Md. 'science city' plan may rate U.S. funds for light rail

By Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 24, 2009; B06

A proposal to build a "science city" near Gaithersburg could add enough commuters to allow Maryland to seek federal funds for light rail, a state official said Friday.

The newest findings from the state's transit administration come as local officials assess the proposed $10 billion live-work community spearheaded by Johns Hopkins University and endorsed by the county's planning board.

The project would create a 20-million-square-foot network of urban villages near existing life sciences office parks west of Interstate 270.

Henry Kay, deputy administrator for planning and engineering for the Maryland Transit Administration, said the increased density from the science city would be "strongly beneficial . . . and makes all the alternatives -- light rail and bus rapid transit" feasible for a federal funding application. Without the added density, light rail would not qualify, he said, but bus rapid transit would. A detailed state report on the proposed ridership for the project, known as the Corridor Cities Transitway, is to be released next week.

The proposed science city would be about four miles west of the Shady Grove Metro station, in an area where it is hard to get around without a car. The county's Planning Board has said the development should not be built unless there is a boost in public transit. The proposed transitway would connect the area to the Shady Grove Metro station and northern Montgomery County.

Critics of the science city have said it would worsen road congestion even if more transit is built and bring an additional 32,000 commuters. In September, the state highway administration said about 70 percent of those commuters would drive to the area alone in their cars. With budgets tight, there is no guarantee the state will get the federal dollars to build the transitway.

Montgomery County Council president Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville) said the added density from the science city might not be good for the community, even if it helps the area qualify for light rail.

"You don't want the tail of light rail wagging the dog of what is in the best interest of the community overall. It is unacceptable if the cost of light rail is unbearable congestion on the roads," he said.

The comparative costs of light rail and bus rapid transit are significant. State transit officials have said that a 14-mile bus rapid transit system for the Corridor Cities Transitway would cost about $450 million to build and light rail about $778 million. Operating costs differ, however, and light rail proponents think that would make light rail more affordable.

The council's transportation committee and planning board recently endorsed bus rapid transit for the proposed system, calling light rail too expensive.

Boosters of the Corridor Cities Transitway in the local business community, who have long pushed for light rail, said the state's study will aid their efforts.

"The CCT is essential to the future economic vitality of our region, it enjoys broad public support and the right-of-way is there, so the CCT is good to go in the very near term," said a statement from Marilyn Balcombe, head of the Corridor Cities Transitway Coalition.

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