A Fast Track to a Busway

Agency May Seek U.S. Funds for Network of Special Lanes

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Picture yourself whizzing from Dumfries to Tysons Corner in rush-hour traffic. Imagine every traffic light turning green as you zip swiftly from the heart of the District during the commute home.

Those fantasies wouldn't be so far-fetched under a proposal up for consideration today that would rely on federal stimulus money to create a network of rapid service bus lanes throughout the metropolitan region within two years.

In a bid to grab some of the $1.5 billion available as part of the stimulus outlay for transportation, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments has packaged a number of existing and revised plans to propose a bus rapid transit system that would rival Metrorail in its scope.

The proposal recognizes that there is neither the time nor the money to build enough high-speed rail service to alleviate the crush of traffic in the nation's second-most-congested region. If bus service becomes less expensive and significantly faster, the theory goes, commuters will abandon their cars and ride to work instead.

"You can fight the traffic and then pay $13 to park when you get there, or you can walk to the bus and get there faster," said Ronald F. Kirby, COG's director of transportation, who pointed out that many federal and private-sector employees receive subsidized transit passes. "You're essentially going to get congestion-free travel for free."

The proposal, for which COG hopes to receive $300 million in stimulus money, would link existing HOV lanes and highways where exclusive toll lanes are being built with feeder streets in suburban neighborhoods and the city. Those streets would have dedicated bus lanes, enabling buses to bypass intersection congestion, or electronic devices that would regulate traffic signals to favor approaching buses.

At the heart of the system would be a radically restructured K Street between Ninth and 23rd streets NW, an east-west D.C. thoroughfare already thick with bus traffic. Long-standing plans to create a pair of bus-only lanes would be expanded under the proposal, increasing the number to three, including an alternating passing lane. Parking would be eliminated, and two lanes in each direction would be devoted to regular traffic.

With the ability to pass one another on K Street, the buses could leapfrog when necessary to avoid delay, merging onto dedicated bus lanes that could carry them across the Roosevelt and the 14th Street bridges to new exclusive lanes on interstates 66 and 395 in Virginia. New high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes would carry them along Shirley Highway to Dale City.

Twelve other roadways that currently carry 80,000 bus riders a day in the District, Virginia and Maryland would be modified with special lanes and priority signal controls to speed bus passage. The proposal also seeks federal funding to provide 1,600 bicycles to be made available for public use at 160 bike stations in the District, Alexandria, Arlington County, Silver Spring and Bethesda.

Kirby said the proposal is not intended to increase the number of buses on the road but to increase the number of riders on each bus.

"There's a lot of bus service out there now that's stuck in traffic," he said. "It's more about managing the roadway in many places so that people will get there faster, rather than adding buses."

The overall price tag for the project, including construction of some bus stops that would resemble mini-train stations and other improvements, is put at almost $820 million. The proposal, to be considered today by COG's Transportation Planning Board, would seek $300 million in stimulus funding. That's the maximum amount available to any jurisdiction competing for part of the $1.5 billion.

To receive the money, projects have to be ready for immediate groundbreaking and are supposed to be completed within two years.

"If we got this grant, these facilities have to be on the ground in two years -- by 2012," Kirby said. "Physically, it can be done. The K Street busway is a big construction job. The other pieces are incremental and very doable."

To meet the two-year deadline, work would have to begin in the spring and summer of next year, Kirby said.

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