Early library concept sketch from Montgomery County.

The Montgomery County Council has again rejected a skybridge for the Silver Spring library, but the hearing revealed some fascinating facts about the ways people debate in person and on social media.

On Tuesday, at-large councilmember Hans Riemer asked his Facebook followers what they thought about a long-running controversy: whether to build a skybridge over Fenton Street Wayne Avenue between the new Silver Spring library and the adjacent parking garage.

We’ve explained why this is a bad idea many times. Taking pedestrians off the street leads to an expectation that pedestrians won’t cross the street, leading to engineers designing it for high-speed traffic movement, making the area less safe to walk around.

County Executive Ike Leggett and the eternally lousy Montgomery DOT want it, but the Silver Spring CBD Urban Renewal Plan prohibits it, meaning it can’t be built unless the Council specifically authorizes it.

The Council has rejected the bridge before, but it keeps coming back up. The latest iteration arose because Council President Valerie Ervin, whose district includes the library, recently revived the idea.

Before the Council’s hearing on the matter, Riemer asked for input. His Facebook followers came out strongly opposed. Here are a few of the comments:

  • Cavan Wilk I’m against it. It’s a waste of money. Plus it would have the negative impact of removing pedestrians from Wayne Avenue, telling motorists to speed up. The presence of pedestrians tells motorists they’re in a town environment and they need to watch for pedestrians.
  • Jill Curry Robbins *Another* one? When will this misguided idea die?

    The money would be better spent improving the intersection at Wayne and Fenton to improve safety for all pedestrians—handicapped and otherwise. This would benefit the entire neighborhood, and it would keep more traffic at street level, where it would benefit retail. This will be especially important with the ground-floor retail going in across Fenton from the library when the Baptist church’s planned development is built.

    Someone has convinced countless business owners in Fenton Village that the bridge will benefit them, but I can’t see how. As I understand things, it’s in no way a true “bridge” across Wayne, but a connector from the parking garage directly into the library. Nobody’s going to wander into an interesting Fenton Village shop, or be drawn into a restaurant by the smell of coffee or injera or roasting chicken, when they can zip straight from their car to the library and back again. ...

  • Seth Grimes I oppose the bridge based on cost and especially because it will discourage library visitors from patronizing local businesses before/after library visits. Please vote against!
  • Richard Potter Oh, please….People can’t cross at the crosswalk? Fenton is not a six lane highway!
  • Robert Padgette Bad idea. Allow on street disabled parking in front of the library instead.
  • Andy Sullivan Anti-urban. Waste of money. Will turn the intersection into a freeway cloverleaf.

Fellow at-large Councilmember George Leventhal chimed in during the hearing:

  • George Leventhal Comments so far at the County Council’s public hearing: 100 percent in favor of the bridge. Comments in response to Hans’ facebook query: 100 percent against the bridge. What’s going on?

A fascinating debate about the role of social media versus attending hearings in person then ensued:

  • George Leventhal http://www.thayeravenue.com/2011/02/15/save-the-date-march-8-2011-at-730/

    Here’s a blog post from Thayeravenue.com urging people to attend the public hearing tonight but Thayeravenue himself didn’t even attend the public hearing!

    How are elected officials supposed to know what the public thinks if the public doesn’t show up at public hearings?

  • Robert Padgette George, we’re at home watching the kids hoping those we elected to office do the right thing. We all know that those who show up at public hearings do not represent general public views. Social media offers an opportunity to hear from a broader audience. Kudos to Hans for embracing this medium.
  • Hans Riemer This is a very important conversation and I appreciate everyone’s thoughts. I want to say that I don’t think this is about people who testify versus people who don’t, blog people versus real people, and so forth, and whose opinion really counts. Everyone’s view is important, at least to me. George Leventhal has a point that the official process is for public record and it is important for people to participate on record. At the same time, I believe that my job as a council member is to seek out the views of people who are affected as best I can, and not just rely on hearing from people who come to me. Its a balancing act and there are always differing views in the community about this or any issue. And in the end, as elected representative, I have to do what I think is right after considering all of the information that I have received.
  • Andy Sullivan Public meetings are generally held at a time when it’s all hands on deck in the Sullivan household, getting dinner on the table and tykes in the bed. I’m glad Hans is using all available forums to solicit input.
  • George Leventhal Yes, all input is good and I enjoy getting feedback over social media but we shouldn’t discount the importance of actually participating in the process, which unfortunately sometimes requires going to City Hall (or in our case the County Council Office Building). But we take written testimony which is entered into the public record from those who aren’t able to testify in person, too. Twitter and facebook, etc are informal; a hearing record is more of a formal document. Our decisions are informed by both and both are useful and important.
  • Hans Riemer Well, I do think that commenting on Facebook is participating, as is sending email to the council, making phone calls to council members, sending post cards, and everything else. I hope everyone will do everything that they can do to make their voice heard.
  • George Leventhal This exchange would be fascinating material for a PhD dissertation on the new media. I would point out that Hosni Mubarak was brought down when people who were communicating with each other on facebook actually left their homes and cafes and congregated in Tahrir Square. While I acknowledge the connection between social media and political action, I think there is more to political action than simply typing notes on the computer. There is the idea, there is the sharing of the idea, and then there is the carrying out of the idea. From concept to execution takes multiple steps. Sending each other messages is only one part of the spectrum.

This dynamic comes up in many areas where there are opportunities to participate in government but which require a substantial time investment. At many hearings, people can travel some distance and wait for hours just to speak for two minutes. To testify at the Virginia or Maryland state legislatures also can involve a long trip just to get to Richmond or Annapolis.

That burden means that those more committed will have louder voices. Sometimes that’s a good thing, but it also tends to favor those who have fewer demands on their time. Retirees, for example, can more easily spend the time than parents of young children.

As a result, many boards tend to be comprised of individuals who either have a professional interest in the issue, or who have more than the average amount of free time. That means that for important boards like DC’s HPRB or Zoning Commission, it’s difficult to find candidates to represent different points of view. Even the WMATA Riders’ Advisory Council is vastly skewed away from parents.

Social media can give people an opportunity to participate without having to take time off work or hire babysitters, but also favors those who have Internet-enabled mobile devices or jobs with computers. Clearly, there’s no simple answer.

As for the bridge itself, the Council turned it down again. Leventhal introduced a motion to authorize the bridge, but his four fellow committee members, Craig Rice (district 2), Nancy Navarro (district 4), Marc Elrich (at-large), and Nancy Floreen (at-large), all declined to second the motion.

Thayer Avenue, which has now made some signs to oppose the bridge, also reports that Ervin could bring up the matter without a committee recommendation. But with four having already cast their lot against the bridge last week, opposition from Riemer himself or either of the other two, Roger Berliner and Phil Andrews, would keep it from moving forward.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Surface Transit. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions here are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.