Tag Archives: smart growth

A Critical Moment for MoCo’s Smart Growth Movement

By Adam Pagnucco.

2018 is shaping up to be a big year in MoCo politics.  The Executive seat and four seats on the County Council have opened up due to term limits.  Dozens of people are considering running for county office and some are already doing so.  Discussions are underway among both business and progressive groups on how to prepare for the elections.  But one critical group is so far conspicuously absent:

MoCo’s smart growth community.

Smart growth advocates have some big asks of county elected officials.  They want the county to finance a bus-rapid transit network that will cost hundreds of millions of dollars.  That is at the same time that the county is trying hard to pay for what could be billions in school construction costs.  Smart growth groups are also seeking to terminate M-83, a planned Upcounty highway with significant support among its prospective users.  The current County Council is dealing with the Bethesda master plan and the next one will be deciding a host of others.  And at the state level, smart growth advocates are trying to convince the Governor and the General Assembly to support dedicated funding for WMATA.  Any one of these issues would be serious asks, but together they comprise an agenda that is expensive, difficult and costly in political capital.

When other groups have similar hard asks, they participate in the electoral process to enhance their prospects.  Business entities contribute money.  Labor unions contribute money, make endorsements and run direct actions by their members.  Other groups like the Sierra Club, NARAL, the volunteer Fire Fighters, the League of Conservation Voters, NOW and Casa in Action play too.  The smart growth movement does none of this.  That’s turning into a serious problem.

Many of the pieces are in place for the smart growth community to be politically potent.  They have a coherent, well-developed ideology with potential appeal to many.  They have a flagship blog, Greater Greater Washington, with a vast readership around the region.  They have several effective advocacy groups like the Coalition for Smarter Growth, Purple Line NOW and Action Committee for Transit.  They have formed issue-based alliances with others including some parts of the business community, environmental groups and the anti-M-83 group TAME.  And they have substantial support for some of their priorities.

What they don’t do is direct political action.  There is no smart growth organization that makes endorsements, raises and contributes money and finances independent expenditure campaigns advocating for and against candidates.  The closest thing they have to a political tool is Action Committee for Transit’s scorecards, which are handed out sporadically and not mass emailed or mass mailed.  For politicians who take risks in supporting the smart growth agenda, there is no assurance of offsetting electoral rewards.  That is one reason why M-83 continues to survive despite the alleged opposition of six Council Members plus the County Executive.

Now consider the stakes.  The leading vote-getter in recent at-large elections is Council Member Marc Elrich, who has voted against three transit-oriented master plans along the Purple Line route and is a top-tier candidate for Executive.  Total Wine co-owner David Trone, who could potentially spend over $10 million if he runs for Executive, is an open M-83 supporter.  (See his tweet below.)  The views of many council candidates on smart growth issues are totally unknown.  One thing is sure: all of these candidates will hear from citizens who oppose the Purple Line, transit-oriented development, bus-rapid transit lines and any potential tax hike that will be needed to fix WMATA.  How much will they hear from supporters?

Because of the sheer number of open seats in the county, 2018 will be a watershed year in the history of MoCo politics.  Will it be a watershed year for the smart growth movement?  Or will it be a year in which candidates who pay lip service to smart growth priorities get elected and then water them down once in office, not fearing any consequences?

Smart growthers, that depends on you.  The time to step up is now.

The Giant Purple Credit Card, Part III: Is Pro-Purple Anti-Transit?

Opportunity Costs

The choice to spend vast sums of money on one project requires foregoing other choices. The tangled finances for the Purple and Red Lines (see also here) render it especially obvious. When the fares from Baltimore’s public transit system are needed as a backstop in case Purple Line fares are lower than hoped, the use of the Transportation Trust Fund (TTF) for non-Purple purposes is obviously going to be quite limited.

The plans to move ahead also with Baltimore’s Red Line should further assure that the TTF is tied up for literally decades. Indeed, the two projects have been closely tied together in order to build political support. It is hard to imagine moving ahead with one project without the other, as legislators in one metro area are unlikely to want to fund an incredibly expensive project in the other unless their constituents share in the benefits.

Existing Transit Needs

Montgomery and Prince George’s County already have an extensive public transit system. Both are integrated into WMATA’s Metro and Metrobus system. Each operates its own bus system: RideOn and TheBus. Both are also tied into the MARC system.

All parts of the system have suffered from cutbacks and need investment in infrastructure. Metro, the lungs of Washington’s transit system, remains in particularly dire need of money to maintain and to upgrade its infrastructure. Placing so many chips on the Purple Line will constrain the ability of the State to aid Metro–Montgomery and Prince George’s cannot expect to get all of Maryland’s transportation funding.

Less widely heralded in Montgomery in the face of perennial Metro problems–endless single tracking, escalators that don’t work, overly crowded trains at rush hour despite stagnating ridership–have been the cutbacks to MARC and Ride-On. Oddly, we reduced transit service designed to connect to the Purple Line even as we move forward with building it.

Foregoing Other Transit Opportunities

Some key supporters of the Purple Line recognize these implicit tradeoffs even if they don’t advertise them. In the at-large County Council debate in Chevy Chase, new Council President George Leventhal derided Councilmember Hans Riemer’s support for additional Ride-On service. He and other Purple Line supporters have also expressed great skepticism about the proposed countywide bus-Rapid Transit System (RTS).

The irony here is that for the cost of building the Purple Line, we could build a RTS that would serve all parts of the County. Indeed, a Purple Line incorporated into an RTS would accomplish most of the goal at far less cost than the proposed light-rail system even according to MTA’s own analysis (see also here).

Purple Line supporters like to accuse opponents of being anti-transit–it’s a good simple communication meme that boils down a complex decision to good versus bad. Except that wanting to spend transportation dollars wisely and get the most for our tax dollars is pro-transit. Opposition to expanding bus service and continued negativity regarding an RTS that could serve the whole county sure doesn’t sound pro-transit.

The Bottom Line

We shouldn’t starve our existing transit system and forego future opportunities in order to build the Purple Line and the Red Line. Ironically, we could build cheaper RTS versions of both that would save the State billions–not chump change–and allow for additional transit and road improvements that would truly aid economic development and the ability of all Marylanders to reach jobs far more broadly. Now that’s smart growth.