ROCKVILLE — County Executive Ike Leggett withdrew his proposal for state legislation enabling the county to create an Independent Transit Authority (ITA) after mounting pressure from residents and some elected officials who said the process was rushed and the language unclear.
“Many other voices expressed great concern about the viability of Bus Rapid Transit or about how a future transit system should be financed and managed,” Leggett wrote in a memo Monday to County Council President George Leventhal (D-At large). “By June, I hope we can develop a consensus on the best approach for achieving our transit and transportation objectives.”
The Montgomery County delegation to Annapolis voted 19-4 to accept the bill for late-filing on Jan. 23 and held a public hearing Friday at 6 p.m. with more than 70 speakers. The bill would have enabled the County Council to establish an ITA to govern the county’s transit functions, including projects like the Corridor Cities Transitway (CCT) and other bus rapid transit routes. In the draft of the bill, the council would approve five of Leggett’s nominees for the board of directors, approve the taxes the ITA sets and approve projects on the ITA’s agenda.
After feeling Leggett rushed through the ITA process without public input, Montgomery County Civic Federation President Paula Bienenfeld said she was glad Leggett withdrew the bill but it was important he use the right process moving forward.
“If he does shift gears and says we do need to have a very, very public discussion, I’m not going to have anymore secret backroom deals or meetings and everything from now on is going to be transparent and include the public then yes, that would be wonderful to see. He has some governing choices to make about which direction he wants to go,” she said. “It reflected poorly not just on Mr. Leggett but on the council and delegation, too, that it had to come to this.”
Delegate Shane Robinson (D-39), who chairs the Montgomery County delegation, said he had not yet formed an opinion on the merits of the bill, but felt the public hearing served its purpose in letting the public air their concerns.
“It looks like the county executive is really going to slow this down,” he said. “The county’s going to need to engage more civic groups and other stakeholders to get people on board with this kind of thing and answer the unanswered questions about it.”
County Executive spokesperson Patrick Lacefield said the exact methods of gathering more public input now that Leggett asked to withdraw the legislation are still to be determined. He also said Leggett did not intend to rush the bill.
“As soon as it was drafted, we put it in. The (county executive’s) Transit Task Force highlighted this recommendation three years ago. The CE highlighted it in his Inaugural Dec. 1. To pursue the BRT, we need focus and access to resources beyond what we now have,” Lacefield said. “To wait to file was to wait an entire year to file and at least another six months after that before the council could begin work (on establishing the ITA).”
On Monday, Leventhal and Transportation, Infrastructure, Energy and Environment (T&E) Committee Chair Roger Berliner (D-1) also announced their plans to work through upcoming transit issues one by one. Leventhal said the council will first tackle the Purple Line, which is funded by a public-private partnership with proposals due in March. Next, the council will figure out how to pay for the CCT and then plan future rapid transit routes.
Leventhal said he did not think the ITA would be necessary for the Purple Line because the county already has identified funding sources nor for the CCT because the state has been leading that project.
“We’re very open to working with the state to identify multiple funding sources including special taxing authority, but you don’t require a transit authority to set up special tax districts,” Leventhal said. “Rapid transit vehicles are a longer-term proposition. They hold great promise. We’re very interested in them but we honestly don’t know how much they will cost and I have always believed it is very difficult to sell people on how something will be paid for until you can tell them how much it will cost.”
Delegate Benjamin Kramer (D-19), one of the four to vote against accepting the bill for late-filing, said he thought Leggett made the right decision and would hopefully work with the delegation and residents more in developing his proposal.
“I was very pleased to see that he was this responsive to the community,” Kramer said. “It’s also going to be important for the executive to have the buy-in from the county council and the broader community to say, ‘yeah, this is at the end of the day where we need to go and this is the only way we’re really going to get where we want to be.’”
Many residents at the hearing spoke out against the ITA’s potential ability to establish the entire county as a special taxing district and exempt itself from the county charter property tax limits in section 305, which voters established by referendum in 1990.
“The original purpose of the charter was to take control over our affairs from those in Annapolis and move it here to the people. This bill reverses that intent absolutely,” Bienenfeld said in her testimony. “Many residents are struggling to make ends meet and many of our members are on a fixed income and cannot afford another increase in their property tax rate or additional special taxes on their bill.”
Kramer said at the hearing he felt hesitant to approve something that left so much up to chance. Although he said he understood it was enabling legislation, he likened it to giving a student money for college before he knew where he wanted to go or what he wanted to study.
“(I know this) simply enables things needed for the future, but I think part of our concern is it does in fact simply enable and I think our goal is to have some understanding …of implications of what we’re about to step into,” he said. “Would we not be irresponsible as parents to cut that blank check for Junior and would we not be irresponsible as elected members of the Montgomery County delegation representing the public without the same kind of details that we would want from Junior?”
But Mark Winston, a member of the executive’s Transit Task Force, said the county would be acting potentially without purpose if the state did not give it the authority to establish the ITA.
“The county would be discussing all of those other issues in the vacuum of not knowing whether or not it would ever have the authority,” Winston said.
Although speakers on both sides said they were in favor of transit – as did the state representatives – transit advocacy leaders spoke in favor of the legislation because the ITA would be able to focus solely on transit and speed up the process for long-term projects.