The following Testimony was presented at the Montgomery County Executive’s Transit Task Force Public Forum, which was held on June 17th, 2015. Nancy Abeles represents the Bethesda Crest Homeowners Association, which is located along MD State Route 355, the Rockville Pike.
I am Nancy Abeles and I represent a townhome community on 355 inside the Beltway. I also serve on the 355 South BRT Citizens Advisory Committee, and that of the Washington Metropolitan Council of Governments’ Transportation Planning Board. Additionally, I am a Bethesda business stakeholder. Our CEO serves on Montgomery County’s Comprehensive Economic Strategy Advisory. We are a Cyber Security consulting company, and we believe ensuring that Montgomery County inculcates a safe Cyber environment should be the County’s actual foremost priority.
This Task Force, whose meetings I have been attending, asked VHB consultants to research existing Independent Transit Authorities (ITAs) for potential models to emulate. Apparently the consultant thought they meant an ITA model meant to improve transit planning, rather than one whose primary mission is to tax. The exemplary ITA cited was that of Harris, Texas, serving the Houston area. Its mission is “to more effectively meet the region’s transit needs using existing physical and financial resources.” The Harris ITA used community-based gap analysis to design affordable and flexible multi-modal transit solutions for evolving growth and density. VHB was correct in its assessment: The Harris ITA exemplifies good planning and good economics.
In equal contrast to the Montgomery County Executive’s Transit Task Force’s impetus for establishing an ITA, today’s Transportation Planning Board meeting included a presentation by Northern Virginia’s Transportation Authority. They began as a self-described, “Sub-Transportation Planning Board.” As opposed to our Task Force’s intent to be independent of County government and self-select its officers, Northern Virginia’s Board is comprised of elected officials, citizens appointed by elected officials, and designees from transportation agencies. In other words, they are certifiably accountable.
Northern Virginia’s Transportation Authority was not founded overnight. Nor is it perfect. But the impetus for their formation was to improve overall regional Transportation planning, not to advance a particular transit “product” or to tax. Their mission is to identify, prioritize, and (only recently) fund projects that accomplish the most traffic congestion reduction relative to project cost, or cost-effectiveness. Their focus is on evaluating, ranking and prioritizing projects that bring the biggest bang with the least buck for the widest, most regional benefit and modal balance, since they recognize that no one mode solves congestion.
They burden homeowners only with a one-time tax upon sale of their home. They increased local sales tax and added a hotel tax. Their high bond rating is based on their local business economy, and businesses that benefit from projects stepped up as the primary Transit funders. With an outsized public outreach program, their organizational mantra is, “Collaboration, Consensus, and Transparency.”
Conversely, Montgomery County has failed to institute any process to ensure system-wide problem-solving and cost-effective solutions. To start an ITA without this priority, and to fund a project that’s just begun conceptual studies and technical analysis, demonstrates bad planning. Creating an ITA to divert financial business risk to residential taxpayers is morally wrong.
Equally alienating, making BRT synonymous with higher taxes exacerbates our county’s reputation as a bad place for businesses to do business. Our company can directly attest to this. We recently relocated back to Montgomery County from Tysons Corner, where we only moved in the first place because the County intended to impose a special tax on IT companies, essentially a punishment for companies that assumed risk to be innovative.
Montgomery County’s belated appreciation of the Cyber-Digital industry and its focus on taxes does not demonstrate the kind of sustainable regional management that attracts more residents and high level businesses. Not surprisingly, the County has attracted no new Fortune 500 companies, the kind of enterprises truly capable of contributing to funding for transit projects and with the ability to expand and sustain a surround of supporting businesses, upscale restaurants and retail, etc. The large corporate employers we do have, if they have not already left, have declared their intent to leave. It’s not a transportation impediment, we can attest: it’s the tax burden and lack of realistic business incentives for today’s Technological, post-Sequestration marketplace and business model.
Fairfax County’s Strategic Plan to Facilitate Economic Success credits outright its “competitive tax rates” as a primary reason for its business and economic supremacy. Half of all major businesses in the Washington metro area are headquartered in Northern Virginia. An ITA’s unfettered power to raise taxes here would further weaken Montgomery County’s ability to compete in this region of fierce, as the COG puts it, “Coopetition.”
MC 24-15’s proposed ITA appears designed to avoid financial or political accountability for expenditure of taxpayer dollars. From a business standpoint, we moreover ask how this Task Force can fairly advise when its own 2012 report mandates the very entity the Bill proposes?
Thank you for this opportunity to comment.
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