Council President George Leventhal’s Remarks on Bus Rapid Transit

photo of montgomery county council president george leventhal at feb 2 media briefing

File Photo

Montgomery County Council President George Leventhal, speaking today in Rockville about Rapid Transit at the Rapid Transit Roundtable sponsored by the White Flint Partnership, said, “I believe BRT offers great promise, but we must take a step-by-step approach to new projects or risk losing the already tenuous public support for transit.”

You can read his complete remarks, below:

“Bus Rapid Transit is critical to the County’s economic and transportation future, but we have to adopt a realistic time horizon and we must be cognizant of the current public attitudes toward transit. We have been promising the Purple Line for decades, and while its construction looks more likely than ever, it still hasn’t broken ground. Meanwhile, upcounty residents are patiently waiting for the Corridor Cities Transitway to give them an alternative to driving, and we have neither a clear financing plan nor a consensus on who is in charge, the state or the county.

“Unfulfilled promises have hurt the cause of transit, but the project which has done the most damage to the public’s perception of transit is the Silver Spring Transit Center. The only transit project that has been constructed in recent memory is the transit center, and fairly or unfairly, it has come to define how our residents view public infrastructure projects. The transit center debacle has eroded public confidence that government can build something even more ambitious and visionary. Any time I talk to a constituent about a big infrastructure project, whether it is transportation related or not, the transit center invariably comes up as an example of why it can’t be done.

“Too many of our constituents have lost confidence that we have a government that works.

“Moreover, hardly a week goes by that there isn’t another news story about the dysfunction and breakdowns that plague our Metro rail system. The public is bombarded with negative and unflattering news stories about transit, which has left a bad taste in people’s mouths about the merits of a transit-focused future. The public is rightly skeptical that we can build a project with the size and scope of the Purple Line.

“We haven’t hit bottom yet, either. Public skepticism of transit is only going to grow once Purple Line construction begins. Have no doubt, the five-year construction period for the Purple Line will be long and painful. Once the trees begin coming down and huge trenches are dug through our already congested streets to make way for the Purple Line, the public will second guess the decision to build it. Forcing a public conversation on how to fund BRT in the midst of Purple Line construction, and before we have fixed our current infrastructure or built even one project that has been in the planning stages for years, will set us back considerably in the effort to convince residents to leave their cars at home.

“I believe BRT offers great promise, but we must take a step-by-step approach to new projects or risk losing the already tenuous public support for transit. The first and most immediate priority of county government should be to restore confidence in transit, and the best way to achieve this is to engage with the state to make the user experience on the Purple Line the best that it can be—By incorporating innovative public art along the route, making the stations welcoming landmarks and by providing quick, reliable service. If the passenger experience on the Purple Line isn’t satisfactory, it will kill any public support that transit still enjoys among riders who have the option of driving their cars.

“Once the Purple Line has broken ground, we should immediately determine how the Corridor Cities Transitway will be paid for. Johns Hopkins University has a lot at stake with that project, and
I hope the university will come to the table with a financing plan including substantial commitments from the property owners who stand to benefit. In addition, I am not ready to give up on state funding for the Corridor Cities project. If the current governor is unwilling to commit his support for it, it will be an election issue in 2018.

“The County’s transportation vision has always been bigger than its budget, but we need a reality check on the fiscal challenges that County government and its residents face in the near term.

“A huge property tax increase is being proposed for the coming fiscal year just to keep the lights on. The County is also grappling with the fiscal impact of the Wynne Supreme Court decision, the State’s Maintenance of Effort funding requirement for public schools and the teacher pension shift from the state onto the counties. In addition, the County must now determine how it is going to pay its additional $40 million contribution for the Purple Line, and WMATA needs a huge cash infusion from local jurisdictions just to keep it functioning at a basic level of service, let alone easing overcrowding on station platforms and adding eight-car trains during rush hour, which our constituents are demanding.

“Over the next two years, more detailed plans will be developed for the Route 355, Route 29 and Veirs Mill Road BRT lines. Each of these projects offers great promise and is a County priority. Within two years, we should have a much better defined scope and cost estimate for each. Once we know how much these lines will cost, we should develop options to pay for them, perhaps involving a combination of federal and state funding, special tax assessments on commercial property owners who will benefit directly from the lines and some revenues assessed equitably from all taxpayers.

“Fundamentally, we must restore the public’s confidence that we have a government that works. I am optimistic that we can get there, but we must lead with results that improve our constituent’s day to day lives, not with talk of tax increases from which the public does not perceive a benefit.”

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