|The meeting room. Photo by David Hondowicz.|
Thursday, January 29, 2015
White Oak and BRT plans discussed at community meeting
The Following is a guest post by local blogger David Hondowicz, who authors Hondo At Large. David lives in Four Corners, and he formerly worked for Councilmember Phil Andrews for 16 years until Andrews' retirement this past fall. Due to this experience, David is very well versed on the workings of the county government and county council.
About 50 people attended last night's discussion at Pinecrest Elementary School about the implementation of the White Oak Science Gateway Master Plan and related transportation issues. Major concerns about both the overall development called for in the White Oak plan and what is anticipated as part of the County-Percontee partnership for Site II were clearly evident during the discussion. Montgomery County Department of General Services (DGS) Deputy Director Greg Ossont noted that the material terms of the property disposition for Site II (which sets the framework for the subsequent General Development Agreement that the Executive Branch negotiates with Percontee) is pending before the County Council. The Council's public hearing about the property disposition is , followed by further deliberations before the Council takes action. It is worth noting that the Council only has a role in the property disposition process because of Expedited Bill 11-12 (authored by current Council President George Leventhal). Before EB 11-12, which was enacted by a 6-3 vote in May 2012 over County Executive Leggett's veto, the disposition process for County Government property was an exclusive prerogative of the Executive Branch. Deputy Director Ossont did point out that the entire development under this public-private partnership must go through the same regulatory approval process at the Planning Board as any other private development, subsequent to Council approval of property disposition and the conclusion of the General Development Agreement. He also speculated that actual construction by Percontee would not occur until late 2018, at the earliest.
The discussion about BRT (in the context of Route 29 and MC 24-15) was equally passionate. Part of the conversation over the pending study of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) study on Route 29 was whether or not it should take place before the New Hampshire Avenue Corridor is studied. The update of the County's State Transportation Priorities letter, which is a subject of the Council's Transportation, Infrastructure, Energy & Environment (T&E) Committee meeting this afternoon, is a relevant part of this discussion. However, Council Deputy Administrator (and lead transportation advisor) Dr. Glenn Orlin reminded the audience that while the particulars of whatever appears in the final, approved update of the County's Priorities letter is important, what the State actually funds is far from certain and inherently takes a long time – thanks to a huge backlog of State projects, which is only partially mitigated by the recent increase in State transportation revenues (i.e. the gas tax increase approved by the last General Assembly). While there was a suggestion to transfer resources from the currently frozen BRT study on Georgia Avenue to a study for New Hampshire Avenue, Dr. Orlin observed that the final decision for spending at the County level, including whether or not the study on Georgia Avenue remains frozen, rests with the Council, not the County Executive.
There was also a great deal of passionate discussion about the pending State legislation that would enable the County to establish a local transit authority to facilitate a countywide BRT network (MC 24-15). The County's State legislative delegation must approve MC 24-15 before it is taken up by the entire General Assembly, which also must approve the bill like any other proposed state law. The only vote taken by the County's State legislators to date was allowing MC 24-15's introduction, as it formally requested by the County Executive well after the Fall pre-filing date for locally focused State bills. The delegation did move public hearing from a day hearing in Annapolis to an evening hearing in Rockville because of extensive public interest in the proposal. District 20 Delegate Will Smith assured the audience that he has not taken a position about MC 24-15 and he does not believe his colleagues have yet, either. Dr. Orlin stated that while the Council discussed MC 24-15 during their public briefing on State legislative issue with the County's Intergovernmental Relations staff this past morning, they were not planning on taking on position until their next meeting about State issues this upcoming . It was also noted that the actual establishment of such an entity requires subsequent approval of additional local legislation at the County Council. Concerns about MC 24-15 included the late introduction of the enabling bill and about many of its specific provisions, including language pertaining to a special local tax for BRT and the extent of independence that a new County transit authority would have under the legislation's current language.
On the whole, there was a great deal of angst about the future of land use and transportation in the greater White Oak area and its impact on the Four Corners communities. These major concerns were not dispelled by the discussion. However, the meeting will likely facilitate even greater community attention and participation in future government decisions about development and transportation in the area, which is a positive result in itself.