For entertainment on wheels, visitors to the Montgomery County Agricultural Fair in Gaithersburg could seek out monster trucks, the demolition derby or the tractor pull.
But county officials and transit enthusiasts on Monday were proud to introduce something they consider far more exciting. To make sure folks don’t miss it, they plopped it right in front of the main ticket entrance: a bright, shiny new bus.
Not just any bus, either. It is the kind of bus that transportation planners hope will someday whisk commuters through the county on a network of bus-only lanes, quickly and smoothly enough to entice residents from their cars and relieve some of the county’s gruesomely heavy traffic.
“This is an issue that is long overdue,” said County Executive Isiah Leggett (D), who joined several County Council members and bus rapid transit supporters at the fair Monday morning to promote the virtues of a 98-mile system that they hope will one day extend from Clarksburg to Friendship Heights and from Westfield Montgomery Mall to Langley Park.
Bus rapid transit is on the ground in Cleveland, Chicago, Seattle and Austin. Many more cities and counties have systems in the works. The first such system in the Washington region is slated to open this month in Crystal City and Arlington County’s Potomac Yard.
“We are definitely hoping that this is what the future of transit will look like in Montgomery,” said David Hauck, executive director of Communities for Transit, a nonprofit group dedicated to educating the public about bus rapid transit.
The diesel-powered, $850,000 blue-and-white bus on exhibit at the county fair is “articulated,” which is transit-speak for two buses linked by an accordion-like apparatus. It is fresh off an Alabama assembly line and headed for service in Denver, and it can hold about 100 people, sitting and standing.
While some bus rapid transit vehicles mimic a train design, with an extended nose and coverings over the wheels, this one is your basic bus, much like the ones that Metro has used for years.
What matters, bus rapid transit boosters said, is not esthetics but reliability. Projections show traffic congestion growing 70 percent in the county by 2040 as population and jobs continue to stream in.
“We have a lot riding on this,” said County Council member Marc Elrich (D-At Large) apologizing in advance for the play on words. Elrich was a major early advocate of bus rapid transit and is widely credited with getting the option included in the long-range transportation plan the council passed last year.
Studies are underway for a route on Georgia Avenue from the Wheaton Metro station to Olney. Other lines likely to be among the first built are along Rockville Pike (state Route 355) and Wisconsin Avenue from Rockville to Bethesda and along Colesville Road and Columbia Pike (U.S. Route 29) from Burtonsville to Silver Spring.
The proposals are causing some controversy. Olney residents have expressed alarm about early maps presented by the Maryland State Highway Administration, which show that some businesses could be wiped out by new bus rapid transit lanes.
It is not clear how the system — which will cost $1 billion to $2 billion — will be financed. Estimated construction costs per mile are as high as $25 million. While that’s still far less costly than light rail, no funding source has been identified.
Leggett said Monday that the county’s hoped-for bus rapid transit system will not be built all at once. He expected that it will be paid for with a combination of county and state funds, along with contributions from developers who stand to gain from a new transit system.