NFCCA

Stories from the NFCCA Newsletter, the “Northwood News”

Northwood News ♦ December 2012

The BRT, White Oak Master Plan, and the Future

By Jim Zepp

These are some of the questions facing our neighborhood’s residents and those in much of the other Down-County communities as discussions on the configuration and extent of a bus rapid transit (BRT) system.  It is proposed to cover 163 miles on 23 major roadways in the County and may cost $2 to $10 billion to construct and $150 million or more a year to operate.  A Transit Task Force appointed by County Executive Ike Leggett recommended this system in their report last June.

A BRT is a bus route on which special vehicles travel mainly on exclusive lanes outside regular traffic and have the ability to override red lights when approaching intersections.  For maximum travel times, stations are far apart (one plan has only five stations on Route 29 between Burtonsville and Downtown Silver Spring).  To minimize the amount of land needed for a BRT, most stations would not have parking facilities, so riders would have to walk, take a bus, or get a ride to a BRT station.

(As reference points, the Metrorail system was estimated to cost $1.8 billion in 1969; its ultimate construction cost in 2001 was $10 billion.  The 2010 operating budget for the entire MetroBus system for D.C., Md., and Va. was $506 million, and the approved FY12 operating budget for the County’s Ride-On bus system was $86 million.)  NOTE:  Because the BRT’s operational details — such as the number of stations and their locations; use of dedicated, specially constructed roadways vs. exclusive use of existing traffic lanes vs. shared traffic lanes; extent of the system and frequency of bus service; and the construction schedule that may range from a few to 30 years — are yet to be determined, it is difficult to precisely assess any impacts and those which are known are subject to change as the proposed project continues to morph in complexity and scale.

However, what is known is that, for a BRT to operate at its highest efficiency, the stations must be far apart and everything must be done to allow its vehicles to travel faster than the surrounding normal traffic.  In this sense, a BRT is similar to putting a rail transit system or HOV lanes down Route 29 in terms of right-of-way needs and priority over traffic lights and intersections.  Also, like rail systems, HOVs, and other limited-stop conveyances, express transit systems mainly serve long-distance commuters and not densely settled neighborhoods in close-in, urbanized areas such as ours, where the availability and frequency of local bus service can determine the practicality of residents’ mass transit usage.

The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission’s (MNCPPC) planning staff is currently formulating recommendations for the most likely roadways that would support BRT routes and whether these would involve using medians, dedicating existing traffic lanes, or sharing lanes with other traffic.  These will be submitted as final recommendations to the Planning Board in January.

The BRT — A Solution That May Have Outlived Its Time?

While the County is considering spending billions on building a BRT system to address traffic congestion, there is strong evidence that other alternatives may be less expensive and more effective.  For example, in 2008, traffic congestion dropped 30 percent nationally (99 of the 100 largest metro areas) and at all hours of the day with little change in transportation capacity.  The difference is attributed to modest reductions in traffic volumes (about three percent of urban interstate miles traveled).  The conclusion is that policies which can smooth traffic volumes over a road network and times of day will have much greater impact at less cost than attempting to build our way out with more highways or transit systems focused on growing peak hour demands.  (See The Tipping Point.)

The transportation/urban planning communities are moving to recognize the emergence of technologies that enable self-piloted vehicles (SPVs) that will make large transit vehicles unnecessary except for moving large groups of people long distances.  The Wall Street Journal has carried a series of opinion pieces making this point (see WSJ Blogs).  SPVs can be safer than manually driven vehicles, reducing accidents, significantly increasing the country’s transportation capacity by efficient usage of existing roadways, and providing the attractive benefit of door-to-door service that most mass transit systems cannot.  Google has been touring the state capitals to introduce state legislators to its self-piloted cars.

While some may object that such new technologies will take years before they are implementable, the plans for the BRT system extend its completion as far as 2040.  With no ready source of funding available for the BRT and the proposed financing plans involving either amending the state constitution, restructuring the state’s property tax system, or persuading the County’s business community to pay for the entire BRT system, it is not an immediate solution as envisioned.

There is a cheaper, more immediate solution to reducing vehicles from the Up County and Howard County that are clogging up Route 29.  Despite the best efforts to speed the BRT vehicles along Route 29, it is still nearly twice as fast to route express buses from these locations onto I-95.  The current MTA express service that does this is extremely limited (southbound only from 5 a.m. to 7 a.m. and northbound 3 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. only).  Increasing the frequency of this service and adding routes to other Up County destinations could be done for far less the billions that the BRT will cost and much sooner.

Why Should I Care?

With all of these problems, won’t it be decades before the BRT affects the Four Corners area?  Unfortunately, no.  Route 29 and Four Corners have repeatedly been identified by various public officials and agencies as the location in the County where the BRT concept should be tested.  This is because of its high degree of traffic congestion, multiple traffic flows — including Beltway backups — and frequency of bus service.  What could go wrong?

Furthermore, there are additional pressures to impose a BRT on Route 29 in order to enable massive new development being planned for the White Oak Master Plan area.  (The primary affected area extends northward along Route 29 to Cherry Hill Road, to the County Line, to the Beltway, to the Northwest Branch.  For more information, go to White Oak Science Gateway.)  The chart below summarizes the size and scale of the development being proposed in the White Oak Master plan and compares it to other locations.

Comparison to Other Planning Areas — Is This Smart Growth?

Plan Area Metro
Station
Resid.
Units
Jobs Commercial Space
White Oak (now) No 7,118 27,688 11 million square feet
White Oak (proposed) No 15,688 70,312 25 million sq.ft. (equivalent to 11 Wheaton malls)
Fairland No 20,886
Downtown Silver Spring Yes 6,936 30,400
Wheaton Yes 2,611 8,830
Glenmont Yes 1,167 677
Bethesda CBD Yes 6,700 35,800
White Flint Yes 2,100 18,100

A major concern is that this very dense commercial and residential development is planned for an area that already has high levels of traffic congestion and no mass transit services, except for buses.  And this does not include the thousands of Federal workers still scheduled to be moved to the FDA site in the coming years.  Consequently, the approval of the BRT concept could be critical to the approval of this development.

TPAR or Not to TPAR, That is the Question

Over the years, Montgomery County has used several methods to either link new development to transportation and school capacity or levy fees on developers to compensate for the additional demand for new infrastructure resulting from their projects.  The most recent version of this is called TPAR (Transportation Policy Area Review), which continues this approach to insure that local transportation facilities are not overwhelmed by uncontrolled growth.  However, the largest developer in the White Oak Master Plan area — Percontee, Inc. — has been heavily lobbying the County officials to exempt this area from the TPAR requirements.

At the County Council’s Planning, Housing, and Economic Development (PHED) Committee and in the full Council vote, Council Members Nancy Floreen and George Leventhal supported this exemption.  Council Member Marc Elrich voted against the exemption at the PHED Committee and the other seven Council Members also subsequently voted against it.

However, the TPAR exemption idea is expected to be included as part of the draft White Oak Master Plan that will be reviewed by the MNCPPC Planning Board in the first half of 2013.  Upon approval of the Master Plan expected during the Summer 2013, it will be passed to the County Council for its approval.

Conclusion

So what does all of this mean?  The convergence of these pending plans and policies can have a great significance for the quality of life, traffic congestion, and taxes for the Four Corners communities.  While it can be confusing and time-consuming to stay informed as these issues keep changing and different information becomes available, it is important for our future as a neighborhood.

Improving public transit services is important, but it should serve the close-in, walkable communities and not promote further sprawl by facilitating and subsidizing long-distance commuting.

New development in the East County area should occur in stages compatible with local transportation infrastructure capacity.

All developers should be required to contribute to any transportation improvements to relieve congestion.

All alternatives for reducing traffic congestion should receive equal consideration and not just the solution favored by one group of supporters.

As these issues are debated in the coming months and years by the MNCPPC Planning Board, County Executive, and County Council, you must express your opinions on these matters or you and our community can expect to be roadkill on the County’s drive to progress.   ■


   © 2012 NFCCA  [Source: https://nfcca.org/news/nn201212a.html]