Friday, September 11, 2009

The Battle of I-270, Part Five

By the time the I-270 dispute is finally settled, dozens of politicians and thousands of residents will have their say. But we are particularly interested in the position of one individual:

County Council President Phil Andrews.

Andrews is a compelling figure to watch in this debate for several reasons:

1. His district includes Rockville and Gaithersburg and therefore includes part of the I-270 route. Some of his constituents will benefit from the project while others will be displaced.

2. He has been a long-time opponent of the ICC, running against it during his political races and voting against it numerous times. Andrews once told Washington Post columnist Marc Fisher, “The ICC is enormously expensive because it’s so environmentally destructive that they have to spend hundreds of millions to try to mitigate that damage... There are cost-effective alternatives.” And in 2005, Andrews criticized developers for trying to buy support for the ICC.

3. He has always refused developer contributions and PAC contributions. He has been consistently endorsed by the Sierra Club, the home base of ICC opposition in Montgomery County, as well as the now-defunct slow-growth group Neighborspac.

4. He is a famed door-knocker and stays closer to his constituents than the vast majority of county politicians.

5. He is unusually straight-forward in his public statements. He does not hedge or waver after he takes a position.

Given his history, many observers would expect Andrews to be an I-270 widening opponent. But so far, that has not been the case. In the July 21 County Council work session, Andrews said this:

I would just say, I can only speak for myself on this, but I haven't come to a conclusion yet on which option makes the most sense. I'm keeping an open mind on it because I want to hear what the arguments are on it, and that's why we're going through this. So that's where I am on this right now.
The Baltimore Sun stated this about Andrews:

One person who finds himself on the opposite side of where he stood in the ICC debate is Council President Phil Andrews. To this day, he insists the ICC is a waste of money, but sees "a lot more merit" in the I-270 project.

"We have to do something to address the unacceptable level of congestion on I-270," he said. "The argument will be made that the I-270 corridor is the economic engine of the state and the state has an interest in continuing to see that's the case."

But Andrews said he and other council members may not be wedded to the planning board's preferred plan and could choose a less expensive option.
When Council Members Nancy Floreen and Roger Berliner voted to support widening in committee, I-270 opponent blog Greater Greater Washington said they voted to “continue the cycle of sprawl and pollution.” That would not be a credible charge against anti-ICC, anti-development-contribution, Sierra Club-endorsed Phil Andrews. If someone like Andrews came out in favor of any widening proposal for I-270, it would greatly complicate the efforts of opponents to characterize supportive politicians as “pro-sprawl” or “pro-pollution.”

Why should we care about the position of any single County Council Member? After all, the state will make the ultimate decision on I-270, just as it decided the ICC. That is true, but the ICC was a defining issue at the county level for many years. Multiple constituencies made it a litmus test issue. The business community and the Washington Post editorial board favored candidates who supported the project. Environmentalists, slow-growthers and many progressives favored candidates who opposed it. The ICC merged with the development issue to swing county politics like a great pendulum in election after election. But I-270 widening may not have that same political potential if it attracts support from people like Phil Andrews.

The County Council’s vote in a few weeks may be the first of many. The council voted on the ICC five times between 1999 and 2005. But we believe that Andrews’ decision may direct the momentum one way or the other and help to shape the early stages of the Battle of I-270.