2015 | News

Bus Rapid Transit Boosters Unveil Wish List for Unfunded Montgomery County System

Study shows how other bus rapid transit systems work, what's needed for high ridership

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Map of Montgomery County's proposed Rapid Transit System that was prepared by Communities for Transit

Correction: The report referenced below was released by two groups, the Coalition for Smarter Growth and the Communities for Transit. We regret the error.

Two of the groups pushing hard for bus rapid transit in Montgomery County don't want officials weighing difficult funding questions to forget the features that could make the system a success.

The Coalition for Smarter Growth (CSG), a Washington, D.C.-based smart growth advocacy organization, and the Communities for Transit on Tuesday released a 23-page report titled “Best Practices In Rapid Transit System Design,” to guide residents, transit advocates and policymakers in the county.

The CSG argued for the proposed 81-mile bus rapid transit system, officially known as the Rapid Transit System or RTS, back when it was approved in 2013 as part of a countywide roadway master plan.

Now, the group is pushing for dedicated bus lanes, frequent and reliable service, properly spaced stations, boarding areas on the same level as bus entrances and other features it says are hallmarks of successful bus rapid transit projects around the country.

“Those are the devils in the details that we just don’t want to get lost in the conversation about funding,” coalition member Pete Tomao said Tuesday. “This is an equally important task.”

That conversation about funding is now in full swing as a task force organized by County Executive Ike Leggett considers its final recommendations due at the end of the month.

The latest cost estimate from the county for just the first four RTS corridors (state Route 355 north, state Route 355 south, Veirs Mill Road and U.S. Route 29) pegged construction of the system at $1.6 billion and annual operating costs at $51.6 million.

The county’s Transit Task Force is considering recommendations for how to fund that system through an Independent Transit Authority, including the possibility of a countywide property tax increase, special county sales or gas tax and special taxing districts that would tax property owners closest to the RTS stations.

The CSG report examined more than 30 bus rapid transit systems operating across the U.S. and Canada to look for best practices in station design, dedicated lane placement, branding and other operating procedures.

The report didn’t delve quite as deep into funding mechanisms, though it did recommend a dedicated funding source and showed how each system was paid for.

Almost 48 percent of the Los Angeles Orange Line was paid for by state funds. Almost 42 percent came from a voter-approved half-cent sales tax. The City of Los Angeles and the federal government contributed most of the rest of the funding.

That system, which consists of just one line and runs only 18 miles, has seen an average weekday ridership of 29,845 people this year, according to the report.

It also cost $21 million per mile to build, almost half of the $41.1 million per mile projection the county and an engineering consultant made in July about the first four local RTS routes.

Leggett’s first attempt at state legislation to enable an Independent Transit Authority (ITA) failed earlier this year after staunch opposition from civic groups, the main county employee union and some residents wary of a potential tax increase to fund RTS.

Last month, county officials on the Transit Task Force and Gino Renne, president of the county employee union that represents Ride On workers, hammered out an agreement that would mostly keep Ride On employees as government workers and not put them under the control of the ITA.

With many expecting Leggett to make a second attempt at a state bill to authorize the ITA, transit advocates are planning a “Transit Day of Action” Sept. 9 at the Silver Spring, Rockville and Shady Grove Metro stations.

Tomao, who’s helping to organize the effort, said too many people who currently use transit in the  county aren’t aware of what’s being discussed when it comes to bus rapid transit.

The CSG and the Communities for Transit have also been doing advocacy work in other areas. A few weeks ago, Tomao and others were at the Bethesda Central Farm Market, held in the parking lot of Bethesda Elementary School.

“We had a great response from some people who didn’t take transit very much or who only take Metro to go to work,” Tomao said. “When we showed people the proposal, what bus rapid transit does and how it could complement existing systems, people were very receptive.”