For Buses, Wheels To the Shoulders?

By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 17, 2008

Washington area transportation officials are pushing a plan to run buses on the shoulders of the region's highways and other major roads, allowing the vehicles to drive around congestion and go to the head of the line at traffic signals.

With prospects for increased transportation funding fading, regional leaders are looking for alternative -- read: cheap -- solutions for easing congestion.

"It's about as low cost a thing as you can do," said Chris Zimmerman, chairman of the Metro board and the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority. Zimmerman is proposing a 100-mile system of shoulder lanes, the same length as the Metrorail system.

Metro General Manager John B. Catoe, who was credited with innovations when he ran the Los Angeles bus system, is meeting with top transportation officials in Maryland and Virginia this week to push shoulder use and other bus improvements.

With Washington commuters mired in the second-worst traffic in the nation, area leaders are increasingly open to new, even radical, ideas for getting people across the region, including extensive tolling, better timing of traffic signals and using every inch of existing pavement, including highway shoulders.

"Any road that is tied up and has a shoulder on it is a candidate," said Zimmerman, who is also a member of the Arlington County Board.

Transportation officials would study which roadways could accommodate shoulder use. District officials are focusing on instituting dedicated bus lanes, such as the one on Ninth Street NW.

Zimmerman said allowing buses to bypass congestion would give commuters added incentive to use public transit. Each full bus takes 30 to 40 cars off the road, he said. "We have to reward people who use public transportation and let them know that even if there is traffic, you are going to make it to work or home on time."

Buses already use the shoulders on the connector between the Dulles Toll Road and Interstate 66, and on Route 29 near Burtonsville.

Glenn Saffran, deputy director of MARC and commuter bus service in Maryland, said bus passengers riding Route 29 "cheer when you pass 70 to 80 cars waiting for a stoplight. It was very successful when the traffic was very heavy."

The lanes still operate, but the route was shortened when many of the signalized intersections on Route 29 were replaced with full interchanges, he said.

The idea was pioneered in 1992 in Minneapolis, which has 230 miles of roadway that can accommodate buses on shoulders, according to a 2006 study by the Transportation Research Board of the National Academies.

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