Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Have a Drink for the Road!

Sound like a bad idea? Hey, if you don’t want to listen to me, then listen to your County Council Members!

I am writing this blog post from the Royal Mile Pub in Wheaton, MoCo’s best scotch bar. And why am I here? I am doing my part to finance transportation projects in the county and so are all my rowdy friends. Bring out another round, barkeep!

This blog has chronicled MoCo’s transportation woes over and over again and the situation has gotten much worse in the wake of the state’s billion-dollar transportation cut. The vast majority of the county’s transportation problems occur on state highways (like Wisconsin Avenue/Rockville Pike, Georgia Avenue, Connecticut Avenue and US-29) or are connected to transit needs. Every year, the County Executive and the County Council send a letter to the state delegation outlining their highest priorities for state projects. And the projects move through the state capital program slower than frozen molasses.

Here’s one example. The stretch of Georgia Avenue between 16th Street and Forest Glen Road, commonly known as Montgomery Hills, is a blighted mess. Crumbling buildings, ugly power lines, hellish pedestrian conditions and more traffic than any other non-interstate road in the county have produced long-simmering discontent among the natives (one of whom is me). The North and West Silver Spring Master Plan contains a plan for redesigning this part of Georgia as an attractive, pedestrian-friendly boulevard and the county has made it its number one road design request to the state since 1999. This past January, the O’Malley administration included $3 million for project design funding, but that fell victim to the recent cuts. If this were left only to the state’s devices, the natives might never see any relief.

Two years ago, Council Members Steve Silverman and Nancy Floreen came up with a novel way to jumpstart state projects: they would use proceeds from bonds backed by liquor profits. Montgomery County has a wholesale monopoly on all alcohol sales and a retail monopoly on hard liquor. As with all things connected to mankind’s favorite beverage, this monopoly is hugely profitable. By leveraging future liquor profits into current capital funds, the county could get some state projects moving.

Hey barkeep – give me a refill on those Goldfishies! For you non-Wheatonites, the Royal Mile’s house bar food is Pepperidge Farm Goldfish. That’s yet another reason to come here. Give us another round of Loose Cannon too (hic)!

Where was I? Oh yeah, transportation. The County Council authorized $104 million in liquor bonds to pay for new projects, but only spent $31 million. So a joint staff panel from the Council, the County’s Department of Transportation and Park and Planning recommended a list of languishing state projects that would be started with the remaining $73 million in county money. The projects are all over the county, ranging from Montgomery Hills to design money for a new Metro entrance at the Intersection of Death to new sidewalks in Kensington to two bus-rapid-transit lines to relocating a treacherous stretch of Georgia Avenue in Brookeville. Most of the spending will finance design because $73 million won’t pay for a lot of construction. But without design acceleration, we will be waiting well past last call to get something actually built.

The council’s Transportation Committee approved the project list last Thursday, so the full council should be considering it soon. So let’s drink a toast to those Council Members! (Hey buddy... (hic) What are their names again?)