County revs up bus rapid tran­sit idea

Mont­gomery of­fi­cials eye $31.5 mil­lion trans­port sys­tem for Route 29

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY LUZ LAZO

Mont­gomery County’s years­long plan to build a 14-mile Bus Rapid Tran­sit (BRT) line on one of Mary­land’s busiest commuter cor­ri­dors ap­pears to fi­nally be moving from idea to re­al­ity.

County Ex­ec­u­tive Isiah Leggett (D), who has cham­pi­oned BRT as the county’s next ma­jor tran­sit un­der­tak­ing, in­cluded $21.5 mil­lion for the project in his cap­i­tal bud­get. A County Coun­cil com­mit­tee ear­lier this month sig­naled its sup­port for the BRT project, vot­ing to send the plan to the full coun­cil for ap­proval of fund­ing for the de­sign phase, putting the project one step away from con­struc­tion — and closer to a 2020 open­ing.

“It is the sys­tem of the fu­ture,” said Es­ther Bowring, chief spokes­woman for the county’s Trans­porta­tion Depart­ment. “This is re­ally nec­es­sary for the county’s eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment and to meet the needs of the fu­ture growth that we an­tic­i­pate in both pop­u­la­tion and jobs. It is a vi­tal project, and we cer­tainly hope that it will be ap­proved.”

Some coun­cil mem­bers even said the plan does not go far SafeTrack, Round 15 Orange Line rid­ers chafe at sur­prise shut­down in next-to-last surge. C2

enough to ad­dress tran­sit needs in the cor­ri­dor and urged trans­porta­tion of­fi­cials to con­tinue to study other al­ter­na­tives.

“We have a prob­lem to solve,” said coun­cil mem­ber Marc El­rich (D-At Large), who has pushed for BRT for more than a decade. “We’ve got to get some­thing that is go­ing to work and is go­ing to make a dif­fer­ence.”

Bring­ing BRT to Route 29 would be the Wash­ing­ton re­gion’s big­gest ex­per­i­ment to date with a sys­tem that is de­signed to pri­or­i­tize bus travel by us­ing ded­i­cated tran­sit lanes, to pro­vide tech­nol­ogy giv­ing buses the green light at ma­jor in­ter­sec­tions, and to of­fer fea­tures such as off-board­ing pay­ments, all­door en­try and level board­ing, which are de­signed to shorten the bus dwelling time at each stop.

Trans­porta­tion ex­perts say en­hanced bus ser­vice is the way of the fu­ture as the re­gion — and coun­try — strug­gle to fund trans­porta­tion projects in tough fi­nan­cial times. In ad­di­tion to be­ing much cheaper than build­ing heavy- and light-rail lines, BRT has proved to be an ef­fec­tive means of moving large num­bers of peo­ple and eas­ing con­ges­tion in cities around the world. Rio de Janeiro and Bo­gota, Colom­bia, have BRT sys­tems that have been rated gold un­der stan­dards set by the In­sti­tute for Trans­porta­tion and De­vel­op­ment Pol­icy, and it is be­ing used in sev­eral cities in China, In­dia and Mex­ico.

In the United States, Los An­ge­les and Pitts­burgh have suc­cess­ful sys­tems, and sev­eral cities are test­ing el­e­ments of BRT, in­clud­ing ded­i­cated lanes, off-board pay­ment and all-door en­try.

“These [projects] can be done well. They can be very ef­fec­tive,” said Eric Ran­dall, a trans­porta­tion en­gi­neer at the Metropoli­tan Wash­ing­ton Coun­cil of Gov­ern­ments, which lists BRT as a strat­egy to im­prove tran­sit and con­nect grow­ing ac­tiv­ity cen­ters. “But peo­ple are go­ing to be hes­i­tant about what the changes are go­ing to bring.”

Re­lief for busy cor­ri­dor

In Mont­gomery, of­fi­cials are pon­der­ing the ben­e­fits and im­pact BRT would have on com­mu­ni­ties. They are re­spond­ing to con­cerns about cost and con­struc­tion — and try­ing to clear up mis­con­cep­tions that the Route 29 plan would widen the road or take away lanes from gen­eral traf­fic.

The plan as it stands would put buses on shoul­der lanes for a por­tion of the route, but also in reg­u­lar traf­fic. This de­ci­sion, which sacri­ficed ear­lier plans to have a re­versible HOV lane in the south­ern por­tion of the route, cut cap­i­tal costs by more than half to $31.5 mil­lion. Of­fi­cials say the money will pay for new sta­tions, buses, and new bike and pedes­trian in­fras­truc­ture. The county’s por­tion will be matched with a $10 mil­lion fed­eral grant.

Mont­gomery of­fi­cials have plenty of in­cen­tives to back the plan — from a need to re­vi­tal­ize the strug­gling eastern sec­tion of the county to the fed­eral grant that will cover a third of the cost. With an­nual op­er­at­ing costs es­ti­mated at $7.5 mil­lion, the sys­tem would be a rel­a­tively in­ex­pen­sive way to ease grid­lock and cut emis­sions, sup­port­ers say.

“The project is re­ally scaled back so it is not a whole lot of money, and we re­ally need it to ad­dress the traf­fic con­ges­tion,” said Dan Wil­helm, a tran­sit ad­vo­cate who lives in the cor­ri­dor.

Lo­cal buses are not fre­quent enough and make too many stops so that res­i­dents of­ten find it is faster to drive than ride, county stud­ies show. On av­er­age, bus trips take 20 per­cent longer than other trips and as much as 60 per­cent longer dur­ing rush hour.

“The idea is to make it a rea­son­able op­tion for peo­ple to ride,” said Wil­helm, pres­i­dent of the Greater Colesville Cit­i­zens As­so­ci­a­tion.

Be­sides, Wil­helm said, the BRT line would add ca­pac­ity for new rid­ers in an area that is at last see­ing signs of eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment. A planned “life sciences” town cen­ter in the White Oak area, along with the po­ten­tial ex­pan­sion of the Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion and the new Wash­ing­ton Ad­ven­tist Hos­pi­tal that re­cently broke ground nearby, could gen­er­ate more than 10,000 new jobs in the cor­ri­dor in the next 25 years.

The area, which en­com­passes shop­ping hubs, fed­eral of­fices and other ma­jor em­ploy­ers, is one of the busiest com­mut­ing cor­ri­dors in the state. About 366,000 trips per day orig­i­nate in the cor­ri­dor, and 46 per­cent of those are sin­gle-oc­cu­pancy ve­hi­cles, ac­cord­ing to a county re­port. As a mi­nor­ity-ma­jor­ity cor­ri­dor, it also has a high con­cen­tra­tion of im­mi­grants, lower-in­come and tran­sit-de­pen­dent pop­u­la­tions. About 120,000 peo­ple live within a half-mile of the planned BRT sta­tions.

Road­work not a big prob­lem

The re­gion has had lim­ited ex­pe­ri­ence with BRT projects. Metro runs spe­cially branded buses on the five-mile route con­nect­ing the Crys­tal City and Brad­dock Road Metro sta­tions in North­ern Vir­ginia. Rid­er­ship has grown since ser­vice be­gan in late 2014, partly as pas­sen­gers are lured by the op­tion to travel in ded­i­cated lanes, avoid­ing con­ges­tion on traf­fic-choked Route 1.

Plans are un­der­way for more BRT lines along Route 7 from Alexan­dria to Tysons and along the Fair­fax County por­tion of Rich­mond High­way from Alexan­dria to Fort Belvoir. The District is on track to build a bus lane along 16th Street NW, one of the busiest bus cor­ri­dors in the Metrobus sys­tem, car­ry­ing more than 20,000 pas­sen­gers daily, and plans are to adopt BRT fea­tures such as off-board pay­ment and all-door en­try to save on travel time.

Three years ago, Mont­gomery ap­proved a vi­sion for 102 miles of BRT lines cov­er­ing 10 cor­ri­dors, in­clud­ing along Route 355, Veirs Mill Road and Ge­or­gia Av­enue. County trans­porta­tion of­fi­cials say Route 29 pro­vides the ideal set­ting to launch a sys­tem be­cause buses would run on shoul­der lanes and in mixed traf­fic, which takes away the prob­lem of ne­go­ti­at­ing right of way.

“For­tu­nately, we don’t need to build any road in­fras­truc­ture for Route 29,” said Al Roshdieh, direc­tor of county trans­porta­tion. “What we need to build is the sta­tions and bike and pedes­trian ac­cess, but not much of road­work.”

But as the plans progress, some county lead­ers say send­ing buses into mixed traf­fic dur­ing the peak hours won’t do. Bus lanes, they say, are crit­i­cal to the sys­tem’s suc­cess.

Un­der the cur­rent plan, buses will run on shoul­der lanes be­tween Bur­tonsville, near the Howard County line, and New Hamp­shire Av­enue in White Oak. They will then run in reg­u­lar traf­fic for the re­main­der of the route to down­town Sil­ver Spring, where rid­ers will be able to con­nect to Metro’s Red Line and the fu­ture Pur­ple Line.

Of­fi­cials are still ex­plor­ing how to make the peak-hour bus lanes work on the south­ern por­tion of the line. But even with 60 per­cent of the route in reg­u­lar traf­fic, the BRT would be an im­prove­ment over cur­rent bus ser­vice, of­fi­cials say.

Buses will be more fre­quent — ev­ery 7.5 min­utes dur­ing the peak hours and ev­ery 15 min­utes at other times, versus the cur­rent vary­ing timeta­bles that can mean as long as 30 min­utes be­tween buses. The off-board pay­ment sys­tem will al­low pas­sen­gers to board quickly, us­ing all avail­able doors and keep­ing buses run­ning rather than waiting at bus stops, of­fi­cials say. Sta­tions built with tall plat­forms will pro­vide level board­ing, mak­ing them more ac­ces­si­ble for the el­derly and peo­ple with mo­bil­ity prob­lems. And the buses will be longer, pro­vid­ing more ca­pac­ity. They also will be equipped with WiFi and USB ports, ameni­ties that of­fi­cials hope will lure more peo­ple to tran­sit in the car-cen­tric cor­ri­dor.

The County Coun­cil is ex­pected to vote on the fund­ing pro­posal this month.

“For­tu­nately, we don’t need to build any road in­fras­truc­ture for Route 29.” Al Roshdieh, direc­tor of the Mont­gomery County Trans­porta­tion Depart­ment

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