Montgomery County and its leadership pride themselves on progressive values and present Montgomery County as a shining example of a local government that promotes innovative and creative strategies to improve quality of life for all residents. Montgomery County government agencies and officials often speak of promoting diversity, inclusion, equity, social justice, public health, protecting environmental quality, economic opportunity, fiscal responsibility, community engagement, interfaith alliances, high-quality public services, and equitable access to public services.
The Montgomery County Council, Planning Board, County Executive, County Departments, and all other county employees should therefore align their professional actions and policy making with the County’s espoused social, environmental, and economic values in regards to planning, budgeting, voting, final approvals, and implementation.
At the intersection of social justice, public health, environmental protection, economic opportunity, and equitable access to public services, the County Council through unanimous vote has made a commitment to move into a transit-first era.[i] This transit-first mentality specifically refers to the County Council’s pledge to move away from building more roads, and instead focus on improvement and expansion of public transit, such as additional Express Ride On buses[ii] and Bus Rapid Transit with dedicated lanes on Route 355 and Route 29.[iii]
In the endeavor to align concrete actions with the County’s stated goals, it is imperative that the County Council uphold its commitment to transit-first policies by eliminating the proposed Midcounty Highway Extended (M83) and its right-of-way from the Master Plan of Highways and Transitways, and replace M83 with transit alternatives. In Montgomery County- where a commitment has been made to shift our mindset and resources away from building more roads and toward improving public transit - building a brand new, expensive, ecologically destructive and socially disruptive road such as M83 should no longer be considered an option. [iv]
The proposed 5.7 mile M83 highway, if built, would cost more than $240.35 million per mile and at least $1.37 Billion total in taxpayer money[v]. As Councilmember George Leventhal has noted, “I am opposed to the construction of M83 as we simply cannot afford it.”[vi] By comparison, the cost of building the ICC was $136 million per mile (17.5 miles)[vii], and implementing Bus Rapid Transit would be $15-25 million per mile (14 miles fr Rockville to Clarksburg)[viii]. County Councilmembers Roger Berliner and Marc Elrich, and Planning Board Chair Casey Anderson have also expressed concern about the cost of building M83.[ix] County Executive Ike Leggett has made it clear that Montgomery County cannot afford to build M83, and has outright stated “I am against M83. There is no money in the FiscalYear 2015-2020 Capital Improvements Project budget for M83.”[x] On top of the fact that there is no money available in the County’s 2015-2020 budget to build M83, if money from the County budget were eventually earmarked toward building M83, the price tag of building M83 should prompt us to pause and ask the following question: Why would the County dedicate a massive 1.37 billion dollars of the fiscal pot toward a single 5.7 mile road, meanwhile allowing the Montgomery County Public School system to continue to suffer extreme overcrowding? Parents of MCPS students for years have been calling for more schools to be built, rather than the band-aid solution of portable classrooms. There is only so much money available from the County’s total budget, and if $1.37 billion is allocated toward building a new road, then using taxpayer money to build M83 will eliminate a massive chunk of the pie, leaving little left in the budget for improving the school system or providing quality public transit for the underserved Upcounty. In contrast to the price tag of $240 million/ per mile it would cost to build M83, Bus Rapid Transit on 355 would cost only $15-25 million/ per mile, thus leaving more money in the County budget to address the needs of public schools, while simultaneously providing affordable, equitable access to public transit for community members of Gaithersburg, Montgomery Village, Germantown, and Clarksburg.
In addition to its expensive cost to taxpayers, M83 will not help the economy grow. None of the six alignment routes for M83 proposed by the Montgomery County Department of Transportation (including the 9A alignment chosen by MCDOT as most preferred) would pass through an area that will provide any new economic development or residential commerce, or connect to high commerce areas. Instead, M83 would be built through well-established neighborhoods in Montgomery Village and Germantown, part of the playground of Watkins Mill Elementary School, state park land, county parkland, mature forests, 7 wetlands, the headwaters of Great Seneca Creek, and an interfaith retreat center.[xi] As Councilmember Hans Riemer has stated, “I don’t believe any of M83’s six alternatives provide the right solution. I believe the best option for county residents is a mix of intersection improvements and BRT on MD355.” Councilmembers Marc Elrich, Nancy Navarro, and Tom Hucker have also said that they do not support M83 and favor improvements to transit, such as Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) and the Corridor Cities Transitway (CCT).[xii]
There are a multitude of viable, reliable public transit alternatives to M83 which will benefit all citizens without destroying established neighborhoods or pristine forest and wetlands. These include: intersection and traffic management, reversible lanes on existing roads, telecommuting, improved transit on the five pre-existing state highways surrounding M83’s proposed path, additional Express Ride On buses, and Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) with dedicated lanes on Route 355 from Rockville to Clarksburg.[xiii] The County already decided BRT was necessary for equitable growth when the Council unanimously passed the plan for the BRT Functional Master Plan in 2013. That was after years of debate. By deciding to fund roads over BRT, the County is turning its back on the sustainable, equitable future it had envisioned for Montgomery County. It is time to move forward with public transit improvements, and put our money where our mouth is in Montgomery County.
In order to bring the County Council’s actions back into alignment with their commitment to social justice, public health, environmental protection, economic opportunity, and equitable access to public services, it is time to remove M83 from the Master Plan of Highways and replace it with the transit alternatives our county residents need.It is the citizens of Montgomery County whom the legislators and policy makers are supposed to serve, and to whom they will be held accountable. As citizens, we beseech the County leadership to align their actions and votes with the values they proclaim.
[i] Vote in November 2013
[ii]Public hearing in Clarksburg for more Express Ride-On in upco–Mar 7, 2017
[iii] Both BRT routes have Citizen Advisory Committees; public hearing for BRT on 29-Mar 21, 2017
[vi] ibid, p. 75
[x] ibid, p. 75
[xi] Read two reports: 1) Wetland and Stream Crossing Impacts of MCDOT’s Chosen Alternative from the EER Midcounty Corridor Study, p. 31; and 2) M-83 Damage to Forested Floodplains and Tributaries Would Adversely Increase Sediment Loads in Great Seneca Watershed, p. 46 – both in The Environmental & Economic Case for Removing Midcounty Highway Extended (M-83) From The Master Plan of Highways & Transitways