<i>Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett sits down with The Almanac for some Potomac-focused talk.</i>
Potomac Almanac: Virginia is starting construction on HOT lanes, high occupancy toll lanes that can be used by cars with fewer than three passengers by paying a toll. The lanes are designed to reduce traffic congestion but they are likely to heighten the bottleneck effect that already takes place at the American Legion Bridge. What do you see happening on the Maryland side and would you support HOT lanes in Maryland?
Ike Leggett: I would not be in favor of that. There's a study, a project analysis going on to widen the beltway. The portion of the beltway that is west of Connecticut Avenue creates a real dilemma for us. There are very few opportunities to do it without creating a major disruption, the harm that it would cause to some of the neighborhoods, and then you end up with what we call the Lexus lanes as a result …. At some point you are going to create a bottleneck the question is where is that bottleneck going to be.
PA: The concern for Potomac residents would be that their neighborhoods could become a cut-through and clog up their two-lane roads.
Leggett: I think that they're correct about that. The more traffic you have, the more people try to find what you call neighborhood escapes, places [in] neighborhoods and roads that are not aligned to accommodate that traffic and there are ways to mitigate that … The only real option in my opinion long term is greater transit. We don't have any transit at all that goes across the [American Legion] bridge, so to me we have to come up with ways of getting cars off the road. There's no way for us to engineer that situation to provide the kind of that people want because it’s just simply a huge, huge problem.
Ultimately you have to find ways to provide transit between places like Bethesda and Tysons Corner.
PA: Is that something that is actively being explored right now?
Leggett: Yeah, but it's probably secondary to some of the other projects we have on the counter such as the Purple Line, the Corridor Cities Transit Way.
PA: When you were on the County Council you worked to increase pedestrian safety in Potomac and throughout the county by promoting sidewalks, is that something that continues to be a priority for you?
Leggett: That's part of our pedestrian safety initiative. One of the things that we have to do is significantly increase the number of sidewalks in order to [address] the kinds of safety challenges we have. I had one sidewalk initiative in the budget that the Council decided not to pursue [the Falls Road hiker/biker path]. In my recommendation we had four or five million dollars, it was quite a large project, for a hike-bike kind of sidewalk … they decided to delay it for the time being but hopefully they'll come back to it because as you know going down Falls Road it's [unsafe].
PA: The construction of a sidewalk on Falls Chapel Way in the Fox Hills West neighborhood was sharply debated by residents in the neighborhood. What drove your final decision to build it?
Leggett: What at least to me was the most prevailing argument was that we had large numbers of parents and kids walking and I've had a strong initiative for ped safety and not to put the sidewalks in would have been inconsistent with the objectives that I have pursued, that is public safety and to reduce the number of traffic collisions and we had a good example here, even despite the opposition, where we have clear evidence that young kids are walking in the middle of the road, families are jogging up and down the road. The prevailing thought for me was pedestrian safety and the children of the community.
PA: The Tiger Woods golf tournament has been great for the local economy but its future is in up in the air. What is the county doing to keep it or another high-level PGA tournament in the county for the future?
Leggett: There will be a two-year hiatus at Congressional [Country Club], but after that, Congressional has signed a preliminary agreement [subject to membership approval] to bring it back for three years with a potential extension for three more years, potentially six years going all the way to 2017… Now in that time frame, one year, Congressional will also have the U.S. Open. So for us, in terms of a major draw golf tournament, it's only a one-year hiatus. Now what we've done is to work aggressively with Avenel … to help them make the case for the tournament.
We've also indicated very clearly to the Tiger Woods Foundation that we have another venue in Montgomery County, but ultimately that decision is left up to them. If it was left up to us it would never leave Montgomery County. If it was left up to me I would have the U.S. Open and the Tiger Woods [tournament] all in the same year back to back, but I can't wave a magic wand and make that happen. So we're fighting to try to make sure that the tournament stays here but that's a decision that they have to make.
PA: Have you endorsed a presidential candidate?
Leggett: Oh yeah, the Democratic nominee Barack Obama … I'll probably — with the Maryland Democratic delegation and others go up to Pennsylavania and help out [with campaign efforts] up there. But first we need to make sure that we secure Maryland.
PA: You came into office facing a huge budget deficit. Having been on the County Council previously, what was it like tackling the budget from the other side of the plate during such a critical time for the county?
Leggett: It's a challenge, not so much a challenge of being on this side, but the timing. When I came into office two years ago we were faced with a $211 million shortfall. Then we have the downturn of the economy that has impacted Montgomery County as well, especially on the real estate side. Between those two years we're looking at a $400 million shortfall, so it's a difficult and challenging time in which to assume leadership … [T]here are lots of things you'd like to do that you simply have to put on hold and wait, delay or maybe not even do at all because of the challenges of the economy. That's tough, but I think that in terms of the long-term stability of the county, how we position ourselves, its more of a leadership challenge, and more of a real call to provide the kind of leadership that is needed than you do in good times. Certainly you would love to govern in good times but it's an easier task to do it in good times when you're passed down money and you don't have a recession, you don't have these kinds of challenges. If you look at the greater successes of leaders it has been when people governed under the tough times than the good times.
PA: During the process to finalize the county's budget for the current fiscal year the County Council slated funds for the renovation of the Scotland Community Center earlier than your proposed budget did; now that that is on track what can be done to address larger socio-economic challenges — graduation, higher education, job opportunities — that Scotland faces?
Leggett: Well [there are] a number of things that we are doing … we are going to come up with a number of programs — sports academies and other kinds of things, mentoring services, counseling, some help with assistance with jobs, how to stabilize and help the youth in the area … those are the things that are going to help the community. Making certain that we keep the kids in school, there are a number of programs that [County Schools superintendent] Jerry Weast has developed to help students maintain their academic performance. Beyond that, stabilizing the community in terms of health and human services programs — if you look at the budget there's a great deal that is there for the more vulnerable citizens of our community, we have to make certain that we deliver and have accountability for those, that's the approach that we have to take.
… There's been too much of what I call the transition, people moving back and forth — not just relating to Scotland as such. You find someone who had lived in Silver Spring and then they're in Wheaton and other places … they move a great deal and we have to find ways to stabilize the families in housing that is acceptable with health and human services and with other programs that would help to have some level of stability.
PA: The Maryland General Assembly voted earlier this year to raise taxes for those in the highest tax brackets, something that has a disproportionate effect on Montgomery County and Potomac residents and something that you lobbied against. You have voiced frustration in the past at the Assembly's view that the county is a bit of a cash cow for the state, how do you combat that?
Leggett: We have to fight this notion that the rest of the state treats Montgomery County like we're the ATM machine for the rest of the state. Certainly we're in a better position than most jurisdictions in terms of the tax base, but there are limitations to that and you can't continue to dig so deep into the well that you start to have adverse effects. We are fortunate that we have people of means moving into the county, staying here and adding to our tax base, but we are a competitive market and we have to keep in mind that just as businesses have the opportunity to move around, so do people. When they find that there are significant economic advantages to living other places, they will. And what they take with them are not just necessarily their dollars but the dollars that they would contribute to help all the programs that we just talked about … because that segment of the population — the top three or four percent of the county — provides a huge, disproportionate amount of the local income taxes that we see and our property taxes. It is not as much that you are protecting them but that you are protecting the things that they do not only for themselves but for others throughout the county, and that's what I'm trying to protect … if you start to erode the tax base, the people who are going to be hurt most by it are not the ones at the top of the economic ladder but those that are below them.
PA: What kind of music do you listen to?
Leggett: I'm a big fan of people like Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton … and blues, B.B. King and I love the oldies stations that play the oldie classics.