Stories from the NFCCA Newsletter, the “Northwood News”

Northwood News ♦ April 2013

The BRT: A Dysfunctional Functional Master Plan

By Jim Zepp

So what would it take for you to rely less on your car for getting to work, buying your groceries, delivering and picking up your kids from day care or school, or going out for dinner or entertainment?  The Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) supporters are willing to bet billions of taxpayer dollars that having express buses running on the County’s major roadways — with little assurance of bus service into residential areas — will be enough to accomplish a major transportation transition among County residents.

On Monday, 18 March 2013, the staff of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (MNCPPC) presented their recommendations for implementing a BRT system in their “Draft Countywide Transit Corridors Functional Master Plan” to the Planning Commissioners.  Last year, a Transit Task Force appointed by the County Executive had recommended a 163-mile BRT system that would have involved 23 major roads.  Since that report was issued, a subsequent study by a national BRT organization found that many areas of the County do not have sufficient populations or density to justify a large capacity (think the extra-long, articulated buses that WMATA only uses for rush hours) express bus service running every five minutes.

In light of these findings, the MNCPPC staff reduced the size of the BRT to 79 miles on the following eight roads:  Georgia Ave., Rockville Pike (MD 355), New Hampshire Ave., Old Georgetown Rd., Randolph Rd., University Blvd., Colesville Rd., and Viers Mill Rd.  They also recommended whether the BRT vehicles should travel on dedicated, specially constructed lanes built in the median or on existing traffic lanes; an existing traffic lane reserved for their use; or in regular traffic as buses do now.  These choices were based on the roadways’ current width, predicted bus ridership, and various local conditions.  The staff recommended roadway “BRT treatments” would be built in two phases. The full report and its appendices are available here.

The “Bus Rapid Transit” plan as MNCPPC proposed in March.

One reason for community concern is that the staff stated at the 18 March 2013 MNCPPC presentation that, while the concept of a County-wide BRT network has not been even approved by the County Council, the inclusion of these recommendations into the County Transit Corridors Functional Master Plan establishes the authority to take land for these BRT lanes or stations as deemed needed by government.  Consequently, this is entering the Alice in Wonderland world where the sentence is decided before holding the trial of decision-making.

Along Colesville Road, the MNCPPC staff recommended:

Along University Boulevard, the staff recommendations are:

While the staff recommended general locations for the BRT stations, nothing is decided regarding how these facilities would be designed to fit into these sites.  For example, how would a station be introduced into the Four Corners intersection without further disrupting traffic flows and permit movement of riders transferring between BRTs or regular buses as well as other pedestrians — such as Blair students — while minimizing taking of land from businesses?  So much of the actual design decisions are “To Be Determined,” along with the associated costs and financing mechanisms.

During the 18 March meeting, a very tense discussion was held among the five Planning Commission members and staff regarding language in the recommendations that places a priority for transit vehicles over cars in decisions over usage of traffic lanes.  This reflects differing opinions on whether car usage should be actively discouraged or mass transit should be made a more competitive alternative to driving.

As a lifelong advocate for — and user of — mass transit, this is perhaps my greatest concern about the proposed BRT.  Its supporters seem fixated on its construction as a single solution which does not incorporate an equivalent commitment to the local bus service that will get residents to and from their homes to their destinations in an efficient manner.  Rather than focusing solely on travel along major roadways, planners should be analyzing travel markets (which is required for Federal funding of transportation projects) that would identify the trips people actually make as part of their daily lives and which determine their transportation decisions.  The MNCPPC planners respond that their job was not to address the County’s transportation problems, but rather to focus narrowly on how to fit a specific transportation alternative (the BRT) into the County.

A public hearing on the staff recommendations was originally planned for 2 May 2013, with an expected approval by the MNCPPC going to the County Council by July.  However, because of the comments raised during the 18 March meeting, a new schedule is being developed.  Part of the uncertainty involves when the BRT might be implemented.  The MNCPPC staff simultaneously state that this won’t happen until 2040 or it could be in the next five years.  So stay alert.   ■

   © 2013 NFCCA  [Source:]