Thursday, April 16, 2009

east county rapid transit gains political momentum

The Transportation Planning Board's draft proposal for a BRT network across the region, including seven lines serving East Montgomery County. Below: People boarding a bus in Briggs Chaney.

Today, the Transportation Planning Board released a map of a regional network of Bus Rapid Transit lines that they’d use to apply for funding from President Obama’s stimulus package (the very same that’s being used to repave New Hampshire Avenue in Colesville). While the system could be whittled down to fewer routes, it could become a reality by 2012 if the funding was available.

TPB’s proposal (see report and geographically accurate map) is very similar to Metro’s plan for priority bus corridors and includes no fewer than seven lines serving East County along Georgia Avenue, 16th Street, New Hampshire Avenue, University Boulevard and Veirs Mill Road, and an express line on the InterCounty Connector. It also includes a line along Route 29 between Silver Spring and Briggs Chaney, which might be the closest we ever come to the light rail line once planned along the corridor several decades ago.

Under the concept of “transit serviceability” – today’s Transit Oriented Development – thousands of apartments and townhomes were built in White Oak and Briggs Chaney in anticipation of the line, which had been a part of the master plan for eastern Montgomery County as late as 1981. That year, planners considered a rapid transit line between Wheaton and Burtonsville via Route 29, University Boulevard and an unbuilt “Route 29 Spur,” thus bypassing traffic going into Downtown Silver Spring. On Route 29, which is a limited-access freeway north of White Oak, the line would have been in the median, with “stops at major intersections, fringe parking lots, major employment centers, and other appropriate locations.”

With a price tag of $350 million ($1 billion in today’s dollars), the line’s projected low ridership made it a non-starter for the Planning Department. “Although projected peak period ridership was in the range considered appropriate for light-rail transit, projected patronage, on a day long basis could not justify the expenditure of capital and operating costs,” reads the 1981 plan. The Planning Department saw that light rail could actually be viable along Route 29 were it not for a lack of mid-day ridership. When the Fairland Master Plan was revised again in 1997, the concept of "transit serviceability" was removed altogether, taking away any provisions to expand transit even for the development that had already occurred, let alone what was to come.

As the project gains political momentum and development patterns along Route 29 slowly begin to justify additional transit services, any kind of rapid transit here seems more of a possibility. A Bus Rapid Transit line between Silver Spring and Burtonsville has been on the county's Move Montgomery plan for nearly a decade. On their scorecard for the District 4 County Council election, the Action Committee for Transit found that all but one of the eleven candidates expressed some interest in a 29 line.

Responding to their candidate survey, Democrat Nancy Navarro notes that development on the east side has been and continues to be tied to public transit. "Without transit in District 4, there is no opportunity for transit-oriented development or smart growth," she writes.

Why rapid transit along Route 29? An existing pool of 200,000 daily rides is just the beginning AFTER THE JUMP . . .

A very quick diagram comparing past and present proposals for rapid transit along Route 29, including my own proposal from 2003.

1) By 1981, only a portion of the Briggs Chaney and White Oak areas targeted for dense development had been built out, and today, there are literally thousands of people living within a half-mile of the median of Route 29, where stations would have been located. The downside is that these neighborhoods were not designed to be pedestrian-friendly, meaning that few people are actually a half-mile walk from anything.

2) Shopping centers have been built at Burtonsville, Briggs Chaney, Cherry Hill Road and Tech Road, beginning to provide the mid-day trips the 29 Line needed to be economical. East County still isn’t nearly the shopping destination that Wheaton or Rockville Pike is, meaning that people running errands would still make up a small part of the potential ridership.

3) A small but growing job sector means that some people could have “reverse commutes” from the District, Downtown Silver Spring or other parts of Montgomery County. The arrival of 7,000 jobs at the FDA campus in White Oak and 3,000 jobs at the new Washington Adventist Hospital in Calverton suggest there’s a potential market for transit.

4) The industrial parks, garden apartments and shopping centers built during East County’s first wave of suburbanization in the 1960’s are all showing their age, meaning there are opportunities for infill development. Many of these projects, like the abandoned Francis Filbey Building at Route 29 and Tech Road, are adjacent to the highway, making them ideal candidates for TOD if a transit line were running in the median.

5) Route 29 has a large but underserved transit-riding population. The seven Z routes between Silver Spring, Ashton, Burtonsville and Laurel had a combined weekday ridership of 223,961 last July, according to WMATA, making it one of the highest-ridden lines in the entire Metrobus system.


fcg#p said...

I would like to clarify my position on the Purple line. My answer to the ACT questionnaire stated that I opposed a Purple line plan that turned from rail to buses when it reached District 4.
My position is that if rail is good enough for the western districts, it's good enough for district 4 too! I would like to see an all rail Purple line end to end.

Thank you,
Andrew Padula
Candidate District 4

fcg#p said...

I would like to clarify my position on the Purple line. My answer to the ACT questionnaire stated that I opposed a Purple line plan that turned from rail to buses when it reached District 4.
My position is that if rail is good enough for the western districts, it's good enough for district 4 too! I would like to see an all rail Purple line end to end.

Thank you,
Andrew Padula
Candidate District 4

Thomas Hardman said...

Shady Grove to Muirkirk via Olney?I'd love to know how the heck that would work. That would have to be one convoluted route.

Redland Road to Muncaster Road to MD-108 to Dr Byrd Road to MD-28/MD-198?

Not bad as a general idea, but end-to-end that's going to be one long haul that takes a long time.

Bossi said...

To reiterate what I posted on GGW...

As much a rail supporter as I am, I have difficulty envisioning LRT along the US 29 corridor as it exists today. Given the expressway nature it has since acquired, the developments are now a bit too spread apart to really support the densities for an LRT system.

BRT tends to be a dirty word in light of the Purple Line, but dare I say it: the US 29 corridor would be a far better fit (in my opinion) for a BRT system than an LRT system. Granted, the permitted shoulder use for transit vehicles is at least a step in the right direction.

However, considering that, I'd wager that the costs associated with constructing a true BRT system may not justify potential benefits, considering US 29 north of MD 650 isn't particularly horrendous (as compared to other arterials in the Washington area) and that buses tend to run comparatively smoothly along the portion where shoulder use is permitted.

Cary Lamari said...

From talking to people generally around district 4 in this election cycle, it is apparent that there is a significant voice of interest for BRT especially in light of the job growth in the FDA site, West farm and Perconti. Whoever wins the District 4 election should immediately assembly a focus group to explore the dynamics of such a proposal and build the necessary support by immediately addressing any community impacts.
With stimulus money it’s the projects that are ready to go that have the head start and are successful in attracting dollars that have significant competition. I hope we do whatever it takes to be prepared for funding opportunities when they become available.
Cary Lamari