The Maryland Open Meetings Compliance Board ruled that the town broke the law when it hired the brother of Bill Shuster, chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Transportation and Infrastructure committee, to lobby against the Purple Line.
The Town's fight against the Purple Line is financed by income tax money rebated from the county. Because the rebate, although intended to compensate for the cost of services, is calculated from the amount of income tax paid by town residents rather than from the cost of the services provided, this wealthy town finds itself with more money than it knows what to do with — $8.2 million in the bank. Effectively, the future Purple Line riders this privileged enclave wants to keep out — less affluent taxpayers who live in the rest of the county — will pay the fees of the hired guns who work to exclude them.
Miriam Schoenbaum, on behalf of ACT, has filed an Open Meetings Act complaint about the Chevy Chase Town Council. Supporting documents include a screenshot of the Chevy Chase Town Council's 2014 meetings, minutes of the Chevy Chase Town Council meeting on April 9 and an agenda for the Chevy Chase Town Council meeting on April 9. ACT has also sent a Public Information Act request to the Town of Chevy Chase for public records on the lobbying contract.
The Town of Chevy Chase and the Purple Line
Through the course of its twenty-year alliance with Columbia Country Club, the Town of Chevy Chase has put forward a long chain of shifting arguments against the Purple Line. Only one point has been fixed and unchanging: the Town doesn't want light rail in its own backyard.
Close examination of the Town's public statements shows a pattern of disingenuous logic, contradiction, and reversals of position. Let us examine in detail the ever-changing contentions that the Town has put forth in its battle against light rail.
Costs and Benefits of Transit
The Georgetown Branch right of way was purchased by Montgomery County 25 years ago with the intention of building light rail and a trail between Bethesda and Silver Spring. It provides a rare and valuable transportation asset – a corridor on which a fast rail line can connect two major centers of employment and housing, avoiding road traffic without the cost of tunneling.
This resource is a primary reason that the Purple Line is as cost-effective as it is. The Town of Chevy Chase and the Greater Bethesda Chevy Chase Coalition (GBCCC), an umbrella group through which the Town expressed its opposition to light rail, nevertheless tried to argue against its use on cost-benefit grounds. But in so doing, they have changed positions so often that flip-flop is an understatement.
- They first argued flat-out against spending on transit. A 1989 letter signed by the Town and printed by the GBCCC stated that light rail costs that “will easily rise to over $100 million” are a “colossal waste of money.” These funds, it contended, “could fund badly needed improvements in schools, housing, and even other state road projects.”
- In 1996, the GBCCC's Roger Mitchell said this about whether to build either light rail or a busway between Bethesda and Silver Spring: “It's a silly idea. People will drive anyway because we're an automobile culture. The metro system... keeps opening more and more stations even though ridership is down.”
- After the 1998 election brought a pro-light rail majority to the County Council, the Town reversed course and argued for more expensive alternatives. Mayor Mier Wolf wrote in a 1999 newsletter “It is frustrating to think that this seriously flawed light rail concept is all that the County proposes to meet east/west transportation problems.” Wolf argued for an underground Metro line from Bethesda to Silver Spring or from Rockville to Tysons Corner – either of which would be vastly more expensive than light rail.
- In the years that followed, the Town and the GBCCC returned to the position that light rail is too expensive, while simultaneously arguing for more costly underground heavy rail options. A 2001 message from Mier Wolf to Town residents asked them to “Write a letter in support of the outer beltway Purple Line proposal.”
- In January 2003, County Executive Duncan proposed a heavy rail loop along the Beltway from Bethesda to Silver Spring. This route would not go to Prince George's County. The GBCCC immediately endorsed the proposal, which got nowhere.
- In 2008, after spending 20 years arguing against an above-ground inside-the-Beltway transit line, the Town suddenly decided that “it is important that, if the Purple Line is to be a serious contender, it be competitive with regard to cost and ridership projections.” It has spent $374,000 for a consultant, Sam Schwartz PLLC, who makes the case for a high-speed busway along Jones Bridge Road as an alternative. Yet the Town refused to study an equally attractive busway alternative along Leland Street – a route that passes through its own boundaries.
Construction of the Purple Line will complete the Capital Crescent Trail, providing a connection to Silver Spring that does not now exist. Purple Line supporters want both rail and trail. The Washington Area Bicyclists Association agrees that the Purple Line and trail can coexist and endorses light rail..
The Town of Chevy Chase claims nevertheless that its opposition to the Purple Line is motivated by the trail. But when the Town's positions are examined, one finds that obstruction of light rail takes priority over the trail:
The Town's currently favored alternative to the Purple Line would run diesel buses alongside the Silver Spring portion of the trail. In Chevy Chase, there would be no transit near the trail, but in Silver Spring transit vehicles next to the trail would be noisier, more frequent, and more polluting than light rail.
The Town complains that the trail would be squeezed into an excessively narrow corridor next to light rail. (We disagree; see here for details.) But in any case, as of now, the interim trail is confined between fences 16 feet apart where it passes through Columbia Country Club. The publicly owned right of way within the country club is 100 feet wide, but the county has allowed the club to use most of that public property as part of its golf course. The Action Committee for Transit calls for public access to the entire right of way within the country club. The Town declined to join in this call, putting its friends at the country club ahead of the trail-using public.
The Town actively opposes construction of a section of the Capital Crescent Trail, separated from both automobile and pedestrian traffic, along Willow Avenue and Bethesda Avenue in downtown Bethesda. The county Master Plan provides that this trail will coexist with and provide a parallel alternative to the trail route that would share the tunnel under Wisconsin Avenue with the Purple Line station. Why does the Town take this position, if not to create unnecessary conflicts between trail and light rail?
When light rail was first proposed between Bethesda and Silver Spring, the GBCCC filed a petition with the Interstate Commerce Commission to forbid the county to use the railroad right of way for any purpose except freight railroading [Washington Post, October 18, 1989]. Had this petition succeeded, we would have no trail at all.
From the beginning, one of the Town's arguments against light rail has been that it would cause more development. Yet the town has supported road widenings that will bring development. Mier Wolf wrote in his 1999 newsletter that a better solution to east-west transportation would be “pursuing intersection improvements along East-West Highway including widening the intersection at East-West Highway and Connecticut Avenue.” Under the county Master Plan, development in downtown Bethesda was held up until that intersection was widened. In the Town's view, it would appear, new buildings are not so bad when people get there by automobile. It's when people arrive by rail from Silver Spring and Prince George's County that development needs to be stopped.
There is also a contradiction between the Town's assertion that a busway on Jones Bridge Road “would carry more passengers... than a rail service on the trail” and its argument that light rail should not be built next to the trail because it would stimulate development. The Town's consultant, Sam Schwartz, argued on page 45 of his report that Bus Rapid Transit on Jones Bridge Road would create more development in downtown Bethesda than light rail.
On New Year's Eve, Dec. 31, 2013, the town council announced a public hearing for Jan. 8 on “Purple Line Legal Assistance.” Residents were told the council would decide whether “to engage a law firm to assist the Town in continuing to respond to the proposed Purple Line project and its local impacts.” In fact, the firm of Robert Shuster, brother of House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chair Bill Shuster had already been hired to fight against the Purple Line, and it had been hired to lobby, not to provide legal services. The town’s contract with Shuster’s firm, signed December 9, states that it is for “non-legal services only.”
Only after members of the public finished speaking at the Jan. 8 hearing was it revealed that the town had already hired someone for $20,000 per month and the contract included lobbying. Even then just the name of the firm, Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney, and not the involvement of the influential congressman’s brother, was disclosed. After the hearing the town council voted to hire the firm for another month and to take up the consideration of a $360,000 long term arrangement in February.
The next piece of information to emerge was the role of Robert Shuster. This came out in a Washington Post article on Jan. 23. After this revelation ACT moved into action requiring the town to release documents about the hiring under the Maryland Public Information ACT, and also filing a complaint with the Maryland Open Meetings Compliance Board, asking it to determine whether the town violated the Open Meetings Law in the process of hiring Rep. Shuster’s brother.
On Feb. 20 the town council voted to hire, not just Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney, but its subcontractors Alexander & Cleaver, a Maryland lobbying firm, and Chambers, Conlon & Hartwell, another federal lobbying firm, at a maximum of $350,000.
The most recent revelation came only in March, when the town responded to ACT’s request for documents. They allowed us to have, at the discriminatory rate of 50 cents per page (when town residents often get free copies of documents), copies of the contract and invoices, but they are refusing to provide minutes of any meetings or other conversations. We then learned that Shuster’s firm is not providing any legal services at all. The contract states that “The Services furnished pursuant to this Agreement are consulting services only and are not legal services.”
The Maryland Open Meetings Compliance Board ruled on March 20 that the town broke the law when it met to deliberate on the lobbying contract without the required public notice and vote.
This record shows that the Town's arguments about the trail, cost-effectiveness, and development cannot be taken at face value. What, then, motivates Town residents? A rare moment of candor occurred at a June 6, 2007 public meeting on the Purple Line. The following comments by one citizen (see page 74 of the transcript) were met with applause from an audience of Town residents, suggesting that some of them, at least, have other concerns:
...it has occurred to me throughout this whole discussion of the Purple Line that nobody has ever answered the question what's the problem that we're trying to solve.
And it seems to me when I look at the problem we're trying to solve it's we're trying to solve the problem of the people out in Silver Spring and P.G. County and so on and so forth, and that's as a person who tries to avoid political correctness whenever possible. I find that a rather spurious sort of reason for having the Purple Line.
And we live here. We have to live with this thing if you, in fact, are going to do it, and I see it simply as a nuisance, more than a nuisance. I see it as a very negative thing for our town; that there are far better ways of solving the problem of how to get people from here to there, and that you have rejected them out of hand.