Montgomery County Council backs HOT lanes, light rail

By Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Montgomery County Council on Tuesday unanimously endorsed a plan to add reversible rush-hour lanes on parts of Interstate 270 and make solo commuters pay to use them.

The informal vote for high-occupancy toll lanes -- which would be free to carpools, vans and buses -- came on the same day that a majority of the council endorsed more expensive light rail over bus rapid transit for the proposed Corridor Cities Transitway from Shady Grove to Clarksburg.

The proposed highway changes and transit system choices came as county officials prepare to pitch their plans to the state for improving commuting along the I-270 corridor to the Frederick County line.

The I-270 proposal calls for widening the interstate north of Route 124 where it narrows to three lanes in each direction.

Even though the council has spoken -- and is expected to formally adopt the same positions Tuesday -- it's not clear what state officials ultimately will endorse and try to fund with federal transportation dollars.

State highway officials have indicated that they probably will back an I-270 expansion. But the Corridor Cities Transitway would have to compete with two other proposed systems -- Metrorail's Purple Line, linking Bethesda and New Carrollton, and Baltimore's east-west Red Line.

By supporting light rail and I-270 toll lanes, the council aligned itself with other local politicians, including County Executive Isiah Leggett (D), allowing them to present a united front to the state. (Leggett has not committed to the proposed reversible lanes on I-270 and said he needs more information about the plan, which council President Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville) only recently proposed.)

Light rail for the Corridor Cities Transitway -- on a route that would begin at Shady Grove, swing west to the proposed "science city" and north to the Comsat building near Clarksburg -- would cost about $900 million to build, about twice that of bus rapid transit but less than the Purple Line or Baltimore's Red Line.

Several supporters of light rail on the council said Tuesday that if state officials chose bus rapid transit for the Corridor Cities Transitway, they would not vigorously protest.

Although the HOT lanes debate took only a few moments of the council's time, the discussion about light rail vs. bus rapid transit for the proposed 14-mile transitway highlighted the political tensions surrounding the issue.

Even though council staff recommended the cheaper bus rapid transit system, saying it could be built much sooner, several council members said they feared a political uproar in northern Montgomery if they backed bus over rail.

"I have not had a lot of conversation with folks who want to get on a bus, no matter what you call it, whether it is a pretty bus or not," said council member Michael Knapp (D-Upcounty), who represents much of the area the transitway would serve. He said his constituents expect light rail.

Marc Elrich (D-At Large), a bus booster, said the system could be as comfortable and efficient as light rail and is cheaper to build and run. He said his colleagues must consider the comparative costs. "Every amount we pour into this is money that is not going to be available for other projects."

Others backing light rail were Valerie Ervin (D-Silver Spring); Nancy Floreen (D-At Large); George L. Leventhal (D-At Large); Nancy Navarro (D-Eastern County); and Duchy Trachtenberg (D-At Large). In addition to Elrich, Andrews and council member Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda) backed bus rapid transit.

Business groups in northern Montgomery have endorsed light rail, saying it is more permanent than bus routes, which they say makes it more likely to attract development and help the county expand its tax base.

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