• Building a Better Tomorrow: My Testimony on Montgomery County’s Zoning Plan

    Last night, I testified before the Montgomery County Planning Department during a hearing on zoning ordinances that the County is rewriting. Our current codes have been in place since the 1970’s, so it’s time to bring Montgomery County up to speed and into our future.

    As we move forward, it’s key that we protect and expand the smart policies that you and I believe in – including incentivizing affordable housing, bringing good paying jobs into our towns, and investing in a mass transit infrastructure that is able to serve our rapidly expanding county.

    My full testimony is below. As we go forward, it’s important we hold all partners accountable to reduce environmental impact and improve quality of life as our community grows and moves into tomorrow.

    Good evening.  My name is Hrant Jamgochian.  I live at 6540 Bradley Blvd in Bethesda, MD and have been commuting downtown for more than a decade.  I am also a candidate for the Maryland House of Delegates in District 16.

    I applaud the County Council for holding tonight’s hearing, and for its efforts to modernize our zoning ordinances which have not been updated since 1977.  We now know so much more about “transit oriented development,” and need to ensure our zoning standards and development practices reflect our shared priorities, in order for our constituents and community to have an even brighter future.

    I am particularly excited by the proposed goal of maintaining a wide range of housing options, including affordable housing, which will open doors for so many people – from young families to elderly seniors to mid-career singles and more.  Many people here tonight probably know someone who has been shut out of our community, because of the lack of affordable housing.  In fact, as I go door-to-door in my district, I continue to hear from countless seniors who worry about being able to stay in their homes, as the cost of living continues to rise along with the lack of affordable alternatives for them.  Young professionals also face the same challenges and often commute from the eastern part of our County to work in the west.

    I am hopeful that we can further incentivize the affordable housing options you are exploring to further stimulate our economy.  I know the Affordable Housing Conference of Montgomery County has been active and involved in this aspect of the zoning rewrite and I wanted to let you know that I also believe it’s imperative that Moderately Priced Dwelling Units (MPDUs) not be counted towards construction density or total project density.  We aren’t a community that turns its back on its neighbors – let’s make sure that everyone has a place here.

    One final aspect that I want to recognize, is all of the County Council’s work to reduce our traffic.  I especially appreciate its commitment to increase walkability, bikeability, carpooling and smarter, greener mass transit options like Bus Rapid Transit and the Purple Line, which are going to move our community forward.  By investing in alternatives to cars on the road, we are reducing gridlock, protecting our air quality and taking another step towards improving the quality of life for our residents.

  • Heard at the Door: Reverberations of the Government Shutdown

    Since October 1st, my conversations with voters at the door has dramatically shifted, as people here feel the real impact of the government shutdown.  Our district has a large number of government workers, and they along with businesses, employees and the public are all feeling the reverberations of the GOP shutdown of our federal government.

    A Bethesda woman I met while knocking on  her door told me that although she doesn’t know when her next paycheck will come, she is still expected to work unpaid in the interim, often 60 to 70 hours per week.  Another woman told me that after saving for several years, she just recently closed on a new home leaving her with almost nothing in the bank.  As a result, she is not only worried about a new mortgage, but is concerned about how she is going to make ends meet as her savings is completely exhausted. A third person shared that when he tried to get approval to work a part time job in order to help take care of his family, he was instructed that the ethics department had to approve any non-government employment, but they were furloughed earlier that morning making it illegal for him to earn any income that would help support his family.

    Because of our proximity to Washington, DC and the amount of federal workers who live here, the impact this is having on people in our community is too high; virtually every block I talk to someone who was out of work or is without pay because of the shutdown.  Unfortunately, the shutdown goes beyond that.Federal Head Start programs that help bridge the education gap for impoverished children are beginning to lapse across the country because of this shutdown. In the first week alone, six states had their Head Start programs completely close. If the federal government doesn’t reopen by November 1, then 86,000 kids in 41 states will be left in the cold without these programs.  Currently Medicaid and Medicare checks are still going out, but people with disability applications will have to wait for processing.  Families who lost their loved ones in Iraq or Afghanistan went until Thursday without any payments, and the VA has told veterans that if the shutdown lasts another few weeks veterans will stop getting their pensions.

    In the 15 days since the government shut down, families here have been hurting and their pain will only get worse the longer the shutdown continues. For young workers living paycheck to paycheck, to middle aged folks who are struggling to with the high cost of living while not having any income, to seniors who don’t know what will happen to them if this goes on – it’s time for Congress to go back to work.

  • Why I Support BRT: County Council Testimony

    As someone who has relied on METRO for more than a decade, I wanted to speak out in support of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) and lane repurposing during this week’s County Council hearings. The multiple shortcomings in our transportation system in metro-area Maryland is a serious problem, negatively impacting everything from the environment to our quality of life as well as our ability to attract and retain businesses.  At the state level, we can help by allocating new state revenue gained from the gas tax towards supporting BRT.  By earmarking such funding, we make taking cars off the road a priority and create more reliable transit for people who rely on public transportation now just to get to work or to buy groceries.

    Currently, there is a debate between two different visions of how to run BRT: “lane repurposing,” where existing traffic lanes are designated for Rapid Transit buses only along with existing bus only lanes, or “mixed lanes,” where Rapid Transit buses share the same lanes as cars.  I believe that to make BRT effective, it is essential that we preserve bus only lanes.  Eliminating bus only lanes would undermine BRT by taking away its main goal: to get people to their destinations faster.  Unfortunately, building new bus only lanes in order to retain the same number of cars lanes is not a realistic option, especially since the cost of repurposing lanes is exponentially lower.

    If we can develop BRT in a cutting-edge transportation system that is able to help people travel en masse faster than in separate cars, we have a winning transportation option that creates victories for our environment, economy and quality of life.  But, to achieve success we must make BRT a budgetary priority and design alternatives that keep more cars off our roads to reduce gridlock.  Lane repurposing is key, because the success of BRT relies on creating a more appealing alternative for consumers move faster than in a car. While we continue to take important steps towards addressing our gridlock problems, we cannot afford to undermine this opportunity by eliminating the incentive for BRT ridership.

  • Heard at the Door: The Importance of Affordable Higher Education

    A few weeks ago, I started taking our campaign to the streets by going door-to-door to talk to my neighbors about the issues that matter most to them.  While each individual shared a slightly different story, many of the themes were consistent.  In fact, what I hear repeatedly at the door is that the issues that matter most to people in our district are the same ones that matter most to me and my family – ensuring our children receive a good education, including making higher education more affordable; working to increase access to high quality health care that is affordable for everyone, including long-term care and home health care for our seniors and disabled; as well as making sure that everyone has the chance to earn a good living, which starts by improving our roads and public transportation.

    Some of the stories that have touched me most over the last week are about higher education. As some of you may know, I went back to law school for the first time after I was almost a decade into my professional career, and had to work full time while taking classes at night in order to make ends meet.  After I decided to back to school again for an advanced degree in global health law from Georgetown, I still have about 22 years left in scheduled payments on my original law school loans from Catholic.  In fact, my mortgage will be paid off 8 years before my student loans if I continue to make the minimum payments on both.

    The skyrocketing cost of higher education is a serious problem, and families who do all the “right things” are still getting priced out of the schools of their choice, or seeing additional higher education and/or professional degrees beyond their reach.  The exponential increase in the cost of college and graduate education appears to be a common concern from almost all of our neighbors.

    Last week, one resident in the Wyngate subdivision of Bethesda shared with me that his entire college education cost less than $2,000, adding that he has no idea how recent college graduates who are crippled with astronomical student loans are able to make ends meet.  One of his neighbors added, imagine how strong our economy would be if those monthly student loan payments were going back into our economy to pay for something/anything else.

    Another supporter recently shared her story with me, how she and her husband have saved for almost two decades in order to help their two daughters pay for college.  Unfortunately, after their oldest daughter was accepted into the college of her dreams, mom had to let her know that they just couldn’t afford to send her there.  That even though they did everything right, increasing their savings every year to help cover the rising tuition costs, it just wasn’t going to be enough to send their daughter to the college of her choice.

    The out of control costs associated with securing a college or graduate education are having real impacts on people right here in our district.  When parents are facing the choice of: putting off retirement for a number of years, adding more debt onto their home mortgages or saddling their children with exorbitant student loans, something is broken in our educational system.  It’s time we address the costs, and ensure that families don’t get priced out of higher education.

  • Standing Against Fracking in Maryland

    As a healthcare advocate with twenty years experience, I feel compelled to speak out against fracking, the process in which chemicals and other agents are used in the production of natural gas, and comment on the Draft Marcellus Shale Drilling Initiative Study: Part II Best Practices. My comments below have been submitted in the public comment period held by the Maryland Department of Environment. You can join the conversation here or hear thoughts from other Marylanders on MDE’s website.

    I am deeply troubled by the serious health and environmental risks that hydraulic fracturing brings, and implore the Maryland Department of Environment to conduct a full impact analysis examining the threats that fracking poses to human health and environmental protection, fulfilling Governor O’Malley’s 2011 Marcellus Shale Safe Drilling Executive Order (E.O. 01.01.2011.11).

    One serious problem with the BMPs is the effect that their lack of transparency would have on public health for Maryland residents, due to gag rules and confidentiality agreements that leave watchdog organizations, health care professionals, the media and lawmakers out of the loop on exposure data.

    To protect the integrity of transparency in Maryland and allow for a true look at the impact fracking has on our health, we must disclose the chemicals used in fracking which are currently exempted under OSHA trade secret rules, prohibit exploitive non-disclosure agreements between drillers and landowners that silence the truth about the dangers of fracking, establish an efficient process for health professionals to receive the information needed for rapid and effective treatment of affected patients. We must also block the leak of methane from fracking wells at any time, construction to production, to prevent dangerous methane flaring.

    I appreciate Governor O’Malley and the MDE’s effort on this topic, and hope that feedback on the Draft Marcellus Shale Drilling Initiative Study Best Practices will be weighed with gravity. It is my hope that once the impact analysis is complete Marylanders can move forward into a healthier, more sustainable future free of the devastating human health and environmental consequences of fracking.