Leggett withdraws Independent Transit Authority Bill

After controversy, county executive steps back, may rethink legislation


A photo of a bus rapid transit system via the Montgomery County Planning Department

After a controversial public hearing Friday night, County Executive Ike Leggett notified the Montgomery County Council he would withdraw his proposal for an Independent Transit Authority.

The council was scheduled to vote this morning on whether to support a bill introduced to the county’s state legislative delegation that would have given the county the power to establish the transit authority. However, on Saturday afternoon, council President George Leventhal announced the proposal was being pulled from the agenda of the council’s state legislative meeting Monday morning.

“The Council discussion of this issue will occur at a time to be determined later,” wrote Leventhal in the terse statement distributed around 1:45 p.m. Saturday.

The move follows a public hearing attended by skeptics of the plan Friday night, and what many opponents called an “underhanded” roll-out of the transit authority, which is being planned to guide and fund bus rapid transit projects in the county.

Leggett first introduced the transit authority with a fact sheet posted to the county’s website on Jan. 23, followed by a meeting with council members on Jan. 26. Even council members said they were surprised by the introduction of the legislation at that meeting. “I get the county executive has thought about this a long time, but the rest of the world was in the dark about it,” said council member Roger Berliner.

The authority would be funded by a new tax, which would be set by the County Council. It would have the power to issue revenue bonds, buy and sell property, enter into contracts, create policies, and participate in a public-private partnership, according to the proposal. The authority’s goal would be to develop bus rapid transit projects in the county to allow for increased development under specific master plans, according to county officials. This would include projects along Rockville Pike in the developing White Flint area, on Route 29 and what’s known as the Corridor Cities Transitway in the northern part of the county.

Particularly controversial is the proposal to allow the authority to raise a tax outside the county’s charter limits, which would have meant the council could have set it above the rate of inflation.

Deputy Council Administrator Glenn Orlin laid out several problems he sees with the legislation in a memo to the County Council Friday. He wrote that the county’s Department of Transportation already runs an extensive bus network—the Ride On system—that represents nearly 63 percent of its budget, and that ultimately a bus rapid transit system is also a bus system, which DOT has experience operating. He says most of the roads where the bus rapid transit systems would operate on are controlled by the state and therefore would need to be built with the state’s support.

Orlin also noted that the council would give up much of its current control over the county’s bus system to the transit authority. That would include setting fares and approving the authority’s operating budget.

The bill also doesn’t create a tax differential, which would allow commercial property owners to be taxed at a different rate than residential property owners. Instead, it would tax all property owners at the same rate. Council member Marc Elrich brought up this issue during the meeting on Jan. 26, saying, “I fail to see why we insist to laying this tax on every taxpayer in the county.”

Elrich said commercial property owners would likely benefit more from the bus rapid transit system because it would allow them to get to the next stage of development, which would enable them to build larger buildings.

“Giving us the authority to separate this into two different taxes is a good thing,” Elrich said.

Elrich also asked for hard numbers about how much the project would cost. So far the county has been citing a wide range of costs that could vary based on the type of system it pursues or which projects it ultimately decides to build.

A 2011 consultant’s report for the county cited estimated the cost for the highest capacity, 150 mile bus rapid transit system at between $15.8 million to $17.1 million per mile, for a total cost of $2.3 billion to $2.5 billion in 2010 dollars. That price excluded costs for buying properties in the right-of-way.

A 2012 estimate by the County Executive’s Transit Task Force priced a 160-mile network at $1.8 billion, which didn’t include the cost of debt service.

Orlin writes that council staff would not support the bill as it’s currently written, but could if certain amendments are made such as allowing special taxing districts to be created, so not every property in the county would be taxed at the same rate, and by requiring the transit authority to submit its budget to the county for approval.

Leggett told The Washington Post he hasn’t decided whether he’ll amend the bill or kill it, but he plans to talk with council members and state representatives first.

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