Thursday, June 18, 2015

Citizens slam Montgomery County independent transit authority (ITA) proposal (Photo)

The same proposal for a Montgomery County Independent Transit Authority was put on the table again last night, and residents didn't like it any more than they did last January. About 50 people turned out to argue for or against the ITA legislation, which - if passed by the Maryland General Assembly - would empower the county to create its own transit agency. That unelected, 5-member ITA, as described in the bill, would have unlimited power of taxation and eminent domain, as well as the authority to issue bonds and carry unlimited debt.

While many Bus Rapid Transit advocates feel the ITA would be the best hope of paying for a BRT plan that would not qualify for federal funding, taxpayers are not so enthusiastic about the idea.

Then again, some on the Transit Task Force, which hosted the public hearing, weren't so enthusiastic about hearing from taxpayers, either. When task force member Jim Zepp tried to ask a follow-up question of a speaker early on, Chair Mark Winston objected. "We can't ask questions?" Zepp asked. "Questions are not in order," Winston replied. "I'm not going to argue with you about it." Eventually, task force members Richard Parsons and Casey Anderson intervened to offer a compromise on the number of questions that could be asked, which Winston found acceptable. However, Anderson grew testy when Zepp later attempted to ask a second question of a panel, shutting that inquiry down abruptly.

Speaking of compromises, there haven't been any by the county yet, despite the overwhelming community opposition. One wonders why they are going forward in the face of some of the loudest resident rage in recent history (Or why the ITA hearings always start at 6:00, rather than the standard 7:30 PM start for most county public hearings).

That controversy isn't based on the misfired rollout of the legislation last winter, South Four Corners Citzens Association Vice President Larry Dickter testified. "Rather, it was and remains the very concept of an unelected, unaccountable entity, with powers of eminent domain and the authority to spend hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars, without being required to submit its capital or operating budget to the County for approval that makes the proposed [ITA] a non-starter.

Dickter and other speakers also criticized the tone ITA proponents have taken in responding to citizen and organized labor objections, and their the use of pejorative terms like anti-transit, NIMBY, and "howling unionists". He also noted that under a recent National Labor Relations Board decision, "the ITA could well qualify as a private employer subject to the jurisdiction of the NLRB, and bound by federal labor law, not County statute." Dickter argued that a much less expensive alternative to the ITA would be to create a division within MCDOT similar to the Maryland Transit Administration.

Union representatives sought to ensure there would be no privatization of transit services in the county, and that projects overseen by the ITA would require Project Labor Agreements. UFCW Local 1994 MCGEO President Gino Renne said he also had oversight and transparency concerns, and thought homeowners should not pay more taxes to the ITA than developers. Echoing Dickter's question of the need for an authority independent of MCDOT, Renne asked, "is another bureaucracy truly necessary?"

"We agree the transportation infrastructure needs new sources of revenue," Metropolitan Washington Council, AFL-CIO President Joslyn Williams said. "What we don't agree on, is that to get a more reliable system, we need to privatize." Williams slammed elected officials' recent praise of Public-Private-Partnerships (often called "P3s" for short). "P3 is a branding of privatization," Williams declared. He asked the task force to examine "the failures of P3 across the world," from London to Los Angeles.

Residents and taxpayers were no more enthusiastic.

"We don't want the ITA, and we don't want the sham, scam bus rapid transit," Silver Spring resident Michael Williamson said. He said the sole purpose of the ITA was to enable BRT, which he predicted would be "a Silver Spring Transit Center on wheels", which elicited raucous laughter and applause from the audience. Williamson argued the few supporters of the ITA are "developers, professional transit lobbyists, or those looking for a job from one or the other." "If you think an ITA is such a great idea, put it on the ballot," he challenged the task force.

Howard Greif, representing the Greater Olney Civic Assocation, said the association continues to oppose the ITA, and the current BRT proposal. He said the association could only support a plan that funds BRT with existing local, state and federal funds, permits "documented citizen input," and which requires voter approval through a ballot referendum.

Richard Parsons said "I don't believe this is the only way, or even the best way" to fund transit projects. He suggested limiting any plan to the Corridor Cities Transitway BRT line initially, with a special taxing district along I-270 or countywide to fund it. Parsons also advocated a regional approach, that would connect with BRT systems in Frederick and Prince George's Counties.

Members of the Montgomery County Civic Federation had a different approach, discussing alternatives to both the ITA and the BRT which they felt could be more effective and less costly.

Jerry Garson suggested offering free Ride On service in the county, which he estimated would cost taxpayers $22 million more per year.

MCCF President Paula Bienenfeld, while expressing the Federation's "absolute opposition" to the ITA, also endorsed the free Ride On concept. She also referred to the successful approach in Houston TX, where - without increasing taxes or creating an ITA - the city boosted transit ridership by using data to analyze existing routes and make changes. They came up with a new route system that placed more of their existing buses "where people use and need them" the most. "No one wants the BRT, and certainly no one wants the ITA," she said in her testimony. "Stick a fork in it."

Nancy Abeles of Bethesda argued that the new tax burden the ITA would place on residents and businesses would "further weaken our ability to compete in the region."

Route 29 resident Harold McDougall said he feels the ITA and tax proposals reflect a growing gap "between the citizens and the people who make decisions that affect their lives."

County Executive Ike Leggett testified and accused ITA detractors of making false statements. Leggett said he never proposed a $1.8 billion BRT plan. Silver Spring resident Harriet Quinn begged to differ, saying Leggett's plan was actually $3 billion.

Strathmore-Bel Pre Civic Association representative Max Bronstein criticized the "vague and elastic language" of the ITA legislation, and argued that self-driving cars would make public transit obsolete.

Steven Poor was more blunt, saying there was "only one way to repair this proposal - throw it away." He noted that using state legislation would, in effect, give other counties a hand in our taxation policies. Poor predicted the ITA would prove as effective and efficient as the WSSC and WMATA, to knowing chuckles from the crowd.

I thought Geri Rosenberg of Communities for Transit (which supports BRT) had a good suggestion - requiring ITA appointees to be transit riders. When the task force was asked by Bienenfeld who among them took transit to the meeting last night, only Del. Marc Korman (D-District 16) raised his hand.

Bonnie Bell of the Greater Goshen Civic Association, and also representing the Clarksburg Civic Association, said the County Council actually does have the power now to exceed the cap on property taxes if it wants. But that requires a politically-risky unanimous, 9-member vote, and "We all know that isn't going to happen," she said. "We do not support taxation without representation," Bell said, holding up a mockup of a license plate similar to the District's "Taxation without Representation" model.

Carole Ann Barth exhorted developers to finance the system if they want it. If they're not willing to do that, "you can't expect the rest of us to get on board."

"If MCDOT can't do their job," resident Cary Lamari said, "put someone in there who can do the job," not an ITA. "Give Gino the job," Lamari advised, pointing to union leader Renne. "I bet you it gets done."


  1. Many in Rockville and Montgomery County applaud you for your excellent coverage of local issues. Keep up the great work!

  2. I don't, as a transit supporter (and user) I find he is OVERLY critical and thinks more roads are the solution.

    1. I guess we all have our opinions. I still believe that Mr. Dyer is doing a great job. As far as the "transit authority" proposal is concerned, yes, transit is important, however, establishing a group of NON-ELECTED decision makers who can and will levy unlimited taxes is ALWAYS a mistake.

  3. I really appreciate this blog and its coverage of these issues, whether or not I agree with the critiques contained in all the posts. But even as a lifelong liberal and a huge transit supporter and user, the Bus Rapid Transit and Corridor Cities Transitways concepts seem problematic on a number of fronts--the biggest being that they don't seem to necessarily accomplish their missions in a faster or better way.