August 5, 2021

Message from the County Executive

Dear Friends,

This week I recommended that Montgomery County follow the Center for Disease and Control (CDC) COVID-19 guidelines for indoor masking in areas where the transmission rate is “substantial.” CDC defined substantial as at least 50 new cases per 100,000 persons in the past seven days. Unfortunately, we are now in the substantial category. Today, the County Council, sitting as the Board of Health, agreed and passed a regulation implementing my recommendation. You can read more about it HERE.

The rise in cases has happened rapidly. A little over a month ago, our case rate per 100,000 residents was below one. Now it is at almost seven. This increase has happened quickly all around the State as these two maps show:

This is a month ago with many counties shaded green, which is a very low rate.

This map is from this week – no more green and case rates are up everywhere.

What does the data show?

The vast majority of our new cases are popping up among the unvaccinated community. In addition, the age group that is experiencing the highest percentage of cases is people 20 to 49. Our younger adults are really driving our numbers up. The “breakthrough” cases (cases for people who are fully vaccinated) are about 20-25 percent of the total cases in the County. However, the good news is that very few of the “breakthrough” cases are hospitalized. Nevertheless, it is a caution to all of us.

If everyone were to get vaccinated, it would be a huge help to get control of this Delta variant. We have managed to fully vaccinate 94 percent of adults over 65 and 85 percent of our population over 18. We are so close to being able to shut down the opportunities for the virus to spread—we need to finish the job, which can only happen with more people being vaccinated.

But in the absence of a higher vaccination rate in the community, masking is one of the best ways to prevent the spread of the virus. We need to implement protective measures now so we can prevent further spread. This will help keep businesses open and welcome our children back to school at the end of the month.

Board of Public Works and I-270/I-495

Next Wednesday, the State Board of Public Works will vote on whether to approve a very long-term (50-year) expensive commitment with a private partner for Governor Hogan’s plan to add four private toll lanes to I-270 and I-495.

While I support improving these corridors and believe there is a viable path to a consensus based project, I—along with 78 state senators and delegates, including the majority of the Montgomery County delegation—am urging the Board of Public Works to reject the proposal at this time. Here are some of the reasons why:
  • The Governor denied funding to our State Treasurer so she could not complete the essential legal and financial review of the contract; the absence of this review puts taxpayers at risk.
  • Despite its own work on this project for four years, the State has failed to adequately engage with the community, local elected officials, federal agencies, state agencies, and other stakeholders to develop consensus around this project. Last November, together with the County Council, we sent a letter to the State outlining our concerns and expressing our willingness to work together.

But here is the bottom line: the project will not solve traffic problems for most of our residents using I-270.

The tolls are designed to keep congestion in the no-toll lanes so that most commuters will remain stuck in traffic. The tolls are projected to be extremely high, so if you cannot afford the tolls, you will be stuck in what the Governor likes to call “soul-crushing” traffic. The tolls are set, not to repay construction costs, but rather to prevent too many people from using the toll lanes. They need to keep congestion bad enough that people will be willing to pay a lot of money to get out of it, but at the same time, they need to limit the number of drivers on the toll lanes so that those lanes flow freely. Additionally, with this plan, there will be one less free lane than there is now. If you are stuck in the general (no-toll) lanes, as most of us will be, you will be remain stuck in traffic. The Governor’s premise that this is a great benefit to county residents is completely bogus.

The project simply shifts traffic slightly north in the County. The State’s proposal only goes between the American Legion Bridge and the ICC. There is no funding to complete these improvements to Frederick or to provide a real transit alternative. This means that in the evening rush hour, commuters who need to go north of the ICC will face a huge bottleneck as the toll lanes disappear and are projected to have worse congestion than drivers experience today as the toll lanes disappear and all the traffic merges into the general traffic lanes. Under the State’s plan, many County residents, particularly in Germantown and Clarksburg, will start and end their commutes mired in congestion. The State has yet to say how and when it will extend the project to Frederick—without it, the problems are not solved – just shifted slightly north in our County.

What can be done to actually address congestion?

  • Begin with fixing the American Legion Bridge, which is what I have said since the beginning (and before the Governor even talked about it). We all agree that needs to happen.
  • Make a comprehensive plan that will actually go to Frederick and not just move the miserable traffic a little further north in Montgomery County. At the recent Transportation Planning Board (TPB) meeting, I proposed to amend the plan to require the state to commit to building I-270 complete to Frederick as a single project – and the State refused to accept that amendment. Why reject it if this is what you’re telling people you’re going to do?
  • Analyze funding options that would provide congestion relief for all commuters, not just a select few who will pay extremely high tolls. This includes going after federal funding at a time when our federal government is supporting big infrastructure projects.
  • Provide funding (not just words) for meaningful transit. If an additional track were added to the MARC rail line, train service could operate throughout the day in both directions, which is not possible currently.
  • Provide funding and specific plans for transit, not just vague promises that do not have any funds attached. Although five members of the County Council sent a letter of support for the project last week because of alleged additional funding for the Corridor Cities Transitway, this agreement does not provide anything new for the CCT except some early planning money. But nowhere in the deal the five councilmembers made does the state agree to provide enough money to build the project. As anyone who knows me at all knows, I have long advocated for a countywide transit system, including the CCT, and am working hard to find ways to fund and build it.
We want to work together
I appreciated the Baltimore Sun’s clear explanation that “ . . . there’s also something to be said for the just-as-vital process of building a regional consensus over such a huge, potentially disruptive and controversial project as the Capital Beltway/I-270 plan. Better to seek further compromise than jam this down Montgomery County’s throat.”

I have always supported efforts to improve these corridors and believe there is a viable path to a consensus-based project, but that is not the project that is before the Board of Public Works. The risk to Maryland from proceeding without complete information is too great and the benefits of this version of the plan are too limited. Our residents and businesses deserve solutions that have been fully vetted. We hope that the Board of Public Works recognizes this and votes against approving this project.

Business around the County

In some good news, I have been pleased to celebrate some businesses large and small.

Last week, I was thrilled to join a celebration at American Gene Technologies. It was celebrating a major milestone in its work to find a cure for HIV. It celebrated the Data and Safety Monitoring Board (DSMB) unanimous vote to continue American Gene Technologies' HIV cure program without modification. AGT’s HIV cure program is based on a platform that has the capacity to treat other chronic viral infections, as well as monogenic disorders and cancers.

This news is significant for the approximately 37.9 million people worldwide, including 1.2 million people in the United States, who are living with HIV/AIDS. The work of American Gene Technologies is important to so many who are affected by HIV/AIDS, and I am proud that such important work is being done right here in Montgomery County.

I have also been visiting local small businesses, and last week I visited three businesses in the Olney area. I visited O'Connell and Lawrence, a civil engineering firm; the Backyard Naturalist, a leading bird feed supply store and gift shop; and the Brookeville Brewery. This week, I will be visiting Parkway Deli & Restaurant and Bankers Business Management Services, Inc, in Silver Spring. Parkway holds a special place in my heart because it is where my daughter had her first bagel.

These visits are important to me, and I will continue devoting time on Fridays for the rest of the summer to stop by establishments and learn more about the difficulties and challenges they faced this past year. We also will celebrate the revival of businesses in our community. And we want to know how we can assist them going forward.

I encourage everyone to continue to shop local, shop small businesses and shop often. Our small, minority and family-owned businesses have had a difficult 17 months. They really need our support. My visits are intended to call attention to our wonderful business community. The products and services they provide are part the fabric of this County. The more we support them, the stronger they become. So please, go out and support our small and local businesses.

National Night Out

Finally, I want to thank everyone in the community and our departments for hosting a great National Night Out this week. There were 44 community events throughout our County, and I attended several of them along with the Chief of Police, the State’s Attorney, the Fire Chief and the Sheriff.
We were not able to do National Night Out last year due to COVID, so it was good to be able to participate this year. National Night Out is a great opportunity for people to connect with the first responders, County service agencies, and elected officials. One of the primary focuses of my Reimagining Public Safety Initiative is community engagement, and as part of that initiative, I hired our first-ever civilian assistant chief police officer to focus on police and community relations. I want to thank the community and our departments for organizing this year’s National Night Out. I could not make it to all the locations, but where I did go, it was great to be with people again.

I want to thank the community and our departments for organizing this year’s National Night Out. I could not make it to all the locations, but where I did go, it was great to be with people again.

As always, thank you for your support and your understanding.

With appreciation.

Marc Elrich
County Executive