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Stories from the NFCCA Newsletter, the “Northwood News”

Northwood News ♦ October 2013

Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) Uber Alles

By Jim Zepp

As I have written in previous issues of the NFCCA newsletter, the County continues to aggressively pursue the approval of a County-wide Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) System.  A BRT uses large, articulated buses which predominantly operate on exclusive lanes with stops about a mile apart to maximize their travel speeds and on a frequent schedule to be attractive for riders.  While I have been a user and advocate for mass transit services for over 40 years, it is a great concern when only one transit alternative is pushed as a solution for almost every major roadway in the County to the exclusion of other options and possibly to the detriment of the existing transit services and the impacted communities, which are primarily in the urbanized Down County areas.

On 11 July 2013, the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (MNCPPC) approved its draft version of the Countywide Transit Corridors Functional Master Plan (available at www.montgomeryplanning.org/transportation/highways/brt.shtm).  It recommends a network covering over 70 miles which includes the following roads:

The document was then submitted to the County Council for its review and probable approval sometime this Fall.  During the Summer, the Council scheduled public hearings on the Plan for 24 and 26 Sept. 2013.

So Why Should You Care?

The approval of this Master Plan commits the County to the construction of an extensive BRT system that could be very expensive to taxpayers and potentially damaging to neighborhoods, local businesses, and property owners, while many important details about its design, operations, and financing remain undetermined.  Because there is no readily available source of construction funding for any of the proposed routes as well as other major transportation-related projects, the rush to approve this Master Plan is unnecessary and premature.

However, the designation of roadways such as Colesville Road and University Boulevard as BRT routes in the Countywide Transit Corridors Master Plan overrides any provisions concerning the character of these roads in any local Master Plans and gives the County Department of Transportation the authority to acquire property as BRT Right-of-Way whenever it suits their needs if construction funding becomes available.  Because the actual amount of land needed for the BRT routes (this includes space for stations, four of which would probably be built in Four Corners, as well as bike lanes and pedestrian safety improvements) is to be determined later, the homes and businesses along the roadways could unnecessarily be in an uncertain situation for years.  This could be similar to the ICC, which existed on paper for years while communities and homeowners assumed that it would not affect them until it was announced that their houses and yards were in jeopardy because the ICC was suddenly coming to their area.

Furthermore, the commitment to BRT could drain resources away from other transportation alternatives, many of which could be implemented more quickly and at less expense, or from existing transportation services, e.g., the Transit Task Force report that recommended the BRT System envisioned eliminating 100 Ride-On buses and cutting back Metro bus service as unneeded and a way to get more money for the BRT.

Even if the BRT is not built, the adoption of the proposed Countywide Transit Corridors Master Plan enables intensive development projects in locations around the County without Metro stations, such as White Oak.  Consequently, we could have the worst of all possible outcomes:  more people and cars with planned — but not implemented — infrastructure improvements to serve the additional demand.  Waiting to add the BRT routes to the County’s commitments when it is more likely to afford them and accommodate more growth would be a more reasonable approach than what is occurring.

Here are some points to consider:

  1. The BRT is a limited-stop, long-distance transit service that will mostly serve the Up County and Howard County commuters.  In order to maximize the BRT vehicles’ travel speed, the stations should be as far apart as possible.  This means that the closest stations for us will probably be at the Four Corners intersection and the White Oak shopping center.  Consequently, our residents are likely to have to go a half mile or more to get to the Four Corners BRT stations to either travel the two miles to the Silver Spring Metro Station or the three miles to the Wheaton Metro in order to transfer to the subway, bus, or other BRTs to get to their final destinations.  Because there are no plans to add parking for BRT stations and little room for building parking lots or garages in the Down County, while locations such as Burtonsville already have ample parking areas, the BRT offers little advantage and may add to the commuting time for most Down County residents if local Ride-On and Metro bus service is cut back or altered to feed BRT stations.

  2. The BRT: The Transit Service for the Other Guy.  Because the BRT planning has focused on roadways rather than the routes people take to complete trips, many users will have to do multiple transfers, which is usually an unacceptable travel option.  One Council staff person, who seemed inclined to support the BRT, readily admitted that he would not use it to get from his home in White Oak to his job in Rockville because it would require getting from his house to New Hampshire Avenue to catch the BRT, transferring at White Oak to the Colesville BRT, transferring at Four Corners to the University Boulevard BRT, transferring at Wheaton to the Viers Mill BRT, and disembarking at the Rockville Metro Station to walk the half mile to get to the Council building when he can otherwise drive his car to the Beltway and I-270 to Rockville in substantially less time and inconvenience.  Very few people are lucky enough to have a straight line between their homes and work places, even less when trips to day care, shopping, gyms, or other errands are added in.

  3. The BRT:  Bad for Climate Change and Energy Efficiency.  Because the BRT uses large buses that run every five or 10 minutes, it can be energy-efficient compared to cars during rush hours, but it is the exact opposite during non-rush hours (which is most of the day and evening) when the vehicles are not at full capacity.  In order to maximize BRT vehicle travel speeds, intersections without traffic lights are blocked for cars making left turns, which means that many drivers will have to go to intersections with traffic lights for entering or exiting neighborhoods along BRT routes and greater travel distances for trips as well as more congestion for the affected streets.  A 1999 study of a transitway on Colesville Road concluded that the Level of Service (LOS) would drop an additional category due to measures to promote BRT operations as compared to doing nothing.  So any gains by adding the BRT will be offset by its negative impacts on traffic congestion and reductions in local bus service that would cause more residents to not only drive, but to drive further distances.

  4. BRT:  The Unwelcome Guest That Won’t Leave.  Although where the County would obtain the billions needed to build and operate the BRT System are to be determined, the County’s residents and businesses are the likely revenue source, since there seems little interest in pursuing Federal funding and the projected revenues from the recent increase in the State gas tax are already being spent.  Because the County is already at its property tax limits, special tax districts that could be applied to areas within a half mile or one mile of a BRT route are the likely solution.  The Council held a special meeting this summer to discuss this as a request for the next State Legislative session.  Looking at the map of proposed BRT routes, it is clear that the Down County will shoulder the majority of the BRT costs (possibly both construction and operating expenses), while much of the upper and western parts of the County will not.  Unless the County finds another way to uniformly increase the tax burden of residents and businesses, this will tilt property values away from BRT-impacted areas and towards the wide open spaces of the Ag Reserve.

  5. BRT:  If I Had a Hammer, You Would Look Like a Nail.  Although a BRT can be an appropriate solution in certain circumstances, BRT advocates seem unwilling to consider any other alternatives for reducing traffic congestion.  Despite increasing levels of traffic congestion in our area during the 23 years that I have lived in Four Corners, local bus service has been cut back several times, with reductions in service frequency as well as routes.  The travel times of long-distance commuters from far northern locations such as Burtonsville and Fredericksburg could be reduced more by extending express bus service that travels on I-95 than by using a BRT on Route 29 or I-270 instead of a BRT on Rockville Pike.  However, these options are not being considered, while Route 29 and Rockville Pike are pushed as the first priorities for the BRT treatment.  Strangely, the major north-south corridor for which no BRT is proposed is Connecticut Avenue, which has no Metro service or alternative high speed Interstate highway paralleling it.  If the planning took into consideration what might be the most appropriate approach to traffic congestion in each of the corridors rather than how to jam the same solution into as many roadways as possible, this might be a legitimate planning effort instead of a cookie cutter application of a favored alternative.

  6. After the Silver Spring Transit Center, You Want to Do What?  The proposed BRT System would be the most extensive and complicated network of routes in the world.  Most cities that have BRTs involve single routes that do not intersect and radiate from a central downtown.  The proposed BRT System in Montgomery County would involve multiple intersections with BRT routes, Metro, the Purple Line, and other bus services.  It would include giving BRT vehicles priority at many major intersections, which would affect traffic light timing as well as altering traffic flow for other vehicles (including other buses and BRTs) across much of the County.  All of this would be attempted by largely the same agencies and managers that could not successfully build a one-and-a-half story garage for buses for only $90 million (now $120 million and climbing).  There are several BRT routes (the Corridor Cities Transitway, Viers Mill, and North Bethesda Transitway) as well as the Purple Line that are yet to be built, but are approved, reflected in their local Master Plans, and millions have been spent on planning with no construction so far.  This begs the question of why not build the projects already approved and consider adding more routes if they are feasible.  In the meantime, implement the small measures — such as increasing local and express bus service — that would reduce traffic congestion by providing a meaningful transit alternative now.

Because there are well-funded organizations receiving money from developers, real estate interests, and other private sources to actively campaign for the BRT, County residents need to express their concerns on this issue before decisions are made that will commit the County to pursuing a single alternative for future transportation improvements and billions in taxes to make it happen without a clear understanding of the specific impacts on traffic and neighborhoods.   ■

Contact County Council

   © 2013 NFCCA  [Source: https://nfcca.org/news/nn201310m.html]