ROCKVILLE – The County Council decided it needs more time to figure out what to do with more than 400 school buses before developers take over a Montgomery County Public Schools bus depot site.
On Tuesday, council members voted unanimously to give themselves until the end of the year to decide on the county executive’s “Declaration of No Further Need” for Jeremiah Park, currently the site of the school system’s Shady Grove bus depots and some maintenance and training functions.
The council has to approve the property disposition before County Executive Ike Leggett can enter into an agreement with developers LCOR and NVR to turn the 35-acre site into 345 townhouses, 344 multi-family units and 8 acres of split park and school land.
But the council’s joint committees said they want to have an interim and feasible permanent solution in place for the relocation of the bus depots – a solution MCPS officials said they have been trying to find for years. Councilmember Craig Rice (D-2), chair of the education committee, said he is optimistic they can find good solutions in the time allotted.
“The extension will give us a little bit more time but we’ve been able to really start rolling up our sleeves, working together down in the trenches figuring out what some of these solutions might be. We just went on this bus tour and actually looked at a number of the sites in person so we’re really getting closer to what we think will be a valuable and meaningful solution both on an interim side but then also on a future planning side,” Rice said.
As an interim solution, the county and MCPS have suggested distributing the 410 buses from the site to different locations. MCPS said 10 high school parking lots could house 82 buses between them, the Equipment Maintenance and Transit Operations Center could house about 100 buses and some training functions and parking reclaimed from Montgomery College’s Rockville campus could house about 100 buses.
But even as an interim solution, that leaves 130 buses without a home and does not provide a location for the MVA training for bus operators. MCPS Director of Facilities Management James Song also said Bethesda Chevy-Chase High School now cannot be included as one of the 10 high schools to house buses.
And no solution is ideal, said MCPS Board of Education President Pat O’Neill, which has made it difficult to put aside money in the capital budget in advance.
“It’s hard to say ‘spend all this money on a bus depot’ when this wasn’t our choice, when we have so many pressing needs,” O’Neill said. “People have been looking. They’ve looked at multiple sites. We’ve been talking about it for years and years and years, and now the eleventh hour is before us and there’s still no solution because there isn’t a good solution.”
The committees also decided to approve a to-be-determined amount of Capital Improvements Program (CIP) funding for feasibility studies to decide the permanent location of the bus depots. Council staff recommended looking at the Avery Road site; the Oaks Landfill; a garage in front of Carver Educational Services Center on the 850 Hungerford Dr. lot; and the Woodfield Road East parcel near the Montgomery County Airpark.
When the Department of General Services (DGS) put out a request for development proposals last year, it required those who submitted responses to include a viable solution for relocation of the bus depot. DGS Deputy Director Greg Ossont said none of the developers had solutions that worked for the bus depot, but that part of the proposal was not a requirement.
Rice said he would ultimately rather let the experts find a location for the bus depot and just ensure the developer contributes to the cost.
“It’s very difficult for developers to really understand the inner workings and interplay between county government and MCPS, so we really want our best minds on a solution like this when it’s complicated,” Rice said. “That’s why we really want to have us focus on this and then we’ll just send them the bill.”
The county also approved funding for two feasibility studies for alternative education programs, currently located at the Blair Ewing Center on Avery Road. Previously, the county had planned to look at moving the bus depot to the Avery Road site, although some residents in the area voiced traffic, environment and safety concerns.
Residents at the site of the old English Manor Elementary School building, currently not an MCPS school, objected to moving the alternative education programs to the site.