BRT network a very distant reality for Montgomery County, lawmakers say

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Local,Maryland,Transportation,Rachel Baye

A proposed $1.8 billion, 160-mile rapid bus network in Montgomery County is unrealistic for the near future given the county's financial outlook, several county lawmakers say.

A fiscal plan presented to the County Council on Tuesday predicted a $71 million budget hole in fiscal 2014, with the budgets for departments like libraries, transportation, police and firefighters needing 5 percent cuts.

The bus network plan and that fiscal situation "are in different realities," said Councilman Hans Riemer, D-at large. "People need to get back to the one that our residents live in."

With half of the county's budget devoted to school expenses -- the result of recent state legislation -- the county has less money to spend on everything else, including transportation projects, said Councilman Craig Rice, D-Germantown.

"If you're looking to ratchet up spending for something ... you're going to have to tie it into increased taxes or a reduction in something else, if you can find it," he said.

The bus network would be worth the cost because it would help increase development in the northern and eastern parts of the county, said Councilman Marc Elrich, D-at large. "If you don't do this, you don't get the economic growth, which means you don't get the tax revenues."

Proponents of the bus network have suggested a special property tax that could increase property taxes for some by more than 15 percent.

But taxes are unlikely to gain much support, said Councilman Phil Andrews, D-Gaithersburg/Rockville.

Instead, Elrich suggested adding the project to the county's growing list of construction projects, which are funded through county bonds.

Adding more construction projects means collecting more debt, said Councilwoman Valerie Ervin, D-Silver Spring. Debt repayment costs are expected to grow 6.8 percent to $303.5 million in fiscal 2014, more than most departments' budgets.

"We have a serious structural budget deficit problem," she said. "Meanwhile, we have council members who have ideas about building bus rapid transit and other transit programs, and we don't have the money for it."

Instead of adding more to the county's construction budget, the county could replace other construction projects, namely roads, Elrich suggested.

The bus network doesn't have to be built all at once, said County Executive Ike Leggett. "You can build it leg by leg, piece by piece, over a long period of time."

But Rice said it doesn't make sense to build until the county can afford it.

"It's definitely important and vital for economic development and for all of those things, but, again, it has to be affordable."

rbaye@washingtonexaminer.com

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