- The Washington Times - Monday, December 13, 1999

The economic vitality of this region 20 years from now is being determined by today’s decisions. That is what Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan had in mind last week when he called for massive new spending on transportation.Mr. Duncan showed in his annual state-of-the-county address that he understands better than most that the region’s traffic problems call for aggressive measures.
He called for a 50 percent, or $365 million, increase in annual transportation spending over the next six years. He also reiterated his support for a new Metro line referred to as the Purple Line along the Beltway in Montgomery County as well as the mired Inter-County Connector plan.
“Traffic congestion is the biggest threat to our quality of life,” Mr. Duncan said in a telephone interview.
Unlike anti-growth advocates, his definition of a good quality of life makes room for expanding jobs and economic development.
“[Economic development] pays for the government side of the quality of life that you have here,” he said.
Mr. Duncan’s support for the ICC, which would connect Interstate 270 in Montgomery County to Interstate 95 in Prince George’s County, is in direct opposition to the majority of the County Council and Gov. Parris N. Glendening.
Mr. Glendening intended to kill the ICC when he announced in October the state would abandon the project and sell the land bought to build the road upon. Opposition from within the state government is so far preventing that from happening.
“His decision is a horrible decision for the future of our state,” Mr. Duncan said in a telephone interview. “It’s important if we’re going to expand the new economy to other parts of our state the ICC is a great way to do that.”
His criticism of the governor does not stop there. The state’s economic development effort is reactive and lacks any real plan or vision, Mr. Duncan said.
What’s going on here? Mr. Duncan, a Democrat who was a key supporter of fellow party member Mr. Glendening’s reelection campaign last year, is taking shots at a governor who is one of the state’s most powerful fund-raisers. Mr. Duncan is likely a future candidate for governor and this, by law, is Mr. Glendening’s last term. Why the split?
Of course, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend is another often-mentioned candidate for governor. She and the governor are thick. Mr. Duncan threw Mrs. Townsend’s name in a few times when he criticized Mr. Glendening last week. These differences of opinion have the ring of campaign issues.
The county executive said he is only doing what he sees as the right thing, as he has done in the past. It has worked for him with voters so far, he said.
Regardless of the motivation, when it comes to economic development and planning for growth, Mr. Duncan is doing more than just talking.
Mr. Duncan, who used to work in sales for AT&T;, points to the reduction and elimination of seven county taxes in his five years in office. Property and income taxes have been cut; a construction excise and a cellular-phone tax have been eliminated.
He also created an economic development fund of more than $3 million to attract business and has invited business leaders to help bring more jobs to the county.
“I would rate what he’s done for the business community at the top an A,” said John Porter, chairman of the Montgomery County Chamber Workforce Corp. “He really understands the importance of business to the county’s quality of life.”
Business groups have been key advocates for aggressive plans to tackle the region’s traffic congestion, which is notorious for being second worst in the nation behind Los Angeles. They see new highway construction as an essential part of that effort.
Environmentalists and residents, who have fought road-building plans, won over Mr. Glendening, a longtime supporter of the road as Prince George’s County executive.
Most politicians have found themselves somewhere in the middle, feeling pushed to act but afraid to rile the disparate camps. It is perceived as easier to be in favor of public transit and riskier to stand up and say “we need a new road here and I will fight for it until it is built.”
That is why Mr. Duncan’s call to do both and quickly stands out. “If we don’t start providing hope of a solution, we’re going to lose out,” he said.
The county executive of a Washington suburb will not, by himself, solve the region’s traffic problems. But perhaps he can help show the way, particularly if he remains popular with voters. And last year, he ran for re-election without serious challenge.
Just as Mr. Duncan looks at today as forging the future, he sees that the past has brought us to the present. In his speech last week, he credited former County Executive Charles Gilchrist with having the vision that turned Montgomery County into a biotechnology center.
Elected officials would do well to ask themselves like Mr. Duncan apparently has what they are doing today to ensure that the region’s gridlock does not put the brakes on the economic progress residents now rely on.
Bernard Dagenais, business editor of The Washington Times, can be reached at 202/636-3173.

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