The great thing about setting priorities is that it tells people what you believe is most important, meaning more important than all other things. At least that is what the word "priorities" means in all other realms outside of politics.
When it comes to our own local leaders, however, the word "priority" apparently means something entirely different. Politicians love to call everything a "priority," which really means nothing is. They obviously do this to keep everyone happy, but the danger in this muddling of the term "priority" is that we lose focus on where scarce taxpayer dollars really should be invested to do the most good. One need look no further than Montgomery County's apparently shifting priorities on transit to illustrate the point.
Two key projects have been clearly identified by the Montgomery County Council and County Executive Ike Leggett as the county's two priority transit projects: the Corridor Cities Transitway (CCT), serving the heavily congested I-270 corridor from Shady Grove to Clarksburg; and the Purple Line, linking the two disconnected ends of the Metro Red Line in Montgomery County with College Park and New Carrollton in Prince George's County. Both have far-reaching economic benefits for the county and both have been accorded co-equal status at the very top of the official transportation priorities list the County Council and Leggett submitted to the Maryland Department of Transportation for this year.
So, where are we with these two projects, and are they really being treated as priorities? That's not quite so clear at the moment, given two recent developments.
First, the County Council, by unanimous vote, reversed its earlier position favoring a more expensive light-rail system for the CCT and now supports a more cost-effective bus-rapid-transit, or "Rapid-Transit-Vehicle (RTV)" based system. Given the limited availability of state and federal transportation funds, this was probably the right decision. Clearly, it improves our chances of getting the CCT built in the near term, and modern RTV systems that run in their own dedicated right of way, as the CCT would, perform just as well as light rail at roughly half the construction cost. So, even though the county has effectively cut its funding request for the CCT in half, one could still say it is being treated as a top priority because this action means we can build it sooner.
So what about the Purple Line? Purple Line advocates expressed great concern this week over the county executive's decision to drop several million dollars out of the current six-year capital budget that had been earmarked for the Purple Line and the related south entrance to the Bethesda Metro station. Citing the lack of any firm construction timetable from the state, Leggett points out that dropping the funds from the county's budget will make no difference in the ultimate delivery date, but Purple Line supporters are not so sure and are now openly questioning his commitment.
While Leggett may be right that it makes little sense to commit limited capital dollars to a project that has not been scheduled for construction yet, the county executive needs to be mindful of the message he is sending. It's not just this action, but also his administration's growing focus on a county-wide bus-rapid-transit system, which is still in the early conceptual phase, is untested in terms of cost and impacts, and is many years away from construction, that has people wondering what the true priority is now. It may be tempting to jump at the latest-greatest new thing, but with the county's two top-priority transit projects finally nearing the finish line, after more than two decades of effort to win final approval and funding, and millions already invested in that process, it is pretty clear where the priority should be: The CCT and the Purple Line.
Don't get me wrong, I am as fascinated by the long-term potential of a countywide bus-rapid-transit system as anyone. As a member of the county task force that has been studying it all year, I am well aware of the promise it holds, but it is still just an untested concept at this point and first things must come first.
We need to focus on our two top transit priorities, the CCT and the Purple Line, or we risk getting distracted and ending up with nothing at all. If the current lack of funding in the state's Transportation Trust Fund is the last big hurdle, then let's get about the business of lining up the votes for a gas tax increase or whatever is needed to overcome that hurdle, rather than turning aside to pursue other bright shiny new things that, in the final analysis, simply aren't as important.
Priorities are priorities, so let's keep it that way.