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Light Rail Touted at Charles Economic Summit
Waldorf, MD - 10/18/2012
By Dick Myers
The 15th Annual Charles County Economic Development Summit revealed a county with mixed economic signals. As the county pulls out of the recession along with the rest of the country, the federal fiscal cliff hangs over the county like a dark cloud. But, the crystal ball shows light rail in a bright county future, several speakers said.
The majority of the county’s workers still commute to Washington. Guest speaker Anirban Basu, an economic and policy consultant and regular at previous summits, asked whether Washington could become another Detroit. He answered his own question by saying he doubted it but didn’t rule it out.
Basu and several other speakers emphasized the need for Charles County to build its own industries and cut its dependence on federal employment for local workers. But the mixed economic signals still show the DC area with the country’s best metropolitan economy.
The area comprised of Charles, Calvert and Prince George’s lost 2,900 jobs from 2011 to 2012 while the DC area as a whole gained 28,700, Basu said. That growth was largely in Northern Virginia, Basu noted.
Maryland’s economy as a whole hasn’t been that good in recent months. The state’s growth is the same as Arkansas, at .9 percent. So even with the country’s best education system four years in a row and even with the BRAC growth at Ft. Meade and Aberdeen, Maryland economy appears to have stalled. But in comparison, Virginia is doing even worse.
Basu said the mantra before the recession was that the service economy would be the leader in the country. That hasn’t proven to be the case, he said. Instead the states with a natural resource economy, such as North Dakota and Nebraska, are the country’s economic leaders.
In the midst of the negatives for the area are some positives, including a relatively low unemployment rate throughout the entire region (6.3 percent in Charles; 6.2 in St. Mary’s and 5.9 in Calvert).
Charles County’s economy in the 90’s became dependent on the housing industry, which of course tanked during the recession. “The recovery here has stalled in terms of the housing market,” Basu said, noting recent increases in inventory and declines in housing unit sales.
The stalling has occurred despite historically low mortgage interest rates. Basu said, “These rates are insanely low,” at 3.36 percent for 30-year fixed. He jokingly said he wouldn’t lend to his daughter at such a low rate.
Basu, who makes the sometimes dry topic of economics interesting by interjecting a dry wit, labeled his summit talk: “The Dog Ate My House.”
Summit moderator Charles County Commissioner Candice Quinn Kelly introduced head of the newly rejuvenated Department of Economic Development, Kwasi Holman and his staff. The department had been disbanded last year and ramped up recently. She and Holman promised good things from the department in the future.
During the summit Commissioner Bobby Rucci gave a briefing on the county’s efforts for small businesses and Commissioner Ken Robinson talked about tourism efforts.
Commissioner Rueben Collins then talked about transportation infrastructure. He noted the county’s support for light rail from Branch Avenue Metro Station to White Plains. He said the Prince George’s County Council was on board with what he called “a shared vision.”
Former Charles County Commissioner Gary Hodge, now a consultant, then picked up on what Collins said to give a more detailed account of efforts to bring light rail to the region, which he called the county’s top transportation priority.
Hodge said right up front, “Light rail is not the single and only solution to the transportation needs of Charles County,” mentioning the Nice Bridge , expanded commuter bus service, park-and-ride lots and an expanded VanGo (local bus) service.
But Hodge also pointed out that Southern Maryland commuters have one of the nation’s longest rides. He said state gas tax revenue collected in Charles Ciunty and Southern Maryland support mass transit projects in other parts of the state. He said Southern Maryland is the only region in the state west of the Chesapeake without some form of rail transportation. “It is clearly an equitability, a fairness issue we are trying to address,” he said.
Hodge has visited other parts of the country with light rail systems and has concluded that Southern Maryland can do what others have done and support a viable system. He cites state studies in 2008 and 2010 to back up the claim.
The proposed system would be 18.8 miles long with 11 stations, of which five would be in Charles. Construction would begin in the north and work its way south to Charles County. He said realistically planning would take 5-7 years at a cost of $25-27 million. The most realistic estimate would have service by the middle of the next decade, or 13 years from now.
Hodge pointed out that state funding for transportation projects has stalled with the economy. So the fact is that the project won’t happen without the infusion of federal funding, a point to which U.S. senator Ben Cardin, the luncheon speaker, agreed. Cardin said anyone in transportation planning who doubted the need for mass transit in the area should be invited down to a meeting on Friday afternoon. Of mass transit, Cardin said, "It is the right thing to do for quality of life. It is the right thing to do for the environment.”
“We need to figure out a way to get this done,” Sen. Cardin said. He admitted the biggest impediment was the federal fiscal crisis. Regarding the looming fiscal cliff he said, “It will cause a negative impact not only on our local economy but the national economy.” The only answer he said was a bipartisan balanced approach, such as that proposed by the Simpson-Bowles Committee.”
“We have to get the budget in order so we can have a full partnership in transportation,” Sen. Cardin concluded. He called transportation Charles County’s biggest challenge. “We are committed to do that together,” he pledged.
That balanced approach, Cardin said, includes cutting health care costs, and increasing revenue “to pay our bills. He said business owners need predictability in matters such as tax rates and the future of the defense budget in order to get the country out of its stagnation.
The summit was held at the Waldorf JC Community Center.
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