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. Check back tomorrow for part two of the discussion, 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 longterm, 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 its 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 encourage 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.