It’s been 5 years since Montgomery County first started talking about a countywide Bus Rapid Transit network, but the County Council could vote on the proposed 81-mile system in two weeks. While the latest round of revisions are good, will councilmembers resist calls from a few residents to cut BRT routes in their neighborhoods?
The draft Countywide Transit Corridors Functional Master Plan designates future transit corridors and recommends how to allocate space on our major roads for them. While business, civic, activist, and environmental groups say planning for transit will reduce traffic and support future growth, some residents are fighting to block the plan.
Councilmember Roger Berliner, who sits on the council’s Transportation and Energy committee, emphasized that it’s only the beginning of a longer conversation. “This is a predicate for future action,” he said. “Just like when we put the Purple Line in our master plan, we said, ‘Hey, this might be a good idea.'”
Committee backs away from detailed recommendations
Committee members Berliner and Hans Riemer voted to keep all 10 lines in the system, but made several changes to a draft the Planning Board approved earlier this year. But third committee member Nancy Floreen, who says she’s “not an advocate” of the plan, voted to shorten several or remove several lines, as recommended by council staff.
The committee voted to remove specific recommendations about how to give buses their own dedicated lanes, whether by widening roads or repurposing existing general traffic lanes. This is probably the most important feature about BRT because it makes the service faster, encouraging more people to use it. But it’s also the least popular with neighbors, and some of the proposed configurations had issues.
Instead, the plan will say where buses should have their own lanes, but not how to do so. This is probably a good thing, because the county would really have to do more detailed engineering work that’s beyond the scope of this plan before understanding the costs and benefits of different lane configurations. As before, about 70% of the network would run buses in some form of dedicated lanes.
Councilmembers were split on whether to continue a BRT line along Route 355 between downtown Bethesda and Friendship Heights, which neighbors in Chevy Chase West and Somerset have vehemently fought. Councilmember Hans Riemer voted to keep it in, while Nancy Floreen voted to end the line farther north, at Grosvenor. Berliner, who represents the area, voted to study it further. Unless the full council decides otherwise, it won’t be in the plan.
On Randolph Road, the committee still voted to have buses run in mixed traffic, due to very low projected ridership and the inability to add dedicated lanes because the street is too narrow. Both council staff and Nancy Floreen wanted to remove the line entirely, but instead the committee voted 3-0 to have BRT along Montrose Parkway as an alternative.
While this could give buses dedicated lanes, making the service faster, it would also require building a new highway that contradicts the vision of White Flint as an urban place.
BRT could go to Northern Virginia
The committee also chose to keep both proposed routes for the North Bethesda Transitway, a line that would run from Montgomery Mall either to the Grosvenor Metro station via Tuckerman Lane or to White Flint via Old Georgetown Road. The Grosvenor route has been on county plans for 20 years, but county planners decided to go with White Flint instead to serve its new downtown.
Eventually, the transitway could continue to Northern Virginia via the Beltway. Last year, councilmembers met with the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors and agreed that a new transit connection could help both counties’ commuters and economies. County officials assume that buses would need to run in new HOV lanes on the Maryland side, not unlike the new 495 Express lanes in Virginia. The Maryland State Highway Administration has studied doing building them, but there’s no funding for that project yet.
The committee also strengthened recommendations for Bicycle Pedestrian Priority Areas, which require additional pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure to make it easier for people to reach BRT stations and other destinations without a car. While the original plan simply named 26 areas where this should happen, the committee also called for lower speed limits and prohibiting right turns on red, among other suggestions.
If the council votes to approve the plan November 26, detailed work can begin on specific corridors. Maryland is already working on the Corridor Cities Transitway and studying BRT on Veirs Mill Road and Georgia Avenue. Montgomery County also wants to start working on BRT for Route 355, Route 29, and Randolph Road, says transportation director Art Holmes.
This bus can’t stop short
Many skeptical residents have questioned whether the multi-billion dollar cost of building out a BRT network is worth it and worried about how it might affect their neighborhoods or their individual commutes. The debate has often become bitter and vitriolic, and many opponents weren’t always civil.
But we can’t simply take out sections of the plan where some neighbors don’t want them, whether on 355, Randolph, or other corridors. The point of this plan is to create a transit network, in which every line makes every other line more valuable by providing more connections to more places. Cutting out parts of the plan outside of White Flint makes it harder for people to use the network to get here without a car. And we can’t create the thriving urban centers envisioned in the White Flint Sector Plan if everyone ends up driving here.
A plan like this is uncharted territory for Montgomery County, and the debate we’ve had over the past 5 years shows it. But we’ve already made it this far, and hopefully councilmembers will make sure this bus doesn’t stop prematurely.
A version of this post appeared on Greater Greater Washington.