Going Nowhere Fast
Our traffic is terrible. Will widening the Beltway and I-270 really help?
Beginning in March 2020, sleek new buses will make their way along Route 29, picking up passengers at facilities that look more like light-rail stations than traditional bus stops. In addition to limited stops, the new service will include fare collection before boarding to speed up the trip, as travelers enjoy onboard amenities such as Wi-Fi.
Welcome to Montgomery County’s first bus rapid transit line. By utilizing a shoulder lane north of the White Oak area, county transportation officials estimate the 14-mile trip between Burtonsville and downtown Silver Spring will be about 25 percent faster during morning rush hour than conventional buses, saving about 11 minutes. By 2040, the Route 29 BRT is estimated to boost net transit ridership along that corridor by 18 to 22 percent on weekdays, translating into as many as 6,400 vehicles being taken off the road, according to a 2017 planning study conducted jointly by the state and county.
Route 29 is among 10 BRT lines in a plan adopted by the county council in 2013. This past July, the council approved $4 million to begin engineering work on two others: a 6.4-mile route along Veirs Mill Road between Wheaton and Rockville, and a 22-mile stretch of Route 355 from Clarksburg south to Bethesda.
The goal is to provide greater access to mass transit in areas largely lacking such options, as well as luring back former transit riders. Al Roshdieh, the longtime director of the county’s department of transportation who resigned in October, says boardings on the county’s Ride On bus system, which was created in the mid-1970s, have decreased 20 percent since 2015. He attributes the drop to a variety of factors, including recent reliability and safety issues on the Metrorail system. A key purpose of the Ride On bus system is to deliver passengers to Metrorail stops.
“I really think BRT is going to change some attitudes in terms of transportation,” Roshdieh says. “It’s choice riders, and the key component of bus rapid transit is being rapid.” In transportation circles, “choice riders” refers to those who currently have options other than taking a bus.
BRT ridership may get a boost from recent trends on Metrorail, where systemwide boardings, after a nearly 17 percent drop during the 10 years ending in 2017, ticked up last year following completion of the so-called “SafeTrack” initiative to improve both safety and on-time performance. Along Metrorail’s Red Line in Montgomery County, where boardings dropped by 23 percent between 2007 and 2018 at the northern terminus at Shady Grove, a doubling of the frequency of trains to that destination produced a 4 percent increase in passengers to and from stations north of Grosvenor in early 2019, says Shyam Kannan, vice president of planning for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.
Recognizing that a key to BRT’s success is attracting riders who live outside easy walking distance of a BRT station, the county’s department of transportation is already experimenting with increased bus service on neighborhood streets.
Like the Beltway and I-270 widening project, BRT has a problem with space for dedicated bus lanes. This has sparked fears among private property owners along the proposed routes. Plans for a Georgia Avenue BRT run were panned by Olney residents five years ago, prompting then-County Executive Ike Leggett to delay the project. While there is no funding in the county’s six-year capital improvements budget to resume planning on the Georgia Avenue line, Elrich says he may try to revive it. “I’m hoping to go back and say, ‘Here’s something sensible, we’re not going to mess up downtown Olney,’ ” he says.
At this point, the Route 29 BRT line does not involve an expanded roadway. Neither does the Veirs Mill line, although it relies in part on “queue jumpers”—short lanes that allow buses to cut around other vehicles at intersections—to speed up the trip. On Route 355, an option that would run a dedicated lane down the center median could require taking as many as 61 acres, including displacing four residences and two dozen businesses. Officials say this is a maximum estimate that is expected to decrease during a planning process that’s just getting underway.
Some transportation experts consider a dedicated lane a prerequisite to achieving “rapid” status. “If it doesn’t have a dedicated lane, it’s not BRT,” asserts the Eno Center’s Lewis. Roshdieh responds that the Federal Transit Administration recognizes a line as BRT “as long as you have about one-third of the corridor as a dedicated lane.” He adds, “As far as I know, the only 100 percent dedicated-lane BRT is the Orange Line in Los Angeles,” while acknowledging that, to the extent a BRT line is in a dedicated lane, “the more effective and attractive…it’s going to be.”
The county’s transportation department is studying a detailed proposal by Sean Emerson, Hucker’s transportation aide, to eventually add a dedicated Route 29 BRT lane inside the Beltway by utilizing the existing center median. Elrich, while a member of the county council, advocated a similar move during planning for the line. “We’re not calling the Route 29 system a BRT because there’s not a dedicated lane south” of the junction of Route 29 and New Hampshire Avenue, Elrich says. As it launches, the new service is being branded as the “FLASH.”
Hogan boasts that the state’s proposed network of toll lanes along I-495 and I-270 would be built “at no cost to the taxpayer” via the P3 process; the concessionaire would be “paid” through toll revenues. Elrich faces the challenge of finding a way to finance the county’s proposed network of 10 BRT lines. “If you could figure out a decent financing scheme, I would try to do this in the space of five to 10 years,” Elrich says. The cost of the Route 29 BRT is pegged at about $30 million, with about one-third coming from a federal grant (that doesn’t include the possible addition later of a dedicated lane). The Veirs Mill BRT is pegged at up to $70 million.