Wednesday, December 3, 2008

what's up the pike: making plans and taking names

Maryland Politics Watch is doing a series on Councilmember Marc Elrich's plan for a 100-mile Bus Rapid Transit system criss-crossing Montgomery County. While the East County Citizens Advisory Board got a look at it last month, MPW's Adam Pagnucco spent quite a while trying to get the councilmember to spill the details before he "eventually ambushed" Elrich in his office. (We're not sure whether Adam was kidding or not, but if he wasn't, we hope he used a net.)

Elrich proposes over ten rapid bus lines along major roads throughout the County, including New Hampshire Avenue, Randolph Road and Route 29 on the east side. They'll use permanent stations similar to a rail line (perhaps like this bus terminal in Shirlington, Virginia) and a dedicated lane that switches direction based on traffic. For instance, buses headed for the District will use it in the morning, while buses leaving the District will use it in the evening.

While the Purple Line is reported to cost up to $102 million a mile, BRT routes - like the line Cleveland just built - can cost as little as $20 million a mile. At those rates, Elrich's entire proposed network could be built for $2 billion, two-thirds the price of the InterCounty Connector.

- As always, check out my weekly column in the Diamondback, the University of Maryland's independent student newspaper. This week, I'm writing about the need for more variety in College Park's downtown, which just got its very first Five Guys this month.

so much more AFTER THE JUMP . . .

- Tomorrow, the Planning Board is set to approve a site plan review for Washington Adventist Hospital's proposed new facility on Plum Orchard Drive in Calverton. The new hospital, located on forty-eight acres in the WesTech Business Park, will have 290 private rooms, 2,100 parking spaces, and a quarter-million square feet of office space for physicians. Upon relocating from their current campus in Takoma Park, Washington Adventist could bring up to 3,000 jobs to East County, says hospital president Jere Stocks.

- Things don't look quite as good for a proposed bed-and-breakfast in Spencerville. The Planning Board may reject plans for the Edgewood Inn because of minor revisions to an earlier design, which was first submitted to the department in 1990. The new plan, staff say, encroaches on naturally sensitive areas (the site is located in the Agricultural Reserve) in order to create additional parking.


Thomas Hardman said...

While Mr Elrich and I might have a few major disagreements on a few issues, when it comes to preferring BRT to heavy-rail or even light rail, we're taking the same position.

I'm not entirely certain if we have come to the same conclusion for the same reasons, or have come to the same place by different routes, as it were.

BRT has many recommendations.

First, cost and time-to-finish. The cost is far less than that of even light rail, and heavy-rail is so much more expensive that it doesn't even really compare.

Second, BRT is adaptable. As times change, demands are likely to change a bit as well. It's an easy thing to detour a bus to deal with new needs, or to merely add a feeder route that last as long as does the need that required it. It's not so easy, however, to add a spur to a rail line, and if the need goes away, the rail spur remains.

Third, BRT stations are re-usable and recyclable. Further, they might indeed be a recycling of existing and underused facilities. For example, the Francis S Filbey Building might be a good candidate. A building that can be "re-purposed" in whole or in part can transform unused facilities into bustling transit hubs, or even into combinations of transit hubs, shopping, and office space.

Of course, much of the last paragraph applies to rail transit hubs or stations as well. However, if the needs shift, rail can't adapt anywhere nearly as quickly as can BRT.

Some may suggest that rail -- whether heavy or light -- inherently consumed less energy and fuel than buses. Yet, we look at the conditions to be imposed on Detroit's "big three" automakers, and the most obvious of the conditions is the aggressive pursuit of more efficient vehicles and alternative powerplants for those vehicles.

So, I'd like to go a few steps farther than Mr Elrich's proposal, while backing the general notion.

Back in the campaign for the recent Special Elections, I had proposed that we "right size" the County fleet. For example, if the County has passengers for a full-size school bus, use a full-size bus; if the County has passengers that would fit in a minivan, use a minivan. If the Ride-On route is at capacity at a certain hour, and barely ridden at another hour, if this is day-to-day predictable with little variation, send a full-size bus at capacity hours, and send a smaller vehicle at the off-peak hours. It's just commonsense.

Now, apply the same notion to dedicated BRT lanes, add in energy-saver ideas like centrally-generated electricity being used at the stops to accelerate a Superflywheel, and suppliment that with other hybrid technologies such as low-horsepower high-speed Natural Gas turbines, etc.

It all comes together as something very flexible, adaptable to changing times and needs.

silverspringtrails said...

BRT can be flexible in many ways, but LRT has a better ability to adjust to very high demand corridors. That will be important sooner than we think for the Purple Line.

The issue of BRT vs. LRT capacity came up last evening at the Western Montgomery County Citizens Advisory Board Transportation Committee meeting last evening. The Purple Line AA/DEIS ridership and cost effectiveness estimates are for the projected need in 2030, the year 2030 set as a requirement by the federal government for their evaluation for funding.

The Purple Line will not open before 2015 at the earliest. The system will only be 15 years old by 2030. The Purple Line is a legacy system that will operate far beyond 2030. Demand will be much higher than the 2030 demand over most of the life of the Purple Line.

The MTA engineers at the meeting noted that some of the BRT options will be at their full capacity at 2030, and cannot be expanded further without an extensive rework of the system. LRT on the other hand will still have reserve capacity available and can be expanded to serve higher demand more easily. Further, the LRT begins to be more cost effective to operate than BRT at the higher demand levels expected after 2030.

BRT is probably the right choice for moderate demand routes, but the Purple Line will serve a high demand corridor where the higher capacity of LRT will be needed soon after 2030. We must use 2030 cost effectiveness to qualify for federal funding, but we should build for the long term.

Thomas Hardman said...

Quite frankly, the Purple Line should have been completed and running some time ago. The problem isn't that there's a lack of prospective ridership, the demand clearly is there and is likely to be there even if we ever get our flying cars that run on atomic power that's too cheap to meter. To rephrase, even when winged monkeys fly out of my arse, and before that happens, and after it stops, there will be ridership. It's the nature of the axis of the route.

There are other axes ("axis-es") that need to be fed, as well. For example, there are the pack of idiots that claim that there's no market for a trans-Potomac bridge at roughly Seneca, MD to Sterling VA. They like to argue "because nobody makes the clearly insane commute from Rockville to Reston, nobody ever would if we built a bridge". These are the same sort of people who make the argument that there's no need for a Purple Line, because people in Landover can't afford to shop in Bethesda and the rick kids from Chevy Chase all have off-campus housing at Harvard and wouldn't be commuting daily to University of Maryland". Basically, they like to be where they are, and they want other people to stay where they are, ideally away from them. Yet I have discovered in my campaigning that almost nobody in east-MoCo lives anywhere near where they work. At a "meet and greet" at Verizon up on the Pike, out of maybe 300 workers approached by 6 or so candidates, we could only find about four people that lived in the district where they worked.

Other axes needing transit go more-or-less along the same path as the ICC, or the length of Randolph/Montrose Road. Comparably, from West Olney to Redland. That last one is in desperate need of BRT or at least more and bigger commuter buses.

Etc etc.

In the end, though, probably we'll see the development of a fairly major actual network of light-rail lines or something comparable. See also my concept of "line-driver freeways" which aren't yet possible, they require very powerful sources of central electrical power generation such as fusion, and also fairly ridiculously large quantities of high-temperature superconductor. Yet eventually we may have such materials and in a lot of ways, that would supersede most uses of rail.

Purple Line? Build it, whether it's heavy rail or light rail, and/or initially has BRT running down the right-of-ways even as construction is ongoing. And BRT is an already existing need in much of the Greater Washington Metropolitan Area.

Casey A said...

There is no free lunch in transportation policy, and the Elrich plan simply does not address the need to reduce traffic congestion by encouraging people to reduce their use of automobiles in a more cost effective way than the Purple Line.

BRT can be cheap, but only if it uses buses that share existing travel lanes with automobile traffic. Even with some bells and whistles designed to give BRT vehicles priority over other traffic, the bottom line is inexpensive BRT looks a lot like plain old bus service, which leave riders stuck in the same traffic jams as autos. The only difference is that BRT passengers lose the convenience of being able to take their cars wherever and wherever they want to go. Anyone who thinks this will attract lots of new users needs to explain why they expect it to do substantially better than existing bus service.

But wait, you say, BRT can use dedicated rights of way and grade-seperated intersection crossings so it can move people faster than automobile traffic. The problem is that the minute you start talking about acquiring a dedicated right of way and building bridges and tunnels to avoid congested intersections, suddenly BRT gets much more expensive. It may still be cheaper than light rail, but it doesn't carry as many people or get them to their destinations as quickly.

If we are going to invest in transit, which just about everyone including Marc Elrich seems to agree on, we should do it right by building light rail, which is more expensive but has higher passenger capacity and shorter travel times that can actually induce large numbers of people to stop driving so much.

The bottom line is that less investment = less capacity and slower travel. There is no getting around this basic tradeoff. If you don't think there is sufficient demand for an fast, convenient east-west transit link along the Purple Line corridor, then the Elrich plan makes sense. But if you think this corridor is already choked with traffic and desperately needs a way for people to move from east to west inside the Beltway, then the Elrich plans starts looking a lot more like simply an excuse to support the NIMBYs who just don't want transit in their neighborhoods.

Thomas Hardman said...

There is already transit in a lot of these neighborhoods, mostly in the form of Ride-On.

My opinion is that, ultimately, the best solutions would wind up being something along the line of commonplace trolley/streetcar systems as seen all around the world.

The thing is, you need a fairly significant right-of-way to do it, and you need very good coordination and timing, but that has been around for at least a century in the railroad industry.

Think of it this way: you get the right-of-way ("ROW") for the train line, and on the sides of it you run BRT. The trolley/train is constrained to the tracks, but the BRT routes can run mostly on the right-of-way and also can exit it to change routes, etc. In places where the ROW isn't wide enough for concurrent rail and bus traffic, run them consecutively on a schedule. When the train isn't about to roll through, roll through a few buses, then let the train pass, etc etc.

Indeed, the idea of dual/multiple-use reserved ROW has a lot of merits, for example you could get emergency vehicles past bottlenecks, etc., though most of the time, it would serve only as transitway.