NFCCA

Stories from the NFCCA Newsletter, the “Northwood News”

Northwood News ♦ April 2015

The BRT, Colesville Road, and You

By Jim Zepp

The BRT Corridor Advisory Committees

Last July when the County Council adopted the County-Wide Transitways Functional Master Plan, which authorized a network of ten Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) routes involving most of the County’s major roadways, it acknowledged that, up to that time, all of the planning for this system was conceptual rather than considering the actual requirements and implications of constructing and operating the BRT vehicles on these streets.*  Consequently, the Council’s resolution included language calling for the creation of Corridor Advisory Committees (CACs) for each of the affected roadways that would focus on the potential impacts and BRT design alternatives for communities around these corridors.

[* A BRT uses large buses (usually 60' articulated vehicles) with dedicated lanes, traffic signal priority, or other mechanisms for allowing them to travel faster than other traffic on a road.  For more information about the BRT and its relation to planned development in our area, please see earlier issues of the NFCCA newsletter on this website.]

Because no construction or operating funding has been forthcoming for the two BRT routes that have been studied for years (the Corridor Cities Transitway and Viers Mill BRTs) and the large number of additional BRT routes authorized by the Council, only four routes were initially planned to have CACs and detailed studies — Rockville Pike, Colesville Road, Viers Mill Road, and Georgia Avenue.  Due to the lengths and varied characteristics of the Rockville Pike, Colesville Road, and Georgia Avenue BRT routes, each of these corridors were to have an upper and lower CAC, which initially meant a total of seven CACs were to be created.

However, since (1) the Georgia Avenue BRT Route faced strong opposition by citizens and businesses in Olney, (2) the State Highway Administration (SHA) had already concluded that operating a BRT on lower Georgia Avenue was impractical due to conflicts with the Beltway ramp traffic, and (3) there are no pending development projects that would benefit from having a BRT, County Executive Ike Leggett canceled the two BRT CACs and studies for Georgia Avenue.  This means that $21 million will be spent studying the three remaining BRT corridors over two years.

After the adoption of the Transitways Master Plan, the Montgomery County Department of Transportation staff met with civic leaders from the affected areas around the County to discuss the selection criteria to be used for choosing the CAC members.  Because the previous County-wide planning for the BRT has been dominated by government agencies, those representing developers’ interests, and activists advocating specifically for BRT over other transportation and transit alternatives, there was great concern that the CACs should have a broader perspective and actual (as opposed to a passing) knowledge of local transportation conditions.  The criteria that was agreed upon by all parties:

The total number of members representing each corridor was constrained by the following factors:

Unfortunately, the County staff have apparently interpreted these rules very loosely.  As long as a CAC applicant was nominated by either a civic organization or the Chamber of Commerce, they were considered for inclusion.  Consequently, some CAC members who are characterized as “directly impacted or affected representatives” are representing communities or businesses which are located three miles or more away from the BRT corridor or represent contractors or development interests which may benefit from the CAC recommendations.

The ratio of three members from directly affected constituencies to one at-large representative was originally set to be in keeping with the Council’s intention that the CACs would be the major forum for the residents and businesses most impacted by the BRT to be heard.  A stricter interpretation of the selection criteria puts the South Route 29 CAC membership at about 20 directly affected representatives to 21 at-large.  Although these choices have been brought to the attention of the County staff, they maintain that the selection rules were met if one of the criteria (but not all relevant characteristics) was satisfied.

This is important because the mission of the CACs is to examine in detail the issues of implementing a BRT route along each corridor, including impacts on transit services for area residents (not just those for riders passing through the area); possible effects on traffic flows for other vehicles accessing local businesses and communities as well as other roadways such as the Beltway and University Boulevard; and economic and environmental impacts that may not be apparent or a significant concern from a County-wide perspective, but can be substantial burdens or costs to local residents and businesses.

A general kickoff meeting for all five CACS was held on 28 February 2015.  The first meeting of the South Route 29 CAC was held on 31 March 2015 in the Fenton Room at the Silver Spring Civic Center in downtown Silver Spring.  Kevin Harris (who lives on Edgewood Avenue) will be representing the NFCCA; he can be reached at [contact information redacted].  More information about the CACs is available at www.montgomerycountymd.gov/rts/.

The Independent Transit Authority

Despite not knowing what the BRT system will cost because the detailed studies won’t be finished until at least two years from now (general estimates range from two to ten billion dollars), the County Executive requested new state legislation that would allow him to create an Independent Transit Authority (ITA) that would be run by five appointees named by him; would have broad powers over all transit-related projects and services, including the BRT, Ride-On buses, and subways; could issue bonds to finance construction that County taxpayers would have to pay off through future property taxes; and its new public debt obligations could exceed the County Charter limit on property taxes.  The County government would have very limited approval of the ITA’s capital expenditures and no approval power over its operating budget.

A preliminary estimate for financing the BRT was about an additional $300 a year for a home valued at $400,000 and $1,700 for an average commercial property.  One proposal would be to tax communities such as ours at a higher rate because we are closer to a BRT route and would theoretically receive a greater benefit (and negative impact) than an area such as Potomac, where the BRT won’t go near.

On 30 January 2015, the Montgomery County State Legislative Delegates held a public hearing on the proposed ITA bill.  The overwhelming outcry by citizens and the County employees union over the hurried and premature nature of the ITA bill for which no reasonable cost estimate or specific project plans were available, resulted in a major public embarrassment for the County Executive, who withdrew the bill (see Gazette article).  However, he stated that, if no other financing alternatives were suggested for the unknown billions of dollars possibly needed, he would reintroduce the bill six months later.

The persistent pursuit of the BRT and ITA are mystifying since the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP, a national proponent of BRT systems) concluded in its 2012 study, Demand and Service Planning Report to Montgomery County DOT, that “true BRT really only makes sense in Montgomery County in the context of a broader array of changes, including changes in land uses and urban design.”

This is because the County is mainly a suburban area lacking the density needed for such a large-capacity transit system that would still be a poor alternative to driving for most residents.  Furthermore, the BRT would, even under optimistic conditions, provide minimal improvements in travel speed for riders.

Finally, the ITDP consultants noted, on roadways where traffic congestion is a problem, that “the sorts of bus service delays that [they] observed along these suburban arterials, primarily roadway congestion and multiphase traffic signals, are not the primary causes of delay that are well-addressed by gold-standard BRT elements.”

Consequently, many of the concerns that are being used to justify a multibillion dollar investment in constructing and operating a BRT system could be better spent on other options such as more regular and express bus service and traffic management systems.

Obviously, it is up to County residents and businesses to express their concerns about whether yet another unelected, independent agency — like WSSC, WMATA, or the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (MNCPPC) — is needed or wanted, as well as whether massive increases in local taxes are a wise decision in terms of keeping and attracting residents and businesses.  Emails can be sent to the County Executive’s Office at ocemail@montgomerycountymd.gov.    ■


   © 2015 NFCCA  [Source: https://nfcca.org/news/nn201504a.html]