The potential for building a transitway to relieve congestion and absorb growth in upper Montgomery County is boiling down to a central question: Should the county hold out for a light-rail line that might prove too costly, or settle for a less-expensive busway that could be built more quickly?
An analysis for the Maryland Transit Administration provides one answer: With its cheaper construction costs, a busway could be built in the Interstate 270 corridor 10 to 12 years sooner than a light-rail line, providing an additional decade of new jobs and tax revenue from the development that would follow. A $772 million light-rail line would generate a total “economic impact” of $1.3 billion between 2014 and 2050, while a $491 million bus rapid transit line would spur $2.2 billion, according to the study by consultant Parsons Brinckerhoff.
How soon a Corridor Cities Transitway could be built is key to its economic benefits, because most of the high-density development planned for the Gaithersburg area cannot move forward until a transitway is funded. That includes part of 900 acres west of I-270 near Shady Grove Road, where Montgomery planners envision a 17.5 million-square-foot “science city” for bioscience research, along with retail and 9,000 housing units.
“If we wait 10 years to build it, then we miss all the economic development that could happen now,” said Marilyn Balcombe of the Gaithersburg-Germantown Chamber of Commerce.
State transit officials say they were leaning toward a busway over light rail even before the analysis. The 15-mile transitway would connect the Shady Grove Metro station in Rockville with Gaithersburg, Germantown and an area just south of Clarksburg. It also would connect to a MARC rail station that serves Frederick County and West Virginia.
Rick Kiegel, the state’s project manager on the CCT plan, said buses would better serve the more spread-out upcounty region because they could get into neighborhoods and have dedicated bus lanes to the Metro station. Cost is also a key consideration, he said, because a CCT would compete for state and federal money behind a $2.2 billion light-rail Red Line planned for Baltimore and a $1.93 billion light-rail Purple Line planned between Bethesda and New Carrollton.
Busway proponents stress that the buses would provide the premium service of trains on rubber tires using their own lanes and stations that provide fast, level boarding. “The results of all our work and the cost of this thing makes us lean toward a [bus rapid transit] system,” Kiegel said.
Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) will select the mode and route as part of the state’s application for federal money.
Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D), who asked for the economic analysis, has previously endorsed light rail, as has the county council.
Leggett was unreachable Wednesday in India, where he is on a trade trip, but his spokesman Patrick Lacefield said: “I’m not aware of any change in our position at this point. We still believe light rail would be better.”
But Montgomery County Council member Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda), chairman of the council’s transportation committee, said he thinks that local officials would now endorse bus rapid transit. He noted that the county is considering building its own 150-mile network of dedicated bus lanes.
“Look at those numbers,” Berliner said of a busway’s greater economic impacts. “Look at the timeline. There’s no more debate in my mind.”
But Ben Ross, vice president of Action Committee for Transit, said the county should hold out for light rail, which he thinks would be more popular.
If the state and county choose bus rapid transit, Ross said, “They’ll be dumbing down the transit so they can build this sprawl development rather than give people good transit.”
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