2021 | Transportation

With Congress closing in on infrastructure bill, local officials consider impact

They hope funds can spur bus rapid transit projects countywide

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This story was updated at 5:25 p.m. Aug. 13, 2021, to correct an endpoint of the planned Md. 355 bus rapid transit route.

Montgomery County’s Transit Corridors Functional Master Plan shows more than 100 miles of bus transit lines, through 11 projects.

County Executive Marc Elrich and Montgomery County Department of Transportation Director Chris Conklin hope a new focus by Congress on infrastructure helps make some, if not most, of the local projects a reality in the coming years.

The U.S. Senate on Tuesday passed a $1.2 trillion dollar bill dedicated to infrastructure, which awaits further action in the House of Representatives.

Local funding figures are not exact until President Joe Biden receives and signs a final bill from Congress, but the Senate version would allocate about $1.7 billion for Maryland public transit projects, according to the White House.

Elrich said in an interview Thursday that he’s interested in how an infrastructure bill could help expand bus rapid transit lines countywide, especially given how much cheaper it is to complete those projects versus Metro rail-line extensions.

Extending the Metro rail could cost $300 million to $400 million a mile, he said. Many bus and bus rapid transit lines, which cover more distance, cost a fraction of that, Elrich added.

“I could … in some cases get 10 miles for every mile for the subway, and how useful is a mile of the subway? Not very,” Elrich said. “So I think you can get more bang for the buck.”

He said there are proposed bus rapid transit lines that consist of three “bus trains that move in tandem” and can hold 100 people each, for a total of 300 commuters.

“It certainly rivals any light rail system. And it’s more flexible, and is not as capital expensive to build,” Elrich said.

Conklin agreed that the infrastructure bill could provide much-needed money to help complete transit projects countywide. The Countywide Transit Corridors Functional Master Plan focuses on: 

  • A 9.6-mile route on Georgia Avenue from MedStar Montgomery Medical Center to Wheaton Metro station
  • A 3.9-mile route from the Wheaton Metro station to the Washington, D.C., line
  • A Md. 355 bus rapid transit route. The first piece is 15.3 miles from Clarksburg to the Rockville Metro station. The second is 7.8 miles from Rockville Metro to the Bethesda Metro station. 
  • An 8.5-mile route along New Hampshire Avenue from Colesville to the Washington, D.C., line
  • A 2.7-mile route from the White Flint Metro station to the Montgomery Mall Transit Center 
  • A 10.1-mile route from the White Flint station to U.S. 29
  • A 5.5-mile route on University Boulevard from the Wheaton Metro station to the Takoma/Langley Transit Center
  • A 12.3-mile route along U.S. 29 from Burtonsville to the Washington, D.C., line. The county already operates a bus rapid transit line from Burtonsville to the Paul S. Sarbanes Transit Center in Silver Spring
  • A 6.2-mile route on Viers Mill Road from the Rockville Metro station to the Wheaton Metro station
  • The Corridor Cities Transitway: a 20.1-mile route from the Shady Grove Metro station to the Frederick County line

Conklin said the infrastructure bill would increase “competitive and discretionary grant funding” in federal money for projects like those. He added that state officials have taken the lead on the Corridor Cities Transitway.

“Without an expansion of the capacity of these programs, there’s usually room for a couple projects nationwide to get these grants on an annual basis,” he said. “With the expansion of capacity, there’s more of a likelihood for us to get these grants.”

Conklin agreed with Elrich that rail infrastructure is expensive, usually by three to five times per project. And extending rail isn’t in any current plans, he said.

Improving and increasing bus service is the “backbone of the future transit network” for county residents, Conklin said. 

Funding from the federal government could significantly help with some bus rapid transit lines, like the one along Md. 355 or the Corridor Cities Transitway in upcounty, he said.

“That is the most significant constraint on our ability to advance the projects,” Conklin said of the cost. “They are not simple to build either. … The design and construction of the projects is complicated.”

Outside of transit-related projects, Elrich and Conklin pointed to another form of infrastructure: stormwater management.

The federal infrastructure bill could help county officials invest and upgrade its current system, they said. The White House said it expects $844 million from the Senate’s proposal would go toward water infrastructure in Maryland.

“We’ve got an aging … stormwater system that was not designed for these kinds of storms, [so] we know we’re going to have to go back in and redo some reworking,” Elrich said.

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com