Plan for transitway along I-270 in Maryland gains steam

By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 6, 2009

Routing a transit line closer to the Kentlands and through two developments planned for west Gaithersburg would draw as many as 42,000 daily boardings, enough to make either a light rail line or busway in the Interstate 270 corridor eligible for federal money, according to a state study released Thursday.

The number of passengers from people living, working and shopping in the new Johns Hopkins "science city" and Crown Farm developments, as well as those already in the Kentlands, would more than offset the increased costs of making the line longer, according to the Maryland Transit Administration's analysis.

The original route proposed by Montgomery County did not go through these areas.

The study has been highly anticipated by advocates of the Corridor Cities Transitway, particularly the upcounty business community, which has been pushing for the more expensive light rail option. Without the additional riders from the new alignment, a light rail line would have been too expensive to compete for federal money.

Transit projects across the country are eligible to compete for federal money based on how cost-effective they are -- namely, whether they save enough passengers enough time to justify the investment. A cheaper bus rapid transit option, or busway, met federal cost-effectiveness requirements for the original route, but business advocates said a busway wouldn't spur as much focused development as a more permanent light rail line.

"This is hugely significant," said Marilyn Balcombe, president of the Gaithersburg-Germantown Chamber of Commerce and a leader of the Corridor Cities Transitway Coalition. "Prior to this, light rail wasn't even eligible [to compete for federal money], so it was a moot point. Now we can go back to saying which do we prefer: light rail or bus?"

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) has not endorsed a specific mode or route for the planned 14-mile transitway between the Shady Grove Metro station and the Comsat building south of the Clarksburg Town Center. A Montgomery County Council vote Tuesday on which plan it supports will probably be key to his consideration.

Over the summer, the council's Transportation Committee supported the planning department's recommendation of a busway, citing its lower construction and annual operating costs as well as its greater flexibility in serving local neighborhoods. However, the committee also said at the time that it would consider new data based on the newly proposed alignment.

The estimated construction costs of a Corridor Cities Transitway have increased to $999 million for light rail and $533 million for a busway, according to the latest study. On the original route, light rail was estimated at $777.5 million, and a busway, $450 million.

The latest cost and ridership estimates would give light rail the required "medium" rating to compete for federal money. A busway would have a more competitive "high" rating.

The proposed Corridor Cities Transitway is part of a state effort to reduce congestion in the growing I-270 corridor, which carries traffic between Frederick and Montgomery counties. It also carries long-distance commuters between western Maryland and central Pennsylvania and jobs in Montgomery, the District and beyond.

The state's study also considers ways to widen I-270 with some kind of express toll lane. However, the widening portion of the study has been far more controversial, in part because it would require demolishing homes.

Transit advocates also say it would spur even more car-dependent sprawl development that would lead to more congestion.

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