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Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) and Express Bus Service on US 29

I support faster, more reliable transit service on US 29, because it will provide more and better transportation options to all residents and further the County’s environmental and smart growth goals. Under that framework, I joined my Council colleagues to support $7.5 million to study and design BRT service on US 29 and to support express, limited-stop RideOn service beginning in 2018 on US 29.

You can read details of the BRT plan here (pdf), but following are some key features of the proposal:

  • BRT service will begin in 2020
  • Buses will run on the shoulder in the northern section of the corridor (from Burtonsville to Industrial Parkway) and in mixed traffic south to Silver Spring
  • Buses will run every 7.5 minutes during rush hour and every 15 minutes outside of rush hour
  • The BRT system will have off-board fare collection, transit signal priority (TSP), specially branded vehicles, and elevated stations
  • Numerous pedestrian and bicycle improvements will be constructed simultaneously

While the overall plan is a meaningful step forward and achieves impressive travel time savings, the game changer for the corridor is securing dedicated lanes where congestion is the worst, south of Industrial Parkway. At that point, riding the bus becomes a much better service for those who do not have the opportunity to own a car as well as a real alternative for people who have a car. But if the bus is stuck in traffic, many people will prefer to just drive. This is why I advocated, successfully, for a study of an exciting and potentially effective concept for dedicated lanes in the median of US 29 south of Industrial Parkway. The key to this proposal, which was initiated by county residents and transit activists, particularly Sean Emerson and Sebastian Smoot, is shrinking the regular travel lanes from 12 to 10 feet. This makes enough room to add a dedicated lane for buses without taking a lane away from cars, a potential win-win situation. This summer County and State transportation officials will prepare cost estimates for this study, and the Council plans to introduce a special appropriation this fall to fund the effort.

In order to facilitate public discussion about this option, the Council required that the County Executive submit a subsequent appropriation request, subject to public hearing, to fund right-of-way acquisition and construction. This will give residents and the CACs plenty of opportunity review and comment on many salient features of system, such as station locations and the right-of-way requirements.

Finally, I have long argued that the County should be making incremental bus reforms now while we plan for high-quality BRT service in the future. To that end, the Council added money to the FY18 budget to begin express, limited-stop RideOn bus service on US 29 in early 2018. The new bus service will run from Burtonsville to Silver Spring during the morning and evening rush hours. The Council also approved $1 million to begin express, limited-stop RideOn bus service on MD 355, from Lakeforest Mall to Medical Center Metro Station. I believe these efforts will provide much needed service quickly while we continue planning and designing a high quality BRT system.

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Bethesda Downtown Sector Plan

The County Council recently approved a dynamic new master plan for the Bethesda Downtown – one that clearly defines goals for the future and seeks to create options for accomplishing those goals. This vision for the future was the result of a two year planning process, including a major community outreach effort led by the Planning Department at MNCPPC, then continued through the Council public hearings, bus and walking tours, meetings with property owners, residents and advocacy groups, lengthy PHED Committee worksessions, Council deliberations and, finally, County Council approval.

This was no simple debate about building heights and architectural styles, as some news accounts may have implied. The complexities of planning for a future one cannot accurately predict but hopes to influence anyway are enormous. Our work is not yet done. The plan relies on the completion and approval of other fairly sophisticated legislative and policy elements such as:

  • The Bethesda Overlay Zone which will, among other things, define the point system available to developers who must earn their way to the maximum zoning height by providing priority elements such as affordable housing, dedicated parkland or monetary contributions for public benefits;
  • Development of a Unified Transportation Mobility Plan for Downtown Bethesda (to replace the Local Area Traffic Review) which identifies all costs associated with transportation facilities (including roads, sidewalks, bikeways, transit) needed to support the development potential prescribed in the master plan; and, to formulate a pro rata share to be charged each developer at time of development; and,
  • Development and adoption of a Countywide Transportation Demand Management Ordinance to replace the individual Transportation Management Agreements DOT currently negotiates for any development plan that cannot meet APFO standards without using measures to reduce traffic generated by their use.

These supportive components are being developed by DOT and County Council staff and will be brought to the County Council within the year. They are the linchpins on which the Downtown Plan hinges; and, these will be in place by the time any new development plans based on the new Downtown Master Plan are reviewed and approved.

I am proud to have worked diligently with the community, the planners and all others involved in this effort to find and fix potential challenges to implementing the Plan; and, I have great confidence that the ambitious goals defined in the Bethesda Downtown Master Plan will be completely achievable.

Here are the goals:

  • Preserve, create and expand housing opportunities to meet a growing population of diverse ages, household size, income level, and unit types;
  • Transform the urban district to provide safe bike routes and a better pedestrian environment
  • Change the transportation policy focus to include all modes, like walking, biking, and public transportation, that reflect the healthier, smarter, more environmentally sensitive preferences of our community; over time this will be our best approach to reducing the growth of traffic
  • Transform county-owned surface parking lots into urban parks and recreation spaces. Exchange concrete for plants and fresh air by converting surface parking lots into parks and concentrating parking under and in buildings in appropriate locations to meet the essential needs of both residents and businesses.
  • Improve collaboration and cooperation between MCPS and the County agencies involved in planning and development to ensure schools that are adequate and efficient and meet our standards of excellence in education for ALL students.
  • Identify, create or generate new ways to finance those elements of the master plan without dedicated sources of funding to ensure implementation of the priority goals defined in the plan. This point is particularly important for our plan to turn parking lots into parks; without a new source of funding, existing county budgets can provide only a small fraction of the money that is needed to bring the ambitious and transformative vision to reality.

Thank you for participating in this process. I am pleased that we got a much better Bethesda Downtown Plan as a result of the community’s effective engagement.

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Remarks on the FY18 Budget

It’s no secret that I think that the cost and availability of quality PreK and child care is one of the most pressing issues Montgomery County families face. This Council’s attention to this issue has yielded an Early Care and Education Strategic Plan and an OLO report that light the way forward. It seems clear to me from these reports that the first concrete step we can take is to make full day PreK available to all four year olds from families living below 300% of the federal poverty line. These students are overwhelmingly not receiving PreK now, and are starting kindergarten already behind their peers. We then spend many millions more to try to help them catch up.

OLO estimates that this PreK expansion might cost $35 million. I had suggested that we try to find $5 million in this budget to begin this investment. While we learned that it was not possible to get that full amount up and running for this next school year due to space, staffing, and procurement constraints we were able to invest $2.5 million – which will provide 240 new full day pre-k slots this school year for our most vulnerable children. We also expanded our child care subsidy program by $2 million.

For next year’s budget I suggest we try to provide $10 million to continue this PreK expansion. I’d like to work with my colleagues, MCPS, HHS, the County Executive, and other stakeholders to make this happen. Combined with the $2.5 million expansion in this year’s budget, that would get us much closer to the $35 million goal.

I am hoping that Councilmember Rice will be able to bring us a major new investment from the state. I also recognize that, for a broader expansion to be sustainable we need a dedicated revenue source as Councilmember Navarro has been advocating and we should seek private investment as well. I know Councilmember Hucker has been working on this as well. But in the meantime, I am no longer willing to wait – this is a step we can take within our existing system while we pursue these other options.

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Montgomery Council cuts costs to start new breweries, wineries and distilleries

Council Vice President Hans Riemer’s latest initiative builds on success in supporting local craft production

ROCKVILLE, MD., May 17, 2017—The Montgomery County Council approved the Fiscal Year 2018 budget for Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC), which includes a key reform promoting the local production of alcohol proposed by Vice President Hans Riemer.

Local producers of alcohol in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties will now be exempt from the system development charge (SDC) generally imposed on every applicant for new or increased WSSC service from the bi-county agency. Council Vice President Riemer was the primary sponsor of the initiative from Montgomery County.

The councils of both counties have created exemptions from SDC charges for purposes benefiting the public, including for affordable housing, revitalization projects, senior housing and biotechnology research and manufacturing facilities. As part of the revitalization exemption, the local alcohol production exemption seeks to promote the growing industry of locally produced alcohol that provides good paying jobs and investment in the community.

“My goal is to make Montgomery County the best place in the region to start a brewery, winery or distillery,” said Vice President Riemer. “Fitting out a new beverage manufacturing facility often requires new larger pipes because alcohol production itself has high water needs. These connections can cost tens of thousands of dollars. By exempting alcohol production from the WSSC system development charge, we will lower startup costs for new breweries, wineries and distilleries.”

The County’s efforts to open the doors to the craft industry, initiated through the County’s Nighttime Economy Task Force spearheaded by Councilmember Riemer, have resulted in entrepreneurs coming in to the County to establish new businesses. These efforts include:

  • Allowing craft brewers to sell directly to stores and restaurants without going through a middleman / warehouse distributor (the County’s Department of Liquor Control).
  • Increasing the amount of beer that craft brewers can sell per year to customers on location.
  • Clarifying zoning rules to allow craft distilleries to locate in urban and light industrial areas, where they were not previously allowed.
  • Allowing wineries (and farms) to host food trucks—areas where they were previously prohibited.
  • Easing regulations on the sale of beer and wine growlers.
  • Allowing wineries to also sell beer on their premises.
  • Repealing distance requirements that breweries could be located from churches and schools.
  • Extending hours of operation for alcohol licensees to 2 a.m. on Sunday through Thursday and 3 a.m. on Friday and Saturday.
  • Reducing the food to alcohol ratios for restaurants, allowing them to get more revenue from alcohol sales.

Montgomery County is currently home to at least seven breweries: Brookeville Beer Farm (Brookeville), Denizens Brewing (Silver Spring), Gordon Biersch (Rockville), Growlers Brew Pub (Gaithersburg), Rock Bottom Brewery (Bethesda), Seven Locks Brewing (Rockville) and Waredaca Brewing (Laytonsville). Wineries in the County now include the Olney Winery, the Rockland Farms Winery (Poolesville), Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyard (Dickerson) and the Urban Winery (Silver Spring). The County’s only distillery is Twin Valley Distillers.

Several of these businesses opened in recent years as State and County laws have been modernized to reflect the rising interest among residents for craft beer, wine, and spirits.

“The reforms we have pursued in recent years have made the County much friendlier to local production,” Councilmember Riemer said. “Our new breweries and wineries are already having a tremendous impact by revitalizing areas in our urban, industrial, suburban and agricultural communities. The culture is just taking off, and the potential is great.”