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Montgomery’s bet on an ambitious Bus Rapid Transit system hinges on Route 29

Traffic moves along Route 29 near the Shoppes of Burnt Mills, where Montgomery County offcicials want to introduce a Bus Rapid Transit system connecting Burtonsville and downtown Silver Spring. (Luz Lazo/THE WASHINGTON POST)

Montgomery County’s years-long plan to build a 14-mile Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) line on one of Maryland’s busiest commuter corridors appears to finally be moving from idea to reality.

County Executive Isiah Leggett (D), who has championed BRT as the county’s next major transit undertaking, included $21.5 million for the project in his capital budget. A County Council committee earlier this month signaled its support for the BRT project, voting to send the plan to the full council for approval of funding for the design phase, putting the project one step away from construction — and closer to a 2020 opening.

“It is the system of the future,” said Esther Bowring, chief spokeswoman for the county’s Transportation Department. “This is really necessary for the county’s economic development and to meet the needs of the future growth that we anticipate in both population and jobs. It is a vital project, and we certainly hope that it will be approved.”

An express bus is coming to Route 355 this fall. Next stop, BRT?

Some council members even said the plan does not go far enough to address transit needs in the corridor and urged transportation officials to continue to study other alternatives.

“We have a problem to solve,” said council member Marc Elrich (D-At Large), who has pushed for BRT for more than a decade. “We’ve got to get something that is going to work and is going to make a difference.”

Bringing BRT to Route 29 would be the Washington region’s biggest experiment to date with a system that is designed to prioritize bus travel by using dedicated transit lanes, to provide technology giving buses the green light at major intersections, and to offer features such as off-boarding payments, all-door entry and level boarding, which are designed to shorten the bus dwelling time at each stop.

Transportation experts say enhanced bus service is the way of the future as the region — and country — struggle to fund transportation projects in tough financial times. In addition to being much cheaper than building heavy- and light-rail lines, BRT has proved to be an effective means of moving large numbers of people and easing congestion in cities around the world. Rio de Janeiro and Bogota, Colombia, have BRT systems that have been rated gold under standards set by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, and it is being used in several cities in China, India and Mexico.

In the United States, Los Angeles and Pittsburgh have successful systems, and several cities are testing elements of BRT, including dedicated lanes, off-board payment and all-door entry.

“These [projects] can be done well. They can be very effective,” said Eric Randall, a transportation engineer at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, which lists BRT as a strategy to improve transit and connect growing activity centers. “But people are going to be hesitant about what the changes are going to bring.”

Relief for busy corridor

In Montgomery, officials are pondering the benefits and impact BRT would have on communities. They are responding to concerns about cost and construction — and trying to clear up misconceptions that the Route 29 plan would widen the road or take away lanes from general traffic.

The plan as it stands would put buses on shoulder lanes for a portion of the route, but also in regular traffic. This decision, which sacrificed earlier plans to have a reversible HOV lane in the southern portion of the route, cut capital costs by more than half to $31.5 million. Officials say the money will pay for new stations, buses, and new bike and pedestrian infrastructure. The county’s portion will be matched with a $10 million federal grant.

Montgomery officials have plenty of incentives to back the plan — from a need to revitalize the struggling eastern section of the county to the federal grant that will cover a third of the cost. With annual operating costs estimated at $7.5 million, the system would be a relatively inexpensive way to ease gridlock and cut emissions, supporters say.

“The project is really scaled back so it is not a whole lot of money, and we really need it to address the traffic congestion,” said Dan Wilhelm, a transit advocate who lives in the corridor.

Local buses are not frequent enough and make too many stops so that residents often find it is faster to drive than ride, county studies show. On average, bus trips take 20 percent longer than other trips and as much as 60 percent longer during rush hour.

“The idea is to make it a reasonable option for people to ride,” said Wilhelm, president of the Greater Colesville Citizens Association.

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Besides, Wilhelm said, the BRT line would add capacity for new riders in an area that is at last seeing signs of economic development. A planned “life sciences” town center in the White Oak area, along with the potential expansion of the Food and Drug Administration and the new Washington Adventist Hospital that recently broke ground nearby, could generate more than 10,000 new jobs in the corridor in the next 25 years.

The area, which encompasses shopping hubs, federal offices and other major employers, is one of the busiest commuting corridors in the state. About 366,000 trips per day originate in the corridor, and 46 percent of those are single-occupancy vehicles, according to a county report. As a minority-majority corridor, it also has a high concentration of immigrants, lower-income and transit-dependent populations. About 120,000 people live within a half-mile of the planned BRT stations.

Roadwork not a big problem

The region has had limited experience with BRT projects. Metro runs specially branded buses on the five-mile route connecting the Crystal City and Braddock Road Metro stations in Northern Virginia. Ridership has grown since service began in late 2014, partly as passengers are lured by the option to travel in dedicated lanes, avoiding congestion on traffic-choked Route 1.

Plans are underway for more BRT lines along Route 7 from Alexandria to Tysons and along the Fairfax County portion of Richmond Highway from Alexandria to Fort Belvoir. The District is on track to build a bus lane along 16th Street NW, one of the busiest bus corridors in the Metrobus system, carrying more than 20,000 passengers daily, and plans are to adopt BRT features such as off-board payment and all-door entry to save on travel time.

Three years ago, Montgomery approved a vision for 102 miles of BRT lines covering 10 corridors, including along Route 355, Veirs Mill Road and Georgia Avenue. County transportation officials say Route 29 provides the ideal setting to launch a system because buses would run on shoulder lanes and in mixed traffic, which takes away the problem of negotiating right of way.

“Fortunately, we don’t need to build any road infrastructure for Route 29,” said Al Roshdieh, director of county transportation. “What we need to build is the stations and bike and pedestrian access, but not much of roadwork.”

But as the plans progress, some county leaders say sending buses into mixed traffic during the peak hours won’t do. Bus lanes, they say, are critical to the system’s success.

Under the current plan, buses will run on 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.

Officials are still exploring how to make the peak-hour bus lanes work on the southern portion of the line. But even with 60 percent of the route in regular traffic, the BRT would be an improvement over current bus service, officials say.

Buses will be more frequent — every 7.5 minutes during the peak hours and every 15 minutes at other times, versus the current varying timetables that can mean as long as 30 minutes between buses. The off-board payment system will allow passengers to board quickly, using all available doors and keeping buses running rather than waiting at bus stops, officials say. Stations built with tall platforms will provide level boarding, making them more accessible for the elderly and people with mobility problems. And the buses will be longer, providing more capacity. They also will be equipped with WiFi and USB ports, amenities that officials hope will lure more people to transit in the car-centric corridor.

The County Council is expected to vote on the funding proposal this month.