It is not exactly news that our region suffers from some of the worst congestion in the country. What is noteworthy is what Montgomery County is doing about it.
Start from a simple premise: Our roads and rights of way are a public resource where demand far outstrips supply. We cannot build enough roads to alter a trajectory that points to traffic getting worse, not better. That leaves us with precious few options — most of them transit-oriented. Given that we are unlikely to add more Metro lines in Montgomery County in the foreseeable future and that the Purple Line is likely to be among the last light-rail systems built in Maryland for a long time, we have turned to a solution that has been used successfully in other parts of the country and the world: bus rapid transit.
Why has bus rapid transit — or BRT for short — become the option of first resort for communities from Cleveland to Bogota? Because it is the least costly, most flexible and fastest solution to implement.
For years, Montgomery County held firm to the notion that the Corridor Cities Transitway, a critical transit project for the county’s economic future, would be a light-rail project. But as the advantages of BRT began to sink in, including that we could bring about high-quality transit options 10 years faster at a fraction of the cost, we shifted gears and embraced BRT.
The county has now concluded that a robust network of BRT corridors connecting our research triangle is the linchpin of our transportation future. The Countywide Transit Corridors Functional Master Plan recently approved by the County Council will link the National Institutes of Health in the south to the Food and Drug Administration in the east and Johns Hopkins and our bioscience center in the north. Coupled with east-west routes, the plan will create an array of mobility options for residents and workers.
Importantly, the plan is predicated upon the use of dedicated transit lanes. If a bus is sitting in traffic, it is neither rapid nor reliable. The system that our county has embarked upon envisions 80 miles of dedicated bus lanes — the largest network of dedicated lanes anywhere in the country. The combination of dedicated lanes with other Metro-like features — modern, aerodynamic vehicles; sophisticated stations; level boarding; smart cards — defines a high-quality BRT system. The experience of other communities that have embraced BRT demonstrates that such a system will achieve one of the county’s primary objectives: to attact riders who are currently using their cars. It makes sense that if you offer a high-quality service that people can rely upon, that reduces their daily stress (who doesn’t stress in traffic?), and enhances their productivity (working on your laptop or iPad), BRT will succeed and congestion will be reduced.
There are many areas where the county has sufficient right of way to add dedicated transit lanes. However, there are some places, particularly the closer you get to the Beltway, where adding an additional lane will not be possible. In those situations, the county’s plan envisions “repurposing” general-purpose lanes used by cars into transit-only lanes.
The council adopted, as our guiding principle, the concept of “person throughput,” changing the traditional focus from how many cars can be moved to how many people can be moved. If the analysis shows that on a particular route the lane of traffic would be used more efficiently by dedicating it to transit, and the effects on the driving public are tolerable, then that is the most rational way to use this scarce resource.
We were mindful that initiating changes of this magnitude raises all sorts of concerns among residents, neighborhoods, the driving public and taxpayers. That is why the plan requires almost unprecedented levels of community input during the key facility planning and implementation stages. And while building the entire network at once would be expensive, it is understood that we will proceed in digestible phases, likely focusing first on two of our most critical corridors: routes 355 (Rockville Pike) and 29 (Columbia Pike). The state will be an integral partner in this effort, given that the approved network is almost exclusively on state roads.
In many ways, our work has just begun. As it is so often said, “The devil is in the details.” But the project we have embarked upon can make Montgomery County a world leader in the next generation of transit and, in the process, improve our quality of life, our environment and our competitiveness. That is work worth doing.
Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda) chairs the Montgomery County Council’s Transportation Committee. Francoise Carrier is chairman of the Montgomery County Planning Board.