Montgomery County is creating a system that transportation officials hope will make it easier for public-transit users along traffic-choked Route 29 to get from upper Montgomery to downtown Silver Spring.
Construction is underway for the county’s first bus rapid transit (BRT) line, a system that officials describe as similar to light rail, in which buses will use a mix of dedicated and general travel lanes, and make fewer stops, to get passengers to their destinations more quickly.
The system, branded Flash, is scheduled to debut in 2020, offering more frequent service on new “clean diesel” buses, which officials say are more spacious, comfortable and fuel-efficient than the older buses in the county’s fleet. Each stop along the route will be equipped with real-time bus arrival displays and a preboarding payment system.
The 14-mile route, to include 11 stations between downtown Silver Spring and Burtonsville, will be the first in a comprehensive network of as many as 10 BRT lines that the county first envisioned in 2013. The estimated cost of the project is $31.5 million, $10 million of which will be covered by a federal grant.
Two other routes — six miles on Veirs Mill Road between the Wheaton and Rockville Metro stations and 22 miles on Rockville Pike (Route 355) from Clarksburg to downtown Bethesda — are under study and awaiting funding.
“We have a vision and a plan now that I know will improve transportation options along this route,” County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) said at an Oct. 25 groundbreaking.
The Flash system is touted as a drastic improvement in service on Route 29. Buses will be more frequent — every 7½ minutes during peak hours and every 15 minutes at other times, compared with now when the wait between buses can be as long as 30 minutes.
Although buses will travel in a dedicated shoulder lane for only 40 percent of the route and in mixed-traffic the remainder, commute times are expected to be cut by up to 30 percent because features such as off-board payment and all-door entry mean buses will spend less time at the stop, said Joana Conklin, the county’s rapid transit system development manager.
In addition, 15 intersections will be equipped with “traffic signal priority” technology that extends the green light for approaching buses, speeding up their travels.
The system will benefit a minority-majority corridor that has a high concentration of immigrant, lower-income and transit-dependent populations. About 120,000 people live within a half-mile of the planned BRT stations and about 366,000 trips per day originate in the corridor, 46 percent of which are in single-occupancy vehicles, according to a county report. The corridor is home to shopping hubs, federal offices and other major employers.
“We are glad the thing is being built. It is not perfect, but it’s a good start,” said Dan Wilhelm, a resident of the Colesville area who has advocated for the new bus system for a decade. As eastern Montgomery County continues to grow, with development projects expected to deliver hundreds of new homes in the next decade, transit becomes more critical to reducing traffic congestion, he said.
Under the plan, buses will run in shoulder lanes between Burtonsville, near the Howard County line, and New Hampshire Avenue in White Oak. They will then run in regular traffic for the remainder of the route to downtown Silver Spring, where riders will be able to connect to Metro’s Red Line and the future Purple Line light-rail system.
The county is studying dedicated lanes in the southern portion of the route; specifically, officials are looking at implementing a reversible high-occupancy-vehicle lane. Transit advocates say finding a way to keep buses separated from mixed traffic during peak hours is critical to addressing the congestion that slows buses in the corridor now.
The Route 29 Flash will be the Washington region’s latest experiment with bus rapid transit, which transportation experts say offers a faster and more efficient way to move masses of people along a corridor and at a lower cost than light rail or heavy rail. The Washington region, with some of the worst traffic congestion in the nation, has lagged behind many other cities in adopting BRT systems. The region’s buses are often stuck in traffic, traveling at speeds of less than 10 miles per hour.
Northern Virginia first introduced BRT to the region in 2014 when Metro launched Metroway, a five-mile route connecting the Crystal City and Braddock Road Metro stations. It was supposed to be the first Metroway line, but four years later remains the only such service. It also lacks some of the key features of true BRT, such as off-board payment and all-door entry.
Plans are underway for a BRT line along Route 7 from Alexandria to Tysons, and along the Fairfax County portion of Richmond Highway from Alexandria to Fort Belvoir. The District is pursuing a dedicated bus lane along 16th Street NW, one of the busiest bus corridors in the Metrobus system.
Pete Tomao, an advocate with the Coalition for Smarter Growth, said the Montgomery BRT line will not only bring badly needed transit enhancements to the corridor, but will serve as a model for the region.
“The best way to attract new riders is to build a system that is frequent and reliable and gets people to where they need to be quickly,” Tomao said.
“It’s not just off-board fare collection. It’s not just dedicated lanes. It’s not just transit signal priority. It’s not just more frequent service,” he said. “It’s all of those things.”
Construction is expected to last about a year, county officials say, and will have little impact on traffic. Most of the construction is centered on building the new bus stations, and minimal roadwork will be required.
When Flash opens, officials said, riders will be able to use their SmarTrip card to pay fares and board through all three doors of the 60-foot-long buses. Fare ticket machines will be available at the station for people paying with cash. The station platforms will be elevated to allow passengers to step onto the bus just as they do in the Metro. Buses will be equipped with WiFi and charging portals, they said.
According to projections, the system will serve about 13,000 passengers daily when it opens in 2020 and 20,000 by 2040. Buses in the corridor now carry as many as 11,000 people a day.
The service will run from 5 a.m. to midnight daily, and fares are expected to be the same as those of Metrobus and Ride On.
At the groundbreaking, county officials praised the project as “an important success story” and “the door to the future.” Montgomery County Council member Marc Elrich (D), the Democratic nominee for county executive, said the project conceived more than a decade ago has endured major setbacks and questions.
“People said, ‘Why? There’s no jobs here.’ I said, ‘There’s no jobs because there’s no infrastructure here,’ ” he said.
Several development projects are now in the works along Route 29, including the $3.2 billion Viva White Oak community, a 300-acre development of residences, retail, restaurants and academic institutions in Silver Spring. The project broke ground last month.
The hope is that the combination of the town center with the potential expansion of the Food and Drug Administration and the new Washington Adventist Hospital expected to open next summer will help generate more than 10,000 new jobs in the corridor over 25 years.
“The purpose of the BRT was not to solve the problems of just the present, but to open up the doors to the future,” Elrich said.