Montgomery’s Bus Rapid Transit looks like feel-good plan rather than realistic blueprint

Robert McCartney
Columnist November 30, 2013

The original, bold, visionary plan to solve traffic gridlock in Montgomery County called for 160 miles of fancy, new bus lanes.

Under the actual plan adopted Tuesday, the so-called bus rapid transit network shrank to 98 miles.

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

The original plan envisioned double lanes running down medians of many major highways.

The actual plan provides for one lane, maybe, in key corridors inside the Beltway, such as Rockville Pike and Colesville Road — and only if the neighbors approve.

Did I mention there’s no agreement on how to pay for this? That the project might absorb funds needed for the Metro system and Montgomery’s Ride On buses? That it can succeed only if large numbers of residents are coaxed to switch from driving their own cars to riding county buses?

I want to support this effort. I wrote a column 18 months ago applauding its ambition.

But it faces so many challenges and raises so many questions that abundant skepticism is required.

“Some of these [bus] routes aren’t ever going to materialize,” Montgomery Council member George Leventhal (D-At Large) said at a recent work session on the topic.

“What we’re up against is the overriding fact that only a tiny fraction of our constituents ride the bus,” he said.

Despite his concerns, Leventhal joined in the council’s 9 to 0 vote in favor of the bill, which County Executive Ike Leggett has promised to sign.

The unanimous vote, despite the obvious doubts, underlines that the project for now is mostly a feel-good aspiration rather than a realistic blueprint for easing some of the worst traffic congestion in the region (and nation).

“Frankly, I think this whole thing is constructed for the news conference and the press release, for getting this shiny new thing where everybody has a different idea of what the bus looks like, and what ‘rapid’ means. Nobody has a clue what it’s going to be,” said council member Nancy Floreen (D-At Large), who also voted for it.

Bus rapid transit, known as BRT, has one big argument in its favor: It’s the only way in the foreseeable future to add ways for people to get around much of Montgomery.

It’s too expensive to enlarge the Metro system or plan additional light-rail systems, such as the Purple Line. There’s no room to widen roads in the county’s built-up areas, where most people live.

“People are not going to warm to it overnight, but . . . I don’t think commuters are going to have much of an option other than to consider some form of BRT to obtain traffic relief,” Leggett said.

But there’s a catch. In most cases, the only way to obtain a dedicated lane for buses is to “repurpose” — that is, take away — a lane used for cars.

That means congestion will worsen unless enough people give up driving in favor of taking the bus. That’s an admirable public goal, but also an enormous gamble.

In addition, neither politicians nor county planners showany appetite for shoving through the kinds of unpopular steps necessary to make a bus system sufficiently attractive to lure people out of their cars.

They are reluctant to widen roads if it means seizing part of someone’s front yard or chopping down a row of trees. Without such widening, it’s difficult to find space for covered bus stations and turning lanes needed for the plan to succeed.

Such wariness was a big reason why the original vision — for two lanes in median strips — was watered down.

Now, two lanes are promised primarily in northern parts of the county, where more right of way is available. Some buses will run along curbs. Some might not even have dedicated lanes.

The authorities backed off partly because of cost and partly because of public resistance, especially in communities along Route 355 (Wisconsin Avenue/Rockville Pike) and Route 29 (Colesville Road).

To accommodate them, the plan was amended to set up citizen advisory groups for each corridor to provide feedback and input. No decisions can be made until each has been heard at a council hearing.

The affected neighborhoods must have their say, but ultimately the authorities have to do what’s best for the county as a whole. They have a ways to go to prove this shiny dream can become a reality.

For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.

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