The official credited as one of the first to pitch a bus rapid transit system in Montgomery County said Thursday the county has fallen behind on the project.
“When I first proposed this thing, my goal was to get Montgomery County ahead of Northern Virginia when they had no projects ready to go,” said County Council member Marc Elrich, who helped push the bus rapid transit (BRT) idea through a county highways master plan approved in 2013. “And here we are, seven years since I put this thing on paper and Virginia is rolling out BRT lines and we’re at planning. I think we need to see some kind of urgency because people are going to eat our lunch if we do not provide transit. If we cannot be competitive and move people, we’ll get killed.”
Thursday’s meeting at which Elrich and other council members urged state transportation officials to speed up the planning process was the second straight December session in which members of the County Council, City of Rockville Council and City of Gaithersburg Council joined for an update on five BRT corridors.
While last December’s meeting came as County Executive Ike Leggett was preparing to introduce the concept of an independent transit authority to fund BRT, Thursday’s meeting was held amid growing uncertainty over how the high-speed bus system with dedicated bus lanes would be paid for.
On Nov. 24, after almost a year of opposition from some in the community, Leggett announced he was at least temporarily abandoning the idea of the independent transit authority and would wait for the county’s Department of Transportation (MCDOT) to provide proposals for one or two pilot projects.
Council member Hans Riemer suggested Thursday that those pilot projects could consist of limited-stop routes along the county’s existing bus lines with the goal of speeding up how long it takes a bus to get from one end of its route to the other.
“We could have a limited-stop system operating in 2016,” Riemer said.
The county’s most recent estimates peg the cost of building bus rapid transit along 11 miles of Route 29 at $21 million per mile and $44 million per mile along the 9.3 miles of Rockville Pike from the Rockville Metro station to the Bethesda Metro station.
Construction could involve building stations, installing new traffic signals, moving utilities and adding lanes for the buses or repurposing regular traffic lanes as dedicated bus lanes.
“At least we could start getting momentum with getting riders going. This planning is building toward construction projects that we don’t know yet how we’re going to pay for,” Riemer said. “I just feel like all these discussions about the perfect system get in the way of making progress.”
“I probably couldn’t disagree more,” Elrich said. “We have fundamental problems in this county. We have a level of development coming that our infrastructure can’t support and everybody knows it. Virginia is not sitting around twiddling its thumbs saying, ‘I think we’re going to do a pilot here and a pilot there.’”
As he has done before, Elrich suggested taxing developers of the properties immediately around BRT corridors to help pay for the projects, since those entities would be most likely to benefit from its ridership.
“I think we need to be aggressive or else we’re going to be sitting here and a lot of people are going to be angry at us because there will be no way to get around,” Elrich said.
Council member Roger Berliner, another ardent BRT supporter, then offered a “kumbaya moment” to appease Elrich, saying Riemer wasn’t proposing to “put the pause button” on BRT.
“I don’t think these are competing concepts,” Berliner said. “I think Mr. Riemer has a fair point. Do we have the best bus system today?”
Joanna Conklin, who’s managing BRT planning for MCDOT, said the agency hopes to present some conceptual designs for the Route 29 and Rockville Pike BRT corridors to the public in the spring.
But even those would be far from the detailed designs needed for any required state or federal environmental review. Funding for planning of the Rockville Pike corridor will run out next year.
Detailed designs for the first phase of the Corridor Cities Transitway, a nine-mile BRT route from the Shady Grove Metro station that would run through parts of Rockville and Gaithersburg, is expected to head to an April 2016 public hearing. But that project, which carries an estimated construction cost of $545 million, has been in the works for much longer and has state funding commitments for final design and right-of-way acquisitions.
The next furthest along BRT corridor is Veirs Mill Road. Transportation officials said Thursday they’ll finish engineering and cost estimates on it this month, provide traffic and ridership forecasts in February and select a preferred route for the corridor next summer.
The 6.2-mile corridor planned to run from Rockville to Wheaton carries an estimated construction cost of $44 million per mile.