County Executive Isiah Leggett on Saturday made clear his intention to fund a bus rapid transit system for Montgomery County despite a failed recent attempt at creating an independent transit authority to do so.
Leggett spoke about the county’s hopes for a Rapid Transit System (RTS) on Saturday morning at the kick-off meeting for citizens advisory boards that will advise transportation planners designing five RTS corridors, including on Rockville Pike/Wisconsin Avenue.
The county’s RTS, made possible by a master plan approved in 2013, would provide “rapid” bus service all-day and on weekends throughout the heavily-traveled corridor with dedicated, bus-only lanes and a series of new stations.
“The beneficiaries of what we are doing will be people long, long down the line, children and grandchildren, for years to come,” Leggett told an audience of about 150 at the meeting. “But it would be sad for us, a few years from now, to still be simply talking about this process and not to have had the opportunity to move forward in some fashion.”
The proposed countywide system of 10 corridors and more than 80 miles could cost anywhere from $800 million to $1.5 billion to build. RTS Development Manager Joana Conklin said the county’s examination of a Rockville Pike/Wisconsin Avenue corridor should produce cost estimates, phasing plans and ridership studies by the summer of 2016.
The Rockville Pike/Wisconsin Avenue corridor — for now labeled 355 South — would run from the Rockville Metro station to the Bethesda Metro station. Because there’s little to no room to widen the road, the corridor could require changing existing mixed-traffic lanes to bus-only lanes.
That’s a prospect that faced plenty of pushback during the master plan process in 2013.
“There are people who do not accept RTS,” Leggett said Saturday, “but we have to do this.”
Some of those people are on the roughly 40-member advisory committee for the 355 South corridor. The committee, made up of residents, business owners and other civic leaders, will meet quarterly with transportation staff to talk through concerns about bus-only lanes, station designs, traffic mitigation and other details.
The County Council added the corridor advisory committee requirement to the master plan after many protested the RTS idea.
“We don’t want a system that people begrudge, people feel sorry about or people have some challenges with,” Leggett said.
Earlier this year, Leggett proposed the independent transit authority as a way to help fund the system. Civic leaders, the main county employees’ union and an unfavorable report from a Council analyst helped shelve the proposal before it could be cleared in Annapolis.
Saturday’s event included a presentation from Cliff Henke, a bus rapid transit expert from planning firm Parsons Brinckerhoff. Henke argued bus rapid transit is the fastest growing form of transit in U.S. history because of its adaptability and cheaper cost compared to heavy and light rail systems.
“There’s no place for additional roads,” Councilmember Marc Elrich told the audience. “We’re not going to be widening [Route] 355. It’s absolutely critical that we solve this problem, or we go nowhere.”
Elrich was one of the first to propose a bus rapid transit approach for Montgomery County after researching the growth of the mode in Latin America and Europe.
“Just getting out of this mindset, that if it’s a train, its a good thing. If it’s a bus, it’s a bad thing,” Elrich said. “Can you do buses in a way that can do everything a train does for less money? That intrigued me.”
Leggett has said he’s open to alternative ideas for funding the system. But he hasn’t ruled out a second attempt at creating the independent transit authority, which would be able to tax outside the county’s charter limit.
“If all of this works out, thank me,” Leggett joked when finishing his talk Saturday. “If it goes wrong, thank Marc.”
Photo via MCDOT