Montgomery County eyes big idea to battle its traffic woes

Robert McCartney
Columnist June 2, 2012

To paraphrase a famous comment about the weather: Everybody talks about Washington traffic, but nobody does anything about it.

Now Montgomery County is eyeing a project so ambitious that, if successful, it would actually relieve some of the region’s chronic congestion. It would cost nearly $2 billion but still be cheaper than other solutions.

Robert McCartney’s column on local issues appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Post’s Metro section. View Archive

The big idea? A new, countywide network of express lanes for jazzy buses running as frequently (or more so) as Metro trains.

Where would we put them? In many cases, the buses would run down median strips of highways. In some cases, however, precious traffic lanes now used for autos would be sacrificed to make room.

The project, outlined in a May 22 county task force study, still requires plenty of scrutiny. Some experts think its ridership expectations are far too optimistic. It would work only if the buses fulfill promises to be sufficiently convenient and comfortable to lure automobile commuters out of their cars in large numbers.

Still, the plan has the rare merit of being sufficiently bold and innovative to make a difference on a large scale relatively soon. It aims to put 160 miles of express lanes on highways in the county’s most populated areas in as few as nine years.

As visionary projects go, it’s not in the same league as such regionwide undertakings as the Metro system or the Beltway. But it’s close.

It also offers the worthy advantage of jolting Montgomery out of its current transportation torpor, which risks eroding its economic and quality-of-life competitiveness vis-a-vis rival Fairfax County.

Despite having the region’s second-longest commuting time (after Prince George’s), Montgomery has no big-ticket transportation project underway. Its part of the Inter-County Connector is completed, and there’s no money to build the Purple Line.

By contrast, across the Potomac, Fairfax is extending Metro’s Silver Line to Tysons Corner and beyond. It’s widening the Beltway and preparing to widen Interstate 95.

Montgomery County Council member Marc Elrich (D-At Large), the bus project’s principal champion, noted that Fairfax recently ordered its own study of a similar, countywide, bus rapid-transit project.

“If we do nothing, we’re dead. We’re noncompetitive,” Elrich said. “Fairfax is going full speed ahead, looking at where they’re going to go next. We have to be willing to do the same thing.”

Oddly, a major threat to the project is psychological. People who have a choice resist using buses. Bus service has a stigma as second-rate, second-class.

As a result, the study stresses the need to elevate riders’ experience so it’s closer to using a Metro train than a typical city or suburban bus. The vehicles must be “sleek and stylish,” it says, with multiple doors and WiFi service. They should have level platform boarding, with no clambering up steps. Payment in advance, instead of on the vehicle.

In a somewhat Orwellian, semantic effort to mold public perceptions, the plan’s authors use the term “rapid-transit vehicles,” or RTVs, instead of “buses.” The RTVs will drive down partly grassy “guideways,” not “lanes.”

County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) has endorsed the project, but it’s far from obtaining final approval. One big step is getting support from Montgomery’s Planning Board this fall. The County Council and possibly the state legislature will have to sign on.

The biggest objection from the public probably will be how to pay for it. The starting estimate is $1.8 billion to build and $180 million a year to operate. The current plan is to fund it with special taxing districts. The average household bill, at the peak point, would be between $320 and $580 a year.

Elrich would prefer to reduce the cost to households in several ways, such as shifting more of the burden to developers that benefit from improved transit near their properties.

No matter how the cost is divvied up, the expense will be considerable. Nevertheless, it still would be drastically cheaper than building other kinds of transit and would serve more of the county.

The first phase would add express buses on seven clogged corridors, including Colesville Road, Georgia Avenue and Rockville Pike. It eventually would add the buses to 19 more corridors.

The cost of building express lanes for buses is about one-sixth that of building light rail (such as the Purple Line) and less than one-twelfth that of heavy rail (Metro). That means Montgomery could build the whole network of RTV guideways for the same price as extending Metro by about a dozen miles.

I’m not sure yet it’s a wise strategy. But I applaud the county for pushing ahead on a solution big enough to deal seriously with the problem.

For previous columns by Robert McCartney, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.

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