The Montgomery County Council gave final approval Tuesday to a long-range transportation plan that envisions a network of bus-only lanes to help whisk commuters who might otherwise be stuck in traffic to their destinations.
For now, a “bus rapid transit” (BRT) system is more aspirational than imminent. There is no money for a venture that could cost between $1 billion and $2 billion if built out to its full 98 miles. Design studies, public hearings and regulatory approvals would probably push the beginning of service into the next decade — if it happens at all. County master plans are filled with road and transit projects that have existed only on paper for as much as half a century.
Two other hugely expensive transit ventures are also ahead in the pipeline: the light-rail Purple Line from Bethesda to New Carrollton and the Corridor Cities Transitway, a BRT line along the Interstate 270 corridor from Shady Grove to Clarksburg.
But Tuesday’s 9 to 0 vote puts the council squarely behind BRT as the county’s mass transit mode of the future. It allows county officials to explore in more detail what it would take to build enhanced bus service on some of the county’s most congested roads: Georgia Avenue, MD 355, New Hampshire Avenue, Randolph Road, University Boulevard, U.S. 29 and Veirs Mill Road.
About 75 percent of the system would feature “dedicated” lanes, earmarked exclusively for buses.
“I firmly believe that there is no real way forward in this county without transit,” said Marc Elrich (D-At Large), the council’s most outspoken advocate for the new bus system.
About $10 million in state funding, from revenue generated by the newly increased gasoline tax, is available for in-depth studies to identify possible station locations, the amount of right-of-way needed and how routes would be laid out. Buses could travel in existing road medians on one or two lanes, at curbside or in mixed traffic.
The two corridors most likely to be studied first are MD 355 (Wisconsin Avenue/Rockville Pike) from Rockville to Bethesda, and U.S. 29 (Colesville Road) in eastern Montgomery from Burtonsville to downtown Silver Spring.
The plan signals a new level of resolve on the part of the county to deal with some of the worst commuter traffic in the country, with average travel times exceeding 35 minutes. Projections show congestion swelling 70 percent by 2040, with little room left for big new roads. That means, BRT proponents contend, that existing road capacity will have to be used in a different way.
“Fundamentally, we are adopting a new philosophy,” said Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda), chairman of the council’s transportation committee. “We have a scarce public resource, our roads. We are saying for the first time that we’re going to allocate that scarce resource differently.”
Transportation planners estimate that an exclusive bus lane on MD 355 from the Capital Beltway to Western Avenue, for example, could move about 600 more people an hour than car traffic in a general travel lane, based on projected ridership in 2040.
One council member said she remained deeply skeptical about the worth of BRT, though.
“It’s wrong to think that this is going to solve our congestion issue,” said council member Nancy Floreen (D-At Large). Without a regional solution, she said, traffic will continue to flow into the county from multiple directions. She said she was not convinced that many parts of the county would ever have the population density to support BRT service.
“Montgomery County is largely suburban, and I believe it’s going to stay that way,” Floreen said.