Councilmember Roger Berliner, whose District includes White Flint, has been circulating a set of Frequently Asked Questions to constituents who contact his office about the Bus Rapid Transit plan for Montgomery County. We find it to be a fantastic primer on the issues at hand and thank him for sharing it!
Councilmember Roger Berliner
Q: What do RTV and BRT mean?
The acronym RTV stands for rapid transit vehicles and BRT is bus rapid transit. RTV and BRT systems often have dedicated guideways or lanes, visible and permanent stations, and frequent, reliable service. A high quality RTV network utilizes specialized vehicles that can significantly improve an area’s mobility, while offering the flexibility to meet future transit demands. There are best practices to be found across the country and around the world in places like Cleveland, Ohio; Eugene, Oregon; York Region, Canada; and Bogota, Columbia.
Q: What are the benefits of a RTV system?
Adding another layer of transit options for county residents is beneficial for environmental, economic and quality-of-life reasons. First, traffic and gridlock are an ever increasing threat to our quality of life in the county. And studies show that roadway congestion is predicted to increase by 70% by 2040. We need to do something to preserve and enhance mobility throughout the county. Doing nothing is not an option.
Second, more people taking transit will improve the environmental health of our communities. By providing attractive alternatives, some people will choose to leave their cars at home and this will benefit everyone by reducing local air pollution from car emissions, a major contributor to climate change.
Finally, an RTV system is an investment in our economic future. A region with varied, attractive, reliable transportation options and good mobility is an attractive region in which to live and do business. DC, Arlington, Alexandria andFairfax are all building new transit systems. A healthy economy is vital to our county’s future if we are going to sustain the level of services enjoyed by our residents.
Q: What would make RTV a more attractive choice for residents who could otherwise drive?
The existing buses all ride in lanes shared with all the other traffic so they move slowly, even more slowly than cars because they need to make many stops. Additionally, most have infrequent service, require cumbersome transfers and are often crowded and uncomfortable. While Metrorail runs frequently, its service is focused on getting into Washington DC rather than around the county. High quality RTV would allow residents to move around the county on a transit system that’s reliable, not stuck in general traffic and runs with sufficient frequency. The proposed system is a complete network of north-south and east-west routes designed to move people from where they live to where they work. This system would attract new transit riders, not just those who currently ride the bus, by making it a desirable alternative to driving in stop and go traffic. In other areas of the country, these types of lines – not even systems – have dramatically increased ridership. The new Orange Line in Los Angeles County increased ridership by 51%. Ridership on the Cleveland “Health Line” increased 60% over the bus line it replaced.
Q: What is happening now to advance the RTV system and how can I follow the issues and participate in the process?
Montgomery County’s Planning Board is now reviewing the Public Hearing Draft of the Countywide Transit Corridors Functional Master Plan. This is an update to our Master Plan of Highways, which hasn’t been done in a comprehensive manner since 1955. The purpose of this exercise is to assess which corridors are most appropriate for rapid transit, providing an initial indication of where station’s should be located, and what right of ways need to be dedicated for such a purpose. The Transportation, Infrastructure, Energy & Environment Committee and our full Council will take up the Planning Board’s recommendations in the fall after public hearings and numerous work sessions. If the Council does approves this master plan, with revisions as deemed fit by the Council, it effectively becomes our County policy that rapid transit is in our future. It is a necessary precondition to the extensive work that would follow – figuring out how to pay for it, designing the routes with much greater specificity, and whether and how the network should be phased in. All of these decisions would be made with extensive public input.
Q: What will be the impacts to my neighborhood?
That will vary from one route to the next, but generally, the Public Hearing Draft does not call for significant road widenings and in many corridors, does not require any widening at all. Not all areas need two-directional dedicated lanes. In some areas, it may be worthwhile to repurpose a lane for short distances that is currently used for cars. In other areas, the RTV may have to travel in the car lanes along with the cars for a limited distance. Each area/route will require specific, appropriate solutions. There is no one-size-fits-all approach. Every corridor will need a different design that will involve
In general, the RTV vehicles should be cleaner and quieter than the multitude of cars currently on the road, and where dedicated curb lanes are present, it should be easier, not harder for cars to egress from their neighborhood roads onto major RTV corridors.
Q: Why don’t we simply add on to Metrorail?
It’s too expensive. Adding additional heavy rail (like Metrorail) costs about $250million dollars/mile to construct and light rail costs about $75-125 million/mile. Building new roads are also quite costly. For example, it costs between $30 – 100 million to construct a single roadway interchange. The cost of building a rapid transit system is approximately $17 million per mile and in many cases much less expensive when existing rights of way are used. We can build a high quality RTV system with many high quality attributes of Metrorail at a far lower overall cost.
Q: Why would we implement RTV in corridors where we already have Metro service?
Even with the addition of eight car trains (which the Planning Department assumes in its traffic modeling), studies still show strong ridership for a RTV system. In addition, an RTV can provide more frequent service at shorter intervals, with stations in between Metro stops in some cases. Additionally, RTV can provide useful east-west corridors connecting red line stations. A RTV network would complement, not supplant, our existing transit infrastructure. Passengers would be able to use the same payment system like the smart trip card and transfer smoothly between the two systems.
Q: We already have lots of buses – both Ride On, WMATA (Metro) buses, and even school buses. What would happen to them? How are the new vehicles different?
Existing Ride On routes would be reconfigured to offer shorter routes that would move people from the neighborhoods to the RTV lines, providing faster, more frequent and more reliable service. The RTV lines during rush hour would run with the frequency you’d expect of a rail system so that wait times at stations are minimized. WMATA buses that currently serve proposed RTV routes could operate in the dedicated lanes as could some Ride-On routes. School buses could also be allowed to use the dedicated lanes.
The new rapid transit vehicles would be different than our current Ride-On and Metro buses. They would be sleeker (more like a tram than a bus) and offer a very comfortable rider experience. Rapid transit vehicles can be very quiet, run on clean alternative fuels thus reducing emissions, and provide ground level boarding (no stairs) for quicker boarding and exiting. See below for examples of RTV vehicles used in other communities.
Q: How will the county pay for this? Will we get state and federal funding?
As with most, if not all, capital projects, planning comes first. When design and engineering work is finished on part or all of an approved system, financing options will be carefully considered. The funding mechanism will be chosen by the Executive and Council only after a thorough exploration of practical solutions, including the pursuit of state and federal funding sources, and a broad public discussion which will include public hearings.
All major transportation projects come with a cost, but the cost of doing nothing is much greater – ever increasing congestion, pollution, degraded quality of life and lost economic opportunity. Most of transportation dollars have been spent almost exclusively on roads and as we move forward, we need to provide a more balanced transportation system. In the future, if congestion is not addressed to some extent with transit, then we face more road-only solutions that will require more road widening and more grade separated inter-changes. There is no scenario where the status quo will remain unchanged. So we can either manage change in a way that lessens the impact on our communities or we will get buried in traffic.
Q: How rapid are the rapid transit vehicles?
No more rapid than the speed limit. Rapid transit vehicles must obey the speed limit on all roads and stop at all traffic signals, but will get to their destination faster if the vehicle is in a dedicated lane or guideway.
Q: Will bicycle and pedestrian improvements be implemented along with RTV corridors?
Yes. The Planning Staff has recommended that the areas around major transit stations and other transfer points be designated Bicycle and Pedestrian Priority Areas. Sidewalks are included in all typical roadway sections used to determine the necessary rights-of-way and median pedestrian refuges would be provide to ensure safe crossing opportunities. Any bicycle accommodation already in our master plans is accommodated in the plan; on-road bike lanes would be accommodated in additional areas where possible; and where there are constraints to providing bike accommodation in the typical section, alternative accommodation is identified.
A RTV system should be safer for bicyclist and pedestrians because there would be fewer cars on the roads. All rapid transit vehicles will stop at traffic lights just like cars and pedestrian crossings of our corridors will be given full consideration.