Message From County Executive on MoCo’s Current COVID-19 Situation, I-495 & I-270, and Homelessness
Per Montgomery County:
Message from the County Executive
Locally, the news around COVID-19 vaccinations continues to be quite positive, but our average number of cases is rising. We continue to remain concerned about the increase in the Delta variant cases and are watching carefully.
On the brighter side, about 83 percent of our eligible residents—people 12 years and older—are fully vaccinated. And more than 90 percent of the eligible population have received at least one dose. This is a major milestone, and I want to thank you all for your efforts. We continue to rank as No. 1 nationwide for percentage of the 12 and older population that is fully vaccinated among all U.S. counties with 300,000 or more residents.
These numbers are impressive, but as we know, children under 12 are not yet eligible for the vaccine. This week, the American Academy of Pediatrics announced its recommendation that students–regardless of their vaccination status—should be wearing masks in classrooms. We are working with our schools and our Board of Health to provide updated guidance given this announcement. Additionally, I have asked our COVID response team to create contingency plans in order to prepare next steps if COVID rates worsen. Hopefully, they will not, but we need to be prepared.
Earlier this week, I stood with Police Chief Marcus Jones as we provided details surrounding the tragic death of Ryan Leroux and expressed our condolences to the Leroux family. Please know that there will be a full investigation of this matter so that we can understand what happened and why. The County has a process designed to ensure that investigations are fair and carried out by an independent third party that does not have an active involvement in policing here, which is why the Howard County State’s Attorney investigates Montgomery County police-involved shootings. I have also directed the police to do a full review of the incident and their tactics so we can help make sure this outcome does not happen again.
I want the residents of Montgomery County, as well as Mr. Leroux’s family, to know that this investigation will be transparent. I have directed the police to release the body-worn camera videos to the public as soon as possible. This will happen after the Howard County State’s Attorney has statements from all of the witnesses. Understandably, he does not want anyone’s statement affected by what they might see in the video. However, we expect the release to occur soon. The findings from this investigation will be used in our efforts to reimagine public safety and to develop strategies that will produce different outcomes.
Managing traffic congestion on I-270 and I-495 – the ‘how’ is crucial
This week, the Council of Government’s Transportation Planning Board (TPB) voted in favor of the State’s plan regarding traffic congestion along I-270 and I-495. That plan did not include the improvements that had been sought by the County and many residents. While I appreciate the State’s interest in addressing congestion, the current plan is inadequate to actually solve these problems. Since I first took office, I have offered suggestions to improve the plan. My office has worked with the State over the past two years to bring about major positive changes to the project, including insisting that it include the American Legion Bridge, that the I-270 portion stay within the existing walls, that the Corridor Cities Transitway be funded from toll revenues, and that the ICC be used to bring cars from I-95 to the express lanes on I-270, rather than crowding the Beltway. We have been able to get to “yes” on all those items. We have sought from the beginning to reduce the costs and impacts of this project as we seek to provide traffic relief.
I want to be clear about what we were—and are—pressing the State to address. For more than 10 years, the County’s position has clearly stated that I-270 should be expanded by two reversible lanes that would provide the additional capacity needed during the rush hours: southbound lanes in the morning and northbound lanes in the evening. The State plan would add four lanes—two in each direction. Only during the peak rush hour periods are two additional lanes needed, which is why reversible lanes make sense, cost less and reduce the additional pavement needed. We also wanted design improvements on the western side of the Beltway that would mitigate against environmental and community harm. We discussed multiple ways to do that with the State Highway Administration, including suggestions that had actually been made by other bidders. Additionally, we have been advocating for a complete solution on I-270 from the American Legion Bridge to Frederick, which needs to include real transit solutions. The State’s proposal only goes between the American Legion Bridge and the ICC. If an additional track were added to the MARC rail line, train service could operate throughout the day in both directions, which is not possible currently. There is no funding to complete these improvements to Frederick, meaning that commuters from upper Montgomery and beyond will continue to be stuck in what the Governor likes to call “soul-crushing traffic.” In the evening rush hour, commuters who need to go north of the ICC will face a huge bottleneck as the toll lanes disappear and all the traffic merges into the general traffic lanes. The State has yet to say how it will fund this part and when it will do this; we have asked that the State guarantee that the whole project can be implemented. So, many County residents, particularly in Germantown and Clarksburg, will start and end their commutes mired in congestion under the State’s plan.
The current proposal increases tolls as congestion increases in order to keep too many people from using the toll road. The idea is that some people will pay very high tolls to ride freely if the no-toll/general lanes are really miserable. In other words, only people with means can buy out of the terrible traffic by paying the tolls, which are projected to be shockingly high. These tolls are not structured simply to repay the project; they are structured to limit the number of people in the new toll lanes. So if you are stuck in the general (no-toll) lanes, as most of us will be, soul-crushing traffic will remain—despite all the hype to the contrary.
The financing of this plan is also flawed and as this project now goes before the Maryland Board of Public Works. I hope that all the details of this deal are closely reviewed and investigated. State Treasurer Nancy Kopp has said that the Governor refused to fund the study that her office was legally required to conduct on the financing of this project. If this is a clean and transparent plan, then the Governor should embrace a careful review of the financing. The Legislature’s own non-partisan staff has reported that the Governor never had an evaluation done on whether a private partner was necessary for financing this project, or whether instead the State could have borrowed the money for less, financed it with tolls (or not) and reduced the price of the project by reducing financing costs. It is no wonder that the overwhelming number of State Senators and Delegates wrote a letter to the Transportation Planning Board asking it to uphold its vote and not approve this project until these concerns are addressed.
I very much appreciate the members of the Transportation Planning Board and leaders of this region who understand that we are constructively engaged in trying to solve the problem, and they supported our position with their votes. I also appreciate the community activists and political leaders, including four of our County Councilmembers, led by Councilmember Evan Glass at the TPB and joined by Council President Tom Hucker and Councilmembers Sidney Katz and Will Jawando, who have been engaged on this issue. Many of the leaders joined me for a rally this week to explain the issue, and we will continue to work toward an actual solution and to help the members of the Board of Public Works understand our concerns.
Over the past few weeks, I have also been talking and working with Maryland Transportation Secretary Greg Slater, including a two-hour negotiation just last week, to try to remove the final implementation issues. We have been raising these issues for quite sometime, including last November, when the entire County Council joined me in raising concerns about the project.
To be clear: from the beginning I have never said “no,” it has always been about “how.” My job is to protect our communities and the environment and to ensure that mega projects are designed as cost effectively as possible. I hope you will read my piece published this week in The Washington Post that explains my position and reasons for opposing the State’s current plan.
I think the Baltimore Sun editorial board got it right when it wrote, “ . . . there’s also something to be said for the just-as-vital process of building a regional consensus over such a huge, potentially disruptive and controversial project as the Capital Beltway/I-270 plan. Better to seek further compromise than jam this down Montgomery County’s throat.”
I will continue to work with the State along with our Councilmembers, State and Congressional delegations, and most importantly, our impacted residents and commuters who use I-270, the Beltway and the American Legion Bridge.
Recognizing the loss of some who were experiencing homelessness
Earlier this week, I joined County Councilmembers to memorialize some of our neighbors who died in 2020 and 2021 while experiencing homelessness. During the course of the pandemic, we had six homeless individuals die of COVID-19, a far lower number than we anticipated when the pandemic started. Because too often homeless individuals are invisible, we wanted to acknowledge their humanity. They will be missed and mourned by friends, family and those who worked to help them find stability. We cannot continue to accept conditions that lead to homelessness, including housing costs that are unaffordable and wages that do not cover necessities.
Each year, we hope there will not be a need for a service such as this, and it is my goal to end chronic homelessness in Montgomery County. Experiencing homelessness should be only rare, brief and non-recurring if it happens at all. Unfortunately, we have not reached that point. Our nonprofit partners in the Interagency Commission on Homelessness are working closely with the Montgomery County’s Health and Human Services Department to end and prevent homelessness so we can continue to move closer to net zero chronic homelessness.
We must work toward a day when no one dies while living on the street or in a shelter.
Cheering for our local Olympic stars
On a more upbeat note, I want to acknowledge the start of the Olympics this week and note that Montgomery County has six athletes who will be participating in this year’s Games in Tokyo.
Swimming superstar Katie Ledecky will continue her quest to break her own records, and we will be rooting for wrestler Helen Maroulis, who also is returning to the Games. The newcomers to the Olympics from Montgomery County are swimmers Phoebe Bacon and Andrew Wilson and gymnast Kayla DiCello, who is an alternate. In addition, Kennedy High School graduate Thea LaFond will represent the Caribbean nation of Dominica in the long jump. I hope all of you will tune in and cheer for these incredible hometown athletes.
As always, thank you for your support and your understanding.