Tomorrow, the County Executive will be releasing his recommended budget for FY 14. His recommendations will become the focus of our work over the course of the next several months. Ultimately, of course, it is our Council that has the final say on what our budget looks like, and that is a time-consuming process indeed, one that concludes with a balanced budget at the end of May. I will provide you with a summary of the CE's recommendations shortly so that you can see the nature of the choices he has made and so that you can share with us your own thoughts and recommendations as we proceed.
In the meantime, before we get consumed by the budget, I thought I would share with you a special report that focuses exclusively on some of the work I am doing on your behalf as Chair of our Council's Transportation, Infrastructure, Energy & Environment (T&E) Committee. It is a committee that has a broad scope, as the name suggests, and it is a committee that has jurisdiction over many priorities important to the residents of District 1.
Here's hoping that you are beginning to sense the Spring that is getting oh so close...
State Funding for Transportation Priorities
Our County has been at the forefront of urging our state leaders to attend to what we believe to be our state's -- and certainly our county's -- most urgent priority -- transportation funding. We have helped organized a statewide coalition; put together a powerful symposium in Annapolis; talked personally to the Governor; and urged you to get involved as well.
Why? Because, as we said in our joint letter to you a couple of weeks ago, our county's future depends on it: our quality of life; our environment; our ability to actually produce transit oriented development; our competitiveness in the region. Funding for critical transit projects will literally stop dead in their tracks next year if a funding package isn't approved this year.
All of that work just may have paid off. Because our state's leaders have heard us ....and they saw what a Republican Governor in Virginia was able to do with a divided legislature and equally vast regional divides. There, the legislature, with the Governor's leadership, was able to pass an $850 million annual transportation funding law.
Our Governor, working with the Speaker and the President of the Senate (who led on this issue) was able to secure consensus on a slightly more modest package of $800 million annually. And while each of us may have gone about this slightly differently, the bottom line is that the Transportation Infrastructure Investment Act of 2013 introduced last week is, without question, a significant step forward in meeting our transportation funding needs.
But, we aren't done. We haven't gotten to the finish line. The first real test will be on Friday before the House Ways & Means Committee. There is a reason that this is such a heavy lift -- raising revenue for almost any purpose is not popular. And raising revenue when our state's region's have very different needs makes that even harder. At the end of the day, I hope that the state passes the necessary measures to keep our critical transportation projects moving forward.
Notwithstanding that fortunate outcome, I believe this incident underscores the continued need for the County to work harder on addressing pedestrian safety dynamics in this part of downtown Bethesda. Particularly because of its proximity to Bethesda Elementary School, this area has a significant number of pedestrians. And given that having parents and students walk to school is a goal that many of us on the Council and the Board of Education share, we need to be certain that the appropriate tools are in place to ensure the safety of our school children and all pedestrians in this area.
Along with the support of nearby residents, I am pleased that my advocacy with the State Highway Administration has already persuaded them to plan for the installation of enhanced pedestrian safety features near Bethesda Elementary School on Wilson Lane, later this Spring. But given this latest incident on Arlington, I have written to the Board of Education, the Department of Transportation, and the Montgomery County Police Department to request their consideration of additional measures that could be implemented. Each of these entities has some hand in this broader effort, and I look forward to working with them to further enhance pedestrian safety for Bethesda Elementary School students, parents, and all other walkers in the area.
Update on the Silver Spring Transit Center
You undoubtedly appreciate that the opening of the Silver Spring Transit Center is long overdue. And you probably know that it is overdue in part due to some construction issues, issues significant enough to warrant a careful look by our county to see what needs to be done going forward to fix it.
On Tuesday, it is expected that the county's consultant report, itself overdue, will be publicly released. That report should provide a path forward by which we can attend to what needs to be attended to and get it open as soon as possible. I had been previously told that the center would be able to open in late fall. I don't know if that timeline will hold until the report is released and those in our county responsible for this project advise us as to whether the nature of the fixes that may be required will take longer than previously expected. We will be briefed by our county officials on Tuesday as well, in public session, which can be viewed live on the County Cable Montgomery website.
Anytime there are problems of this nature, litigation is a possibility. We will also meet in closed session to hear from our county officials on that possibility. But from my perspective, we should leave the finger pointing to the lawyers. Our most important job now is to agree on what needs to be fixed, and fix it. Pronto. Get it open. So, I certainly hope that is our path forward regardless of the findings of the consultant.
WSSC Sewer Main Break
As you may have read recently in the Washington Post, last Tuesday there was a serious sewer main break in Brookeville. Ugly stuff was pouring out. Despite this incident, WSSC has made assurances that the drinking water it provides will continue to be safe.
While I trust that WSSC is working diligently to identify and fix the problem, as well as contain the environmental impacts and protect public health, last week I sought further assurances and a report on what happened. The situation is particularly concerning insofar as WSSC has a history of sewer related problems in the past and is operating under a Sanitary Sewer Overflow (SSO) Consent Decree, which requires WSSC to complete a substantial amount of sewer infrastructure work by December 2015.
Indeed, many of you have reported seeing WSSC worksites popping up in their neighborhoods as they work to meet this deadline. That too has raised concerns in the community, particularly about the apparent lack of coordination between WSSC and our County as to timing of such work and the impact on tearing up our roads time and time again. Legislation has been introduced before our Council to address that issue and we have asked our Office of Legislative Oversight to provide us a report and recommendations on that set of concerns.
Maryland Public Service Commission Releases Derecho Findings
No one needs to tell you how long we, as a community, have suffered from a lack of reliable electric service. You have lived it for many many years, and it is likely that we will continue to suffer from subpar service for years to come. But there is hope on the horizon.
There was a time, to our great regret, that the Maryland Public Service Commission itself was not aware of how bad things were here in Montgomery County. It literally wasn't until August of 2010 that the Commission realized that Pepco had been in the lowest quartile nationally for reliability over a five year stretch. That should never have happened and the Chairman of the Commission at the time apologized for it. Since that time however, the Commission has begun to turn things around and focus intensely on the issue of reliability. Its latest order issued just a couple of weeks ago, is further evidence that the Commission has gotten the message.
The order is the result of the Commission's examination of how the utilities fared in response to the devastating impact of the Derecho that tore through our community and our state on June 29.
The order speaks powerfully to the vast "disconnect" that exists between the expectations and needs of our residents and the capabilities of our regulated utilities to meet those needs. The order recognizes that reliability has become even more of an absolute requirement given how dependent we have become on electricity to not only heat and cool our homes, but to connect with the world with our phones, internet, and cable.
As a result, the Commission is seeking to strengthen its reliability standards and to hold Pepco and the other utilities more accountable in the process, including:
* Adding performance after major storms to the reliability standards. Currently, the standards do not include outages after major events. The Commission now realizes that it is not ok for people to be without power for 9 days in a row -- even after a major event -- and that the performance of a utility should include consideration of how they respond after such an event;
* Giving a serious look at "performance based ratemaking", a concept that I have been pushing for a number of years. It is as straightforward as it sounds -- tying Pepco's financial returns to how well it performs;
* Directing the utilities to improve upon their "estimated time for restoration" (ETRs). Telling people that 90% of us will have our power in 3-4 days (or whatever) is not particularly helpful to the family that is trying to figure out whether they need to find alternative arrangements for themselves, their aging parents, and their pets;
* Making sure that their is absolutely no misunderstanding when it comes to knowing the status of our most vulnerable residents -- those in special care facilities -- and the need to take care of them as a top priority.
More broadly, the Commission has made it clear that they want the reliability of the system to be addressed faster than currently contemplated. They want to see new plans, new actions, and they want to see them soon. They also want a more detailed examination of the costs and benefits of a vastly improved system and have retained a consultant that will provide the Commission with an economic analysis of the impact of poor reliability.
All in all, I really believe that the Commission is now committed to focusing on this fundamental utility obligation and I hope, as I know you do, that this renewed commitment will lead to a vastly improved system.
Utility 2.0 Filing at Public Service Commission
As the Commission is poised to speed up reliability improvements and investments -- investments that will exceed $1 billion in Pepco's service territory alone -- it is critically important that we make sure that these investments will also help bring about a very different kind of utility, a utility that is more right for the 21st century, a utility system that we call "Utility 2.0".
There is little doubt that our existing system -- the way in which the grid itself operates and the manner in which it is regulated -- are both sorely out of date. It is sometimes said that if Alexander Graham Bell came back today he would not recognize a phone. Not so if Thomas Edison came back. He would look proudly on his work -- for it has changed so little. That is not a good thing. We need a new, reinvented system that would make Steve Jobs proud -- one where you, the customer, have far more control; a system that is more "decentralized" using "distributed" clean energy sources; a system that is far less wasteful economically and environmentally.
I was grateful that the Governor's reliability task force recognized that we need to act "boldly" to help bring about this new energy future, and literally tasked the Energy Future Coalition with the job of coming up with recommendations on how we could move in that direction. Their work will be released any day now, and will set the stage for important conversations to follow.
In a filing I made with the Commission last week, I urged the Commission to open an investigation into "The Future of Maryland's Grid" and to assume the lead in bringing thought leaders from around the country to help us lay out a path towards a reinvented grid, which should include a close examination of the work of the Energy Future Coalition. My hope is that Montgomery County and our state can assume a leadership role nationally in realizing the benefits of Utility 2.0.
"Mirco-grids" are thought by many to be at the very heart of Utility 2.0, and we know that they work, and we know that they work here in Montgomery County. FDA has its own micro grid, and it has not lost power due to weather once since that grid was operationalized. It uses cleaner energy, produces fewer carbon emissions, is 99.99 percent reliable, is more energy efficient, and it produces net revenue for the government by virtue of its capacity to sell power into the grid. That is a future I am looking to see available more broadly, including at the neighborhood level.
Supporting State Legislation that Levels the Playing Field Between Ratepayers and Utilities
When a utility asks the Commission to approve higher rates, something that happens almost every six months, they bring an army of lawyers and "experts" to support them. These proceedings are not, as I have said before, for the faint of heart. They are expensive and time consuming. That is why I sponsored legislation years ago to ensure that our County was involved in these proceedings on your behalf.
Other states, notably California where I used to practice utility law, make it possible for consumer organizations to effectively participate. How? By allowing the Commission to compensate those groups for their reasonable costs of participating (lawyers and perhaps experts) where, and this is important, the Commission finds that the organization has made a significant contribution to the findings of the Commission, and where their effort was not duplicative of others.
Del. Carr sponsored legislation that would have made that possible here in Maryland, and he asked me to testify in behalf of his bill. I was happy to do so. Not surprisingly, the utilities were strongly opposed to the measure. They like the system just the way it is, thank you very much. And perhaps not surprisingly, the Committee voted it down. I hope that Del. Carr will continue to push for this reform that would democratize this critically important process, a process that is fundamentally not available to our residents and ratepayers.
Department of Energy State Energy Advisory Board
Recently, I was given the honor and privilege of being appointed by the Obama Administration to join the 21-member State Energy Advisory Board (STEAB) to the U.S. Department of Energy.
In a board composed mostly of state energy directors, weatherization program heads, and academics, I am the only locally elected official to have been appointed. Our job is to advise the Assistant Secretary for renewables and energy efficiency on issues, issues that I certainly care deeply about. I look forward to doing so over the course of my 3 year term.
Council at Work on Green Investor Incentive Program
Several years ago, I had the pleasure of serving on the county's Green Economy Task Force, which was devoted to figuring out ways in which we could support a green economy. One of the recommendations that came out of that work was a suggestion to create a program similar to what we have done in the bio tech/life science field -- reward investors who invest in such businesses in Montgomery County.
So, when I began my one-year term as Council President last December, I committed to introducing legislation that would do just that. It has taken a while, but I am pleased to say that in working with the County Department of Economic Development, my legislation, Bill 40-12, the Green Investor Incentive Program (GIIP), is poised to achieve that objective.
If passed, we will be the first county in the nation to have a program like this. Coupled with my work on Utility 2.0, and the creation of the Chief Innovation Officer, my goal has been to help reposition the county so that it is known as a place where cutting edge green tech business will feel welcomed and supported. Our commitment to the environment is one of our strengths as a county, and it is my hope that this new incentive program will help us solidify that reputation and attract companies with innovated ways to help our planet -- and our economy. Now that's a nice combination.
I am happy to report that I do believe we are making progress. That positive assessment will be put to the test on April 1st when the T&E Committee takes up these measures again. We have had two serious work sessions already, and in the process we have refined what we need to do -- particularly with regard to the street trees -- and not do more than we need to do. But nothing we do with respect to trees is without controversy .....and this will probably not be an exception to that rule!