Gaithersburg City Councilmember Neil Harris kicked off his re-election campaign with a Thursday evening party at The Wine Harvest. Sixty to 75 people attended the June 6 event, including co-hosts Gaithersburg Mayor Jud Ashman, City Councilmember Mike Sesma and Montgomery County Councilmember Sidney Katz.
Harris is a longtime Kentlands resident and former Kentlands Citizens Assembly trustee who served as chair and president. He was appointed to the Gaithersburg City Council in 2014 when then-mayor Katz was elected to his county position and Ashman vacated his City Council seat to assume the mantle of mayor. Then in 2015, Harris was elected to his first full term on the City Council.
Harris joins incumbent councilmembers Ryan Spiegel and Robert Wu in running for re-election. Six candidates currently are vying for three seats. Elections will be held on Nov. 5. Harris has enjoyed his five years of service to Gaithersburg residents. For him, politics “is all about balancing the needs of many different people with many different goals and objectives and figuring out how to make it work for as many people as possible. My style is much more about ‘let’s figure out what the issue really is and then develop a solution from that.’ If you just start dealing with symptoms, you never really get anywhere.”
He uses his private sector experience, much of it in the software industry at GEnie (an online service of General Electric), Commodore and Atari, to shed new light on public sector problems. “I’m very data oriented in my business career and in my studies for my MBA—it’s all about running the numbers and figuring out what’s really going on.”
Early on the City Council, Harris chose two big puzzles: school overcrowding and transportation. He continues working on these issues today by using data to drive new solutions.
“I think at my very first meeting with the City Council back in late 2014, a group of Rachel Carson parents came to us demanding relief, and it was a situation I was well aware of, living here,” he recalled. “I made a firm commitment that I would do something to relieve that situation. Afterwards, another elected official came up to me and said, ‘That’s much too hard. You don’t want to mess with MCPS because you can’t win those battles.’ I said, ‘If you can’t do the hard stuff, what’s the point of doing the job?’ And so that and transportation are two of the really hard issues I’ve been dealing with, and I think I’ve been making progress on both.”
To understand his approach, consider the public transit versus roads divide long argued in the region. “Soon after I took elected office, I started making the rounds of other elected officials at the county and state level, and one person said to me halfway through the conversation, ‘Are you a roads person or a transit person?’ And I said, ‘I’m just a get there without a hassle person.’ That basically shut down the conversation.”
He has some low-cost ideas to make transit better. “We can work out a deal with CSX so we can run more frequent MARC trains,” he said. “Probably even easier, … you remap the bus routes. This worked in Houston and Seattle where the bus route map was largely designed 50 years ago. … Instead of seeing the 10 to 15 percent decline in usage of buses, they see a 10 to 15 percent increase in usage.”
Public transit is good for the environment, but, Harris said, cars are becoming more efficient and trending toward zero emissions. Plus, 80 percent of people in this region commute in their cars. “If 80 percent of the voters voted for something, you would say that’s pretty much the will of the people,” Harris noted.
So instead of taking a beliefs-based approach to the transportation challenge, he looked at the numbers. “It’s hugely expensive to run transit systems, vastly more expensive than building roads,” he said.
- The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority annual budget is $2.772 billion per year.
- The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority revenue from fares is $800 million.
- An average trip on Metro costs approximately $8.50. Approximately $2.50 is recouped from the fare with another $6 from public subsidy.
“I’m just talking operating costs, not counting capital costs … so the cost per trip on transit, depending on the transit load, is anywhere from $4 to $6 per trip to public subsidy,” he noted. And the cost to maintain roads? “About 30 cents a trip,” he said.
He supports bus rapid transit (BRT), if done right and run on a dedicated line. “Otherwise it’s not rapid,” he said. And he’s excited about the monorail idea for I-270. “We have a quarter million cars a day in each direction on 270 today. At most the monorail can probably move about 30,000 people, so that’s about 10 percent of the people if it’s running at full capacity. That’s not enough to completely eliminate the traffic conditions, but it makes a big dent,” he said.
For Harris, transportation is “an interesting puzzle” and a priority—together with schools, planning, housing and economic development—for his next term.
“I try to go into issues like this with an open mind and ask, ‘What does the data say?’ And if we want something different, is there a way to use the reality to get where we want to be?” he said.