Montgomery County has finished initial designs for a Bus Rapid Transit system on U.S. 29, bringing the project a step closer to providing faster and more reliable bus service in one of the county's busiest commuting corridors, officials said.
The 13.5-mile project between Burtonsville and downtown Silver Spring, set to open in 2020, will be the first Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system in Maryland. Like many urban-suburban jurisdictions, Montgomery is turning to buses as a relatively quick and more affordable way to improve transit, curb traffic congestion and spur economic growth.
Preliminary designs show 11 stations, all of them surpassing the traditional pole-in-the-ground bus stop. Benches will sit beneath angled, pentagon-shaped canopies, and solar panels will power station lighting.
Columns about 16 feet tall will display the station name, and a video screen will show the next bus's arrival time. One option shows the columns with a stone veneer — a nod to Montgomery's history of providing quarry stone for government buildings in the nation's capital. Public art will adorn the stations, potentially on canopies, railings and tempered glass wind screens.
Joana Conklin, the county's program manager, said the designs are 35 percent done and will be finalized next year. Construction is scheduled to begin in late 2018, with the line opening to passengers by mid-2020.
Conklin said the county is launching its planned 102-mile BRT network on U.S. 29 because the corridor already has some of the highest bus ridership in the state, with 11,000 to 12,000 people riding daily. The BRT line will use the road shoulders as bus-only lanes for the northern half, where buses already use them during the morning and evening rush hours.
"We had this corridor that we felt like we could do something with pretty easily," Conklin said.
It will be the most extensive BRT line in the Washington region.
In Arlington and Alexandria, the five-mile Crystal City Potomac Yard Transitway connecting Crystal City and Braddock Road Metro stations opened in segments in 2014 and 2016.
Northern Virginia officials also are exploring BRT for 11 miles of Route 7 between Alexandria and Tysons, as well as for Richmond Highway (Route 1) between the Huntington Metro station and Fort Belvoir.
D.C. officials are planning 2.7 miles of bus lanes along part of 16th Street NW with some BRT features, such as traffic signal prioritization for buses. Those lanes are scheduled to open in 2020.
U.S. 29 connects Baltimore and Howard counties with Montgomery and the District. It's also the most direct route for residents in the eastern part of the county to reach the Silver Spring Transit Center, which houses the Silver Spring Metro station and will have a light-rail Purple Line station.
Montgomery Council member Tom Hucker (D-Eastern County) said he hopes the BRT will provide more reliable service to transit-dependent residents while also attracting those who can drive but might be willing to take a fast, reliable bus.
"There are a lot of people who have cars and have options who say they would take transit if it were more reliable," Hucker said. "This is going to be a test of that."
Overall, county officials say, the BRT line will cut 22 to 35 percent off travel times compared to Ride On buses. Conklin said Montgomery officials are coordinating with Howard County on plans to extend the line to Columbia.
The buses will run on the road shoulders between the Burtonsville Park and Ride lot and an area north of Tech Road. They will then run in regular lanes to the Silver Spring Transit Center. The road won't be widened, and no vehicle lanes will be converted to bus-only lanes.
The southern portion of the corridor doesn't have any public right of way, Conklin said, so running buses in their own lanes would require tearing down homes and businesses lining the road.
"I don't think the community wants to see 29 get any wider than it already is," Conklin said.
She said the county is continuing to explore other ways to keep buses in their own lanes for the entire stretch. One includes a resident's idea to make the regular lanes in the southern portion narrower and add one reversible lane that only buses would use in the peak commuting direction.
Even with buses mixing with traffic for part of the line, she said, the BRT line still will be faster and more reliable than today's buses.
One reason: Passengers will pay before boarding — fares will be enforced by random onboard checks. Riders also will use three doors for boarding, which will reduce "dwell time" at stations. Flat boarding between the foot-high platform and buses will also make it faster and easier for people in wheelchairs and with bicycles and strollers.
BRT buses also will stop every mile or so, compared to every few blocks for traditional buses, and will get a longer green light when approaching 15 intersections.
"You take all of that out of the equation, and it actually can result in 30 percent travel time savings," Conklin said.
A federal grant will cover $10 million of the project's $31.5 million construction costs, and the county will pay for the rest.
Buses will run about every seven minutes during rush hour and every 15 minutes during off-peak times, compared to every 30 minutes or so now. Fares will be the same as for Ride On buses, officials said.
Dan Wilhelm, who serves on a citizens advisory council for the project, said the BRT will be "transformational" for the traffic-clogged area, especially as new development is planned for White Oak and surrounding areas. U.S. 29, he said, "is a mess" with stop-and-go traffic every morning and afternoon.
He said he wants to make sure the county provides more frequent Ride On service to help people get to and from the BRT.
"To me, once people get in their car, they're going to stay in their car," said Wilhelm, who is also president of the Greater Colesville Citizens Association. "You want to get people [on a bus] at their home or place of employment."
At a recent open house showing the preliminary station designs, Richard Reis said he would use the BRT occasionally to reach events, dine or shop in downtown Silver Spring. The semiretired engineer who lives in Colesville said driving now feels like "the only real option."
"I think it would work if it saves time compared to driving," Reis said. "I think that's what people really care about."