementary school.
Critics on the Montgomery County Council say Leggett overpromised and underdelivered, adding to the county’s $3.2 billion debt by borrowing against land sales proceeds that have yet to materialize.
“This is just not a good news story,” said Council President Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda), one of three council incumbents running for county executive in the 2018 Democratic primary.
But Leggett says he devised a creative way to replace outdated buildings and pursue transit-
oriented development policies far more quickly, and effectively, than had been done in the past. Even his own staff was skeptical, he recalled in an interview.
“I was the sole person who believed we could move all these pieces,” he said. “You can argue that a few dollars didn’t come in at the precise time. . . . The county comes out far ahead in the long term.”
In Leggett’s calculus, proceeds from land sales to private developers, along with fresh tax revenue from the new construction, would eventually pay for relocating and rebuilding outdated facilities in Shady Grove and elsewhere. There would also be savings from exiting costly leases the county was paying to rent some of the old structures.
After nearly a decade, parts of that vision have been realized. Along Crabbs Branch Way, within walking distance of the Shady Grove Metro station, the first of a planned 400 new townhouses and 1,100 apartments — some subsidized, some market-rate — are sprouting up where a school system food distribution center, a liquor warehouse and maintenance garages for Ride On buses once stood.
Those facilities and others, including the police and fire training academy, have been successfully moved and rebuilt on other county land.
But those relocations got more expensive as the county expanded the scope of the projects and made state-of-the-art improvements.
Changes in menus and increased emphasis on fresh food, for example, added $9 million to the $35 million school center. Advances in training methods raised the police and fire academy price tag by $15 million, to $63.1 million. All told, the cost of the replacement buildings increased by $60.8 million.
At the same time, Leggett narrowed the county’s expected revenue stream by changing Montgomery’s original agreement with EYA, developer of the townhouses and apartments on the west side of Crabbs Branch. The county initially expected to collect $103.8 million from EYA in fiscal 2015, according to a 2012 fiscal summary drawn up by Leggett’s office. But Leggett decided to allow EYA to pay incrementally as portions of the 45-acre site were built, in order “to help them with their cash flow.”
To date, the county has collected slightly more than $2 million from EYA, which has completed about a quarter of the Westside at Shady Grove project. On the other side of the ledger, the county has benefited from $19 million worth of roads and other infrastructure built by the company. It also credited the company with $4.5 million in exchange for building additional affordable and workforce housing.
Leggett has also strategically held certain parcels of county land back from the open market, believing that waiting will result in a better deal.
Five years ago, Montgomery struck an agreement with the developer Hines to convert the old public safety training academy on Great Seneca Highway in Gaithersburg into a life-sciences complex with companies and housing. Leggett placed the $70 million project on hold in hopes of luring a major cybersecurity center to the 50-acre site. That possibility is now less likely. The project has been placed back out for rebidding.
Most vexing for Leggett has been the difficulty in finding a new location for 400 county school buses kept in a 35-acre depot opposite the new townhouses on Crabbs Branch Way. The county agreed in 2012 to sell the land for $70 million to developers LCOR and NVR.
An initial plan to put some of the buses at the Carver Educational Services Center on Hungerford Drive drew sharp neighborhood opposition. Compounding the issue is overcrowding at all five MCPS bus depots. With no obvious available option, Leggett this spring ordered a study before he decides what to do about the Shady Grove depot. It is likely to delay development by 12 to 18 months more, at least, he said.
Council member George Leventhal (D-At Large) said it was “not good planning” to jump into the development venture without knowing where the depot would be moved.
“I don’t think it’s something we can foist on a community just to transform a Metro station,” said Leventhal, also a candidate to succeed Leggett as county executive.
The Shady Grove initiative has generated an unexpected level of debt. Most big capital improvements, such as roads and schools, are financed through the sale of general obligation bonds, where principal and interest are usually paid off over 20 years. But the Leggett administration, interested in moving quickly and anticipating that land sales proceeds would soon be in hand, kept the smart-growth projects out of the capital budget, opting instead to use $200 million in short-term loans on which it paid only interest. Such interim financing is meant to be retired quickly, to avoid added expense for taxpayers. But the county is still carrying a balance of about $160 million.
“These are hard decisions,” said council member Marc Elrich (D-At Large), another county executive candidate. “It was somewhat of a gamble, and it hasn’t turned out entirely the way everybody thought it would turn out.”
Looking for funds to pay off some of the debt, Montgomery officials announced last month that they may use the $22 million netted from settlement of the county’s lawsuit against the designer and builders of the Silver Spring Transit Center.
The county could also sell more bonds to convert the debt from short-term to long-term. But that would crowd out other construction projects in the capital budget, which caps new bond debt at $340 million annually.
Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, and the region’s leading advocate for building most densely around mass transit, said despite the financial issues, the long-term benefits to the county remain significant.
“Given the growth that’s coming to the region,” he said, “the county needs to take as many opportunities like this as possible, so we don’t choke on our traffic.”
More than a dozen nonprofit organizations are backing the call for dedicated funding for Metro — and soon — saying that without it, the system risks further deterioration and drastic service cuts.
The 18 groups say they are aligning with the region’s business community to secure reliable, bondable annual funding stream for Metro, which stands alone among large subway systems in its lack of a significant source of dedicated funding. Business leaders from 21 regional chambers of commerce and employers’ groups issued a plea last week for dedicated funding and a restructuring of the system’s governing board.
Now, the nonprofits are adding their voice to the mix — highlighting the system’s importance to the region and the potential for further service reductions as key considerations in the fight. The groups, including the Coalition for Smarter Growth, the Sierra Club and the League of Women Voters, released a Statement of Principles in March endorsing dedicated funding and calling Metro “crucial for the economic health and sustainability” of the region.
“Going ahead, it’s gonna take both the business community, with their clout, and the nonprofit community, with our membership, to keep this focus on saving Metro and to win the funding the system needs,” said Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, which is leading the nonprofit groups’ charge.
The nonprofits break from the business groups and some political officials, however, by eschewing immediate calls for an overhaul to the system’s governing board, though they support structural reforms. Schwartz said the Coalition for Smarter Growth is awaiting the release of a fall study by former transportation secretary Ray LaHood, which is expected to include recommendations on the system’s governance.
Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld has asked for $15.5 billion over 10 years for capital needs — including $500 million in new dedicated funding annually — and concessions from the transit agency’s unions. Wiedefeld also broadly supports the demand that board members have a singular fiduciary duty to the transit system, which business groups and some officials have called for.
Republicans in Virginia have said any increases in funding should be tied to labor and governance reforms.
“The one thing we don’t want to see is we don’t want to see political gridlock over structural and governance issues that end up delaying or endangering the additional funding the system needs,” Schwartz said.
The nonprofits say state and local jurisdictions should prevent Metro from falling into a “death spiral” by providing the funding it needs and ensuring frequent and reliable service. Budget woes, stemming partly from lower-than-expected ridership, forced Metro to raise rail and bus fares and reduce service frequency on five of six lines beginning this week.
Nancy Soreng, co-chair of a Metro working group of the League of Women Voters of the National Capital Area, said it’s up to regional leaders to determine how to reform the system’s governance and labor but that funding can’t wait.
“The most urgent thing for us is to get the three jurisdictions to agree on a dedicated funding source,” she said. As for structural reforms: “That’s a battle that we’re going to stay out of, and we’re going to let the politicians sort that out.”
Soreng was quick to note that the League of Women Voters has endorsed a sales tax for Metro since at least 1980, as the group’s website reflects.
“A sales tax which excludes such necessities as food and medicines would be the best means of financing mass transportation in the metropolitan area,” it points out. A regionwide sales tax, endorsed by a technical panel of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, is among the funding mechanisms regional leaders are weighing. Soreng said her group is open to other means of raising the money if the region can agree on them.
The Coalition for Smarter Growth stopped short of advocating a specific funding mechanism.
“We believe that the jurisdictions should commit to a level of funding and then find the mechanisms that work best for each of them,” Schwartz said.
The nonprofits are calling for dedicated funding to be established by the conclusion of the fiscal year next June.
“Waiting any longer means that capital costs could rise, you could fall further behind in the capital restoration in the system,” Schwartz said. “The operating gap could increase further, and there could be more service cuts.”