Maryland Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan toured a proposed route for a Bethesda-Silver Spring transit link yesterday that would run rapid bus service along Jones Bridge Road rather than a train line along the popular Capital Crescent Trail.
The state has found in two recent studies that running light rail alongside or beneath Jones Bridge would cost $240 million more than building it alongside the trail. However, it has not studied Jones Bridge for bus rapid transit, in which buses operate like trains on rubber tires, often in designated lanes to avoid traffic.
Flanagan recently surprised state and local officials by saying the state would consider bus rapid transit, in addition to rail, while studying a Bethesda-Silver Spring transit link in the next year.
Running buses along Jones Bridge Road, supporters say, would protect the trail and bypass much of densely populated Chevy Chase and the Columbia Country Club's golf course. State Dels. John A. Hurson and Richard S. Madaleno Jr., Democrats who represent Chevy Chase and Kensington, have asked for a Jones Bridge bus study, including ways buses could avoid backups while crossing Connecticut and Wisconsin avenues.
"It doesn't go through Chevy Chase. It doesn't go through neighborhoods, and it spares the trail," Hurson said of a Jones Bridge bus route. He added that running buses along existing roads also would be far cheaper than building rail lines.
Maryland transit officials have planned for years to build an east-west transit link through Montgomery County to join the two branches of Metro's U-shaped Red Line. But much of the controversy over an inside-the-Beltway link has focused on the two-mile stretch between Bethesda and Rock Creek Park.
Some officials questioned how the area's already jampacked roads could accommodate buses in separate lanes -- the only way they would remain efficient for passengers by avoiding traffic.
Montgomery County Council member George Leventhal (D-At Large) criticized the Jones Bridge proposal as another way to mollify "politically potent" country club and Chevy Chase residents. He said the county bought the trail land from CSX to make it a recreational trail alongside a transitway.
Hurson "is proposing an alignment that would take longer, that would cost additional money and that would not reduce traffic congestion," Leventhal said.
Under the delegates' proposal, buses heading west from Silver Spring would veer off the trail alignment at the western edge of Rock Creek Park, where Jones Bridge intersects Jones Mill Road. Buses would head northwest and follow Jones Bridge Road to Wisconsin Avenue, stopping at the Medical Center Metro station before heading south along Woodmont Avenue to the Bethesda Metro station.
Flanagan said the state would consider the Jones Bridge option while determining an exact route for what the state is calling the Bi-County Transitway, otherwise known as the Purple Line, and whether it should be light rail or bus rapid transit.
Flanagan said he couldn't comment on the merits of a Jones Bridge route, saying he's still "in information-gathering mode." He said the state is focusing on an inside-the-Beltway route because it would be cheaper than an outer line.
"Everyone believes it's important to save the trail," said Flanagan, sporting sneakers for the walking tour that also drew a dozen reporters, photographers and aides.
"The question is, in the balance of things, how much weight you give to that and what the experience will be" if rail or buses run alongside it.
Flanagan, a former delegate who represented Howard County and part of Montgomery, said it was his first visit to any of the proposed routes. He said he found bus rapid transit might provide more flexibility than light rail.
For example, he said, he realized yesterday that a rapid bus system would take passengers directly to the bus depot at the Bethesda Metro station. The stop for a light rail line, near the Bethesda Row theater, would have elevators directly into the Bethesda Metro station but would require passengers to walk several blocks to catch a bus.
"That's going to be discouraging" to passengers who must transfer to a bus, Flanagan said.