File photo. (NIKKI KAHN/THE WASHINGTON POST)

A new bus experience is coming to Maryland Route 355 this fall.

Montgomery County is buying 17 new buses that will provide limited-stop service between Bethesda and Gaithersburg starting in October, an investment in improving travel time and enhancing the rider experience in one of its busiest commuting corridors.

The Ride On extRa will be, as the county puts it: “Less Stop. More Go.”

It also will be an interim step to the Bus Rapid Transit system that the county envisions for the corridor, said Al Roshdieh, director of county’s transportation department.

“It is going to take a lot of people out of single occupancy vehicles on Route 355 where we desperately need to reduce congestion,” Roshdieh said. “When the BRT comes on Route 355, we will already have a lot of people that are choice riders.”

A BRT system would take the bus experience to new heights, with dedicated transit lanes, level boarding and pre-boarding payment.  But it could be a decade before such a system debuts in the corridor, also known as Rockville Pike.

The addition of limited-stop service, will provide a faster trip for many customers because the buses will serve fewer stops than the regular buses. Officials say the service also will help relieve some of the crowding on Ride On routes 46 and 55.

Metro has a similar service, known as MetroExtra, which has proven to be effective in delivering faster and more reliable service. In corridors such as 16th Street and Georgia Avenue, the introduction of limited-stop routes has spurred ridership increases.

The Ride On extRa will run along a 13-mile stretch served by Metro’s Red Line, which officials say is also reaching capacity.  Ride On buses carry more than 10,000 rides daily in the corridor.

The specially branded buses will serve 12 stops between Medical Center Metro station and the Lakeforest Transit Center in Gaithersburg.  They will offer USB charging ports and wireless Internet and will have priority at traffic signals.

“The whole idea is to keep a rapid process so the buses don’t have to wait at the station too long,” Roshdieh said. “Our customers will appreciate that.”


The new buses will be specially branded. (Montgomery County)

Passengers on the extRa buses will be able to pay with SmarTrip cards and cash. But the buses will not allow riders to load cash onto their SmarTrip on the bus, a process that tends to slow down buses at the bus stop. The fare will be the same as on the regular Ride On buses, which in October will be $2.

Officials project the extRa will serve between 1,600 and 1,900 riders per day.  Annual operations are estimated to cost $2 million.

The BRT system for Rockville Pike will be more costly and complicated to implement because of challenges with acquiring right-of-way needed to get create transit-only paths. It could be three to four years before design is completed and another two to four years of construction, officials estimate. The county’s plan also includes as BRT line for Route 29 (Colesville Road).

If and when they are built, the BRT lines will bring more frequent bus service, level boarding for wheelchairs and strollers, and mostly bus-only lanes to avoid traffic.

“Usually the stops are less than 60 seconds. The people get off and get in and the bus keeps going,” he said.

That is next on Route 355, said Roshdieh. For now, it makes sense to get the Ride On extRa rolling.