Well, here we are again. Another big, wet storm and power outages that have taken out a third of our county.
I am one of the lucky ones - our lights flickered, briefly went dark, but then miraculously, they came back on and stayed on. I had told my wife and son that in this kind of heavy wet storm, tree limbs would be snapping, power lines would be coming down, and predicted a long, cold night, particularly since we always lose power in storms like this. But we didn't, and I would hazard to guess that it is because Pepco did some serious tree trimming along the roads that our power lines run along.
But, I know many of you have not been so fortunate. The President of Pepco called me last night and briefed me on the state of affairs, and their efforts to restore power. I will continue to monitor the situation and continue to work hard on the long term solutions that will hold Pepco accountable for providing highly reliable service (see below).
BS (that's Before Storm!), I was going to lead this newsletter with some reflections on the President's State of the Union address because it so mirrors our own county's challenges and opportunities. The President spoke of the necessity to create a green economy; the need to invest in transit, good teachers, and community colleges; making government more efficient and more responsive to the needs of the business community; getting a handle on our deficit spending and freezing discretionary spending. Sound familiar? It should. These are the very same challenges and opportunities we face, and like our country, if we do so, we will move forward into the future with reason to be confident about the state of our county. I think that is why his address was so favorably received by those who watched it ...it resonated with their lives and their situation.
Well, enough pontificating. Below you will find information on some of the issues that I am working on and that are important to District 1 residents and our county. Stay safe ...
An Update on Pepco
Given yesterday's storm there are several items to report to you regarding Pepco.
Power restoration progress:
To report power outages or downed wires Pepco has asked you to call 1-877-737-2662.
On a conference call with Pepco executives today at 1:00 PM, I was assured that the vast majority of power outages would be restored by 11 PM tomorrow evening. That said, it is possible that restoration will continue into the weekend until all power is restored. As of this moment in time, there are 168,000 people without power in the Pepco service area with 115,000 of those in Montgomery County.
Pepco has 11,000 people working round the clock to restore power with local contract crews being brought in and crews from Ohio and the Delmarva area assisting as well. The nature of the snow with its heavy, thick and wet quality was a not a good friend to our trees or our power lines. We do have good coordination going between the County crews that are plowing and the need to get Pepco crews into power affected neighborhoods. There are two Pepco employees assigned to the County's Emergency Preparedness Center working to make sure that plows get into areas with power outages. Pepco reported 2,000 down wire reports and 124,000 calls into their call center.
Our office has been flooded with calls and emails from people who are simply fed up; who continuously got a busy signal when they tried to report a downed line; who called to report an outage last night, and when they went online today, the Pepco map did not show the outage; who are concerned about food safety; who wonder when this will get better. I certainly share your frustration. I have already asked Pepco executives to brief our T&E Committee on February 7th at 2 PM on their response to this storm and their plans to upgrade their system. That briefing will be televised.
Maryland Public Service Commission action: I am pleased to report that every indication suggests that the Maryland Public Service Commission, the state agency that has exclusive and complete authority over Pepco, has gotten the message that there needs to be "standards" for reliability. On January 13, 2011 the Maryland PSC published a proposed rule governing Maryland utilities and the reliability of their service. This proposed rule is comprehensive and covers a wide range of issues, including how fast electrical service must be restored and even how quickly phones must be answered.
While I may differ on how this issue should be addressed, what the penalties should be for failure to meet the standards, and the need for state legislation, the MPSC appears committed to making progress... and that is a good thing. Comments on the proposal are due on February 18th and I will be working with the County Executive and my Council colleagues on our response.
Vegetation management: Pepco has been quite busy trimming and removing tress. We have heard from many of you questioning their decisions as to when, how and how much to trim or cut. We are trying to work with Pepco to assure that good quality practices are used and that consumers are consulted. You should know that utility pruning is solely aimed at line clearance and does not provide for removal of all dead limbs. Comcast does its own pruning and it can be confusing as to which lines are electric and which belong to other utilities.
County Executive's Reliability Working Group:Montgomery County has a Pepco Working Group that is made up of community leaders who were appointed to investigate the reliability of Pepco's service in Montgomery County and formulate concrete steps necessary to improve that service. The Working Group will be reporting to the County Executive in April. In order to gather first hand information, the Working Group is asking consumers to reply to a survey that you can access here.I hope you will help the Working Group with their work and take the opportunity to respond to the survey before January 31, 2011.
Looking Ahead as Chair of T&E
In my last issue, I shared with you some of my transportation and infrastructure objectives as the new Chair of the Transportation, Infrastructure, Energy & Environment Committee. I have already begun that work, as a segment that follows on our Bus Rapid Transit briefing illustrates. Here, let me briefly (hah) discuss a few of the energy and environmental issues that I hope to make progress on over the course of the next four years.
Pepco: What is more important than doing everything our county can do to make sure that the Maryland Public Service Commission requires Pepco to provide us with highly reliable service? Nothing. It is my number one priority and I will continue to work with our state representatives and the Governor to make sure that Pepco quickly makes the investments necessary to get there and is held accountable if they don't.
Residential Energy Efficiency Retrofits: Our county is among a handful of jurisdictions across the country to pass legislation similar to the bill I sponsored allowing home owners to obtain a low cost loan to reduce your utility bills and have that loan repaid over 15 years as an add-on to your property taxes. This so-called PACE program (Property Assessed Clean Energy) was effectively killed late last year by the Federal Housing Financing Authority when it determined that the program would threaten mortgages.
That ruling was so very regrettable. The concerns of the mortgage banking industry could be addressed. But, be that as it may, we now need to find an alternative path to achieving the goal of the program - reducing energy consumption, utility bills, and greenhouse gas emissions from our homes. Almost 1/3 of our county's greenhouse gases comes from our homes. I don't know what Plan B is yet, but I am committed to pursuing it.
Climate Action Plan: As a result of legislation our Council passed, we have developed a comprehensive Climate Action Plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The next critical step is adopting "metrics" - getting real as to how much we can reduce our emissions by the year 2015 and 2020 and how we are going to get there. We also need to enlist you, our citizens, to help us change the energy consumption patterns and culture. Community based challenges, competitions, and education can make a big difference in shifting how we think about energy use.
Trees: Trees play a vital role in so much of what we are seeking to achieve in our county. They are critical to storm water, provide greenhouse gas relief, reduce heat, add to the value of homes and property, and are aesthetically desirable. And, our current laws do not do enough to protect them. We have been waiting for several years now for a comprehensive rewrite and strengthening of our county's Forest Conservation Law that currently only addresses the removal of 40,000 square feet of trees, the equivalent of four forests. I believe we can and should provide more protection to forests, to our tree canopy in the down county, and to street trees. I am meeting with leaders of our environmental and development community on this issue, as well as with our Department of Environment to work through the details of alternative approaches that reconcile more protections without imposing an undue burden on our economy and development community.
The Upcounty and Clarksburg: Clarksburg is home to one of our most important and fragile streams, Ten Mile Creek. Based on our experience to date, our county officials believe that the level of development that was previously (and controversially) approved years ago will cause an unacceptable degradation of this stream. We need to learn the lessons of the past and be prudent stewards of our environment. The Master Plan that was adopted previously recognized that we may need to revisit the level of and location of Clarksburg future development, and we will need to do just that.
Storm Water Protections: Fortunately, Montgomery County is one of the nation's leaders when it comes to stormwater protection. We recognize that stormwater contributes to the degradation of our beloved Chesapeake Bay, and we are committed to doing our part. Most of the focus is on new development and how new development can keep its water on site, but the reality is that existing homes and development must do more too. This will be an ongoing issue for our county and our region.
Again, these are just a few of the issues that my committee will be addressing in the years ahead. You should always feel free to contact me with your own suggestions of how we can become a model sustainable, green, livable and prosperous community.
Briefing on Bus Rapid Transit (BRT)
On January 24, the T&E Committee held the first in a series of briefings on the state of -- and future of -- our county's transit system. There is a growing consensus that our county's future -- economically as well as our quality of life -- is inextricably linked to creating a world class transit system in our county.And despite a most commendable commitment of county resources to Ride-On, our support for both the Purple Line and the CCT, and our regional efforts through WMATA, we are not where we need to be.
Bus Rapid Transit, or more simply, Rapid Transit, is quickly emerging as the optimal path forward for significantly reducing vehicle miles traveled and congestion.It is practically indistinguishable from fixed rail in terms of its look and feel; it is far less expensive; far more flexible; and can be implemented so much faster.Our own thinking on this issue would not be where it is today but for the extraordinary efforts of my colleague, Councilmember Elrich, to whom we owe a great debt of gratitude.He has spent years studying this approach and years advocating for it.And I believe his time, and BRT's time, has now come.
And timing is important.We are at a particularly propitious moment when all the stars are aligned in favor of BRT.The Obama Administration could not be more explicit -- it is looking to support transit projects that are part of a larger commitment to sustainability and smart growth land use development.The state legislature is seriously considering increasing the gasoline tax to replenish the Transportation Trust Fund this year.And our county has an ideal "pilot" BRT project within its grasp, starting with the White Flint Sector Plan and connecting north to the CCT and south through the expanded National Naval Medical Center, Bethesda, and down to Friendship Heights.By turning Rockville Pike/Wisconsin Avenue-- our state's most important economic corridor -- into a Sustainable Transportation Corridor, we can be a national model and leader for creating livable communities.
The committee heard from a panel of internationally and nationally recognized experts who provided an overview of what BRT is and where it has been successful and then from a panel led by my colleague Councilmember Elrich on the prospects for BRT here in Montgomery County.I want to thank all of our guest speakers for taking time out of their busy schedules to share their experience and wisdom with us:Michael Replogle, Global Policy Director and Founder, Institute for Transportation and Development Policy; Brendan Finn, Senior Transport Consultant, ETTS - European Transport and Telematics Systems, Ltd.; Sam Zimmerman, Urban Transport Advisor, World Bank and former Director of Planning for the Federal Transit Administration; Jack Gonsalves, PB Consult, Eugene, Oregon; Evan Goldman, Federal Realty Investment Trust, Francine Waters, Lerner Enterprises; Al Roshdieh, Deputy Director, Montgomery County Department of Transportation, and Marc Elrich, Montgomery County Councilmember.The committee session can be viewed in its entirety here.
Chevy Chase Lake Sector Plan
The Planning Department has begun the process of developing the Chevy Chase Lake Sector Plan, which kicked off with the first in a series of mediator-facilitated meetings on January 10th.
This meeting featured presentations from landowners within the sector plan. You can watch the meeting on the Planning Department website and download the meeting presentations from:
Chevy Chase Land Co.
Housing Opportunities Commission
Howard Hughes Medical Institute
You might also be interested in the background packet or the handout, also on the website.
Water Quality in Montgomery County
Please rest assured that the drinking water provided by the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC) to its customers meets all federal standards established by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Late last year, the Environmental Working Group, a non-profit advocacy organization, issued a report about chromium-6 levels in drinking water in the Untied States and cited Bethesda as having tested positive for this agent. While chromium-6 has been banned as an anti-corrosive agent in industrial cooling towers, federal water standards do not distinguish between chromium-3 and the more toxic chromium-6.
Given the concerns about our drinking water quality that the report raised, I wrote to Jerry Johnson, General Manager of the WSSC, to urge him to work with EPA. Lisa Jackson, Administrator of EPA has issued guidance recommending how public water systems might enhance monitoring and sampling programs specifically for hexavalent chromium. WSSC is looking at the EPA guidance and will be reporting back to me on their plans.
Zoning Code Rewrite: What is it and What Does it Mean?
The County is currently in the process of rewriting our Zoning Ordinance, or Zoning Code.For those of you wondering what a zoning code is, it can generally be described as a set of local rules regulating the use and development of property. Zoning ordinances typically divide a community into land use districts or "zones" and specify the allowable uses within each of those zones. For example, some communities, like Montgomery County, divide land into industrial zones, commercial zones, and one or more residential zones.
It has been 33 years since our County's Zoning Code was last comprehensively rewritten in 1977. Based on stakeholder input, it has been pointed out frequently that this 1152 page code is unwieldy and difficult to use.The number of zones has nearly tripled from 41 in 1977 to the current 120. There are over 400 footnotes and over 400 land uses enumerated. The time has come to update and modernize terms and simplify the organization of this document, as well as to clarify provisions that have been unclear. It is also the opportunity to incorporate a commitment to sustainability, address infill and redevelopment, and add more user-friendly features, like graphics, tables, and images.
But change is not always easy and the zoning rewrite process may not be either.However, the process will be a thorough one with many opportunities for vetting and public comment - even before it gets sent over to the Council for consideration. Planners from the Montgomery County Planning Department are working in coordination with other County agencies and a team of nationally-recognized consultants to improve the zoning ordinance.The Rewrite began in 2008 and is projected to be complete by the end of 2012.
The first two sections of the rewrite have been drafted, presented to the County's Zoning Advisory Panel (a citizens' panel appointed by the Planning Board), and are available for public viewing and comment. For more information, please visit the Planning Department's zoning rewrite website.A few of the initial ideas proposed by the consultants (tandem housing, cottage court housing, and the corner store concept) have been pulled from the preliminary drafts and will no longer be part of the zoning rewrite. If you are interested in the rewrite, I encourage you to keep checking the rewrite webpage which is updated regularly.
Pearl Street and Access to the Capital Crescent Trail
Unfortunately, right of way issues created a bit of an impasse - literally and figuratively - just as the Trail goes into the tunnel and meets the Bethesda Trolley Trail. With the cooperation of several parties and the development of new properties adjacent to the Trail, the right of way issues have been resolved and an interim pedestrian walkway will now be built. Ultimately the construction of the Purple Line will define the permanent access here, but until the Purple Line becomes a reality, I am pleased that people will no longer be climbing though tree roots and over embankments to reach the Trail at this particular access point.
Montgomery County Carbon Tax on Major Emitters
As you recall, Montgomery County has passed the first in the nation tax on major emitters of carbon dioxide. This groundbreaking legislation provides that monies go into the County's operating budget and also offset some of the costs of implementing the County's greenhouse gas reduction measures.
As the author of this legislation, I was very pleased to participate in a national webinar to teach other communities about our groundbreaking new excise tax and to help any interested communities who are seeking to replicate our law. At $5 per ton of carbon dioxide emitted by those polluting more than a million tons per year, the County is beginning to realize substantial revenues from the excise tax. To date, over $6.8 million has been collected from the Mirant Corporation - without any contribution from individual tax payers in Montgomery County.
Also participating with me in the webinar was Mike Tidwell, Director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. Mike was most instrumental in helping to pass the tax bill. The webinar was sponsored by ICLEI - a non-profit organization dedicated to Local Governments for Sustainability.
The tax has been challenged in Federal court by the Mirant Corporation. Montgomery County has successfully defended its right to impose excise taxes as the courts set aside Mirant's argument that the tax was a fine and not a tax. It is now pending in the federal Court of Appeals.
I will soon have the webinar on my web site so you can listen if you'd like.
A New Parking Garage at Glenmont Metro
On January 18, I joined Congressman Van Hollen, County Executive Leggett, and Councilmembers Ervin, Floreen and Navarro in breaking ground on a new LEED-certified parking garage at the Glenmont Metro Station.
The Glenmont station has the fourth-highest ridership of metro stops located in Montgomery County. This second garage, which adds 1200 parking spaces, improves access to transit at a facility where parking capcity is regularly exceeded. The project is funded by a combination of State and County dollars and is expected to contribute to increased Metro ridership.
Odds and Ends
Important Snow-Related Towing Information: As a result of yesterday's storm, hundreds of vehicles were towed from state and county roadways by Maryland State Police and Montgomery County Police. This was necessary to enable emergency response to critical incidents and to facilitate snow removal from our area roadways. Maryland State Police and Montgomery County Police are working with numerous towing companies. For more information, including phone numbers to call if your vehicle has been towed, click here.
Pepco Announces Business Energy Program: The Pepco C&I (Commercial and Industrial) Energy Savings Program (for Maryland customers only) is designed to promote and encourage energy efficiency projects, large and small. From changing out light fixtures to replacing major mechanical equipment, the program provides cash incentives for installing energy efficiency technologies as well as other incentives to help make businesses more energy efficient. Pepco will provide information and guidance on selecting technologies as well as introducing you to a network of providers who can do the installing. Learn more about this program here.
Countdown Signals Installed on Wisconsin Avenue: In an area that experienced 17 pedestrian collisions between 2005 and 2009, the Montgomery County Department of Transportation, in collaboration with the State Highway Administration, has installed countdown signals to enhance pedestrian safety along Wisconsin Avenue where it intersects with Leland Street, Willow Lane/Bethesda Avenue, Elm Street, Elm Street/Waverly Street, and Old Georgetown Road.
Suspect Wanted for Art Work Theft is in Custody: Montgomery County Police have located the suspect wanted in the theft of art work from the Dennis and Phillip Ratner Museum valued at approximately $90,000. The suspect was found sleeping in his vehicle in the Wildwood Shopping Center located at Old Georegtown Road and Democracy Boulevard. Read MCPD's press release here.
MCPS Hosting Forum for New Superintendent Search in Bethesda: The Board of Education is hosting a series of forums for members of the community to weigh in on the search for a new superintendent. One will be taking place in Bethesda at Bethesda Elementary School at 7 PM on February 1. For more information, click here.
Cabin John Home Invasion: Montgomery County Police continue to investigate a mid-day home invasion that took place earlier this month in Cabin John. They do not believe it was a random crime. Read the full press release from MCPD here.
Vacancy on the BUP Board: The Bethesda Urban Partnership is looking for a representative or owner of an optional method development to fill a vacancy on their Board of Directors. BUP
is responsible for the maintenance of streetscape and streetscape amenities, the promotion and organization of promotional activities, the Bethesda Arts and Entertainment District, management of the transportation management district, and other similar activities. For more info, click here.