This is part one of an interview with Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett, who spoke to Bethesda Now about traffic, White Flint development, the Second District police station and a number of other issues in Bethesda and the county. Parts of this interview have been edited for clarity. Read part two of the discussion here, which covered police bargaining rights, attracting younger residents to the county and challenges in transportation funding.
Bethesda Now: What are the most prominent Bethesda-related issues you are seeing right now?
Leggett: The level of congestion and traffic, the increased development that we’re experiencing at NIH, Walter Reed in particular. With the attendant employees parking and the potential intrusion into neighborhoods, those are probably the most prominent things that we will hear and have heard over the last year or so. And with the recent announcement of NIH, as you know, to bring in an additional 3,000 employees, expansion at Walter Reed, at the Uniformed Military Service medical facility there, and with the continued emphasis on parking, reliance on the automobile, I think that’s the number one issue that we’ve had. That has generally been tied to traffic and the amount of parking spaces.
Bethesda Now: It seems to be sort of a balancing act between having those prestigious federal agencies here but putting up with the traffic and impacts on residents they bring.
Leggett: We do want them here and we have in many ways encouraged it. Now, the Walter Reed [expansion] is not something that we necessarily encouraged but we accommodated that. What you have to keep in mind is the following: That often times when you seek economic development there is a trade-off, some balance between accepting a higher level of parking congestion, traffic in exchange that you’re going to receive greater economic input as the result of the employment base, jobs, the additional tax revenues that come with that. And therefore you’re able to look long term, yes you’ve got this level of congestion, but here are some of the positive benefits that come with that.
(Leggett, continued…) When you move Walter Reed, you don’t necessarily get that corresponding benefit that you’d normally get if you’re bringing in 1,200 jobs from somewhere else, say from New Jersey. That means those people are going to move, buy a house and now become new taxpayers. Walter Reed, because it was only a few miles away, you don’t get people moving from other places. You get the traffic, but you don’t get all the corresponding other things that come with that.
So, for example, if you live in the District and you work at Walter Reed, the likelihood you’d move to a house in Montgomery County maybe to move a few miles is highly unlikely. But you are going to go on the roads and realize the services that actually are here. So we don’t get that corresponding benefit.
But, when you balance all things together, I think we need to be encouraging of our federal institutions. There is a downside to some of it but maybe you pick that back up on some other institution you get in that will compensate for that.
Bethesda Now: Obviously, development is a constant issue, especially the accelerated pace of it here in Bethesda. How do you balance residents’ needs with the urban area you have here?
Leggett: First of all, you have to keep in mind it is an urban area. And it’s not going to be like some of the other areas that you have less congestion in. Secondly, we have traded off in other parts of the county for density in Rockville, Silver Spring, Bethesda, Wheaton because we have other objectives that we’re trying to achieve.
For example, if you look at preservation of open space and farm lands and transfer development rights. We discourage that and we have rules and regulations that discourage that and in response we have encouraged greater density in the more urban areas and so that’s the trade off that you see there.
Now, it’s hard to convince a person living in Bethesda of that benefit, because they are living with more development than they’ve anticipated. But the county overall, if you go to the northern part of the county you see all that green space there. We said as a philosophy, well we’re going to keep that, reduce it there but we’re going to allow greater density in places like Bethesda and other places.
So, we have to anticipate some of that otherwise we’ll have more sprawl. But this is the way we do it and we were the first ones to champion what we call transfer development rights, where developers sell off their development rights in the rural areas to allow for greater density in some of the urban areas, where we want to encourage development.
The second part of it: Is the pace of development consistent with the infrastructure provided? There are often times too big of a gap by the time you put in the budget the funds for roads, for schools, the resources that you need is not necessarily corresponding precisely with the timing of the development. So it’s the pace and the effect on the infrastructure that far too often is not consistent. The roads may not be fully improved, widened, the intersections might not be fixed until you get further along in the process.
In the [Capital Improvements Budget], something that’s going to be identified as a road that is going to be built four years from now, meanwhile developers can go ahead and start. So they could be through with their development before that road four years from now is actually constructed. And then, what may happen, is once you get to four years there may be additional challenges there so it may be six years. That’s what you have to improve upon to make sure we have those run more closely together.
Bethesda Now: What’s your assessment of White Flint development as it starts to pick up?
Leggett: It’s an exciting project. It’s fairly large, innovative, creative in terms of its financing and one that I think has great potential. It is new in terms of how we’re doing this. Anything of this size and of this magnitude may have some growing pains. Again, we have to resolve the transportation challenges, how you build it. Whether it’s a typical street grid that’s three, four or six lanes across versus something that’s much more urban oriented.
You build a road that is too wide where people don’t feel the ease to walk around, where you have to travel three or six lanes of road, then you take away the ambiance. But if you have streets that are in close proximity, the streets are much narrower then the likelihood that you have people walking around and being part of a neighborhood may be further enhanced.
Bethesda Now: What’s the next step with the Bethesda Police Station project? Are you discussing options with [developer] JBG Cos.?
Leggett: Well, right now it’s in the hands of the private developer there. There are some challenges with JBG and the land owners and how they’re going to work that through. So we’re waiting to see how and when that will be resolved. Depending on how it’s resolved, then we will have to correspond somewhat consistently with that because from what I’ve heard, there are some issues even with the ownership of the land at this point, whether or not they can sustain that.
What does that mean for our plans? That hasn’t been cleared up. It will be, but the question is will that delay the project significantly and does it add additional costs because that would be a different problem.
Bethesda Now: Is the county studying the potential effects of federal sequestration on jobs and the local economy?
Leggett: We are. We’re doing it for several reasons. One, I think we simply need to know and anticipate the growth or decline of revenues. That’s always good to know so then we can prepare our budgets consistently.
But secondly, I asked my staff to look very carefully into this matter because there is a sort of a warning or watch for us on Wall Street sort of related to that. If what Wall Street believes will happen happens, then it will have a major impact on us, on our bond ratings and so forth.
I don’t think that’s necessarily the case because the way we have sustained our budgets going forward and the flexibility that we have is to not be anything that would seriously jeopardize the financial standing of the county.
It will create a problem, but that problem in my mind is not insurmountable. We have the employment base and tax base that could reasonably offset that potential loss. But we would really have to start looking at reserves and some of these other means to avoid that.
People would be out of work, but the massive impact to the county I don’t think is warranted at this time in terms of those who believe that. If you look around, if you’re taking this 10, 15, 20 years ago when a higher, more disproportionate amount of the finance, taxes, employment base was tied to the federal government, those days are gone. We’re not as tied to it as we used to be.
Part two here.
Flickr photo by Montgomery College