Tuesday, November 26, 2013

county council approves bus rapid transit plan

After 5 years of study, Montgomery County approved a plan for a 10-route, 81-mile Bus Rapid Transit network this morning. If built, it could be the nation's largest BRT network.

Everett Station terminal
Swift BRT north of Seattle. Photo by Oran Viriyincy on Flickr.

The County Council unanimously voted for a plan to set aside road space for BRT on several major roads, including Route 355, Route 29, Georgia Avenue, and Veirs Mill Road, all of which already have high rates of transit use. It proposes dedicated bus lanes in 78% of the network, whether by repurposing existing lanes or widening roads to add new ones.

Supporters say the plan will give travelers an alternative to sitting in traffic while supporting future sustainable growth in places like White Flint and White Oak. "There's no real way forward in this county without transit," says Councilmember Marc Elrich, who first proposed a BRT network in 2008.

Now that the plan's approved, the county can begin detailed work on specific routes. Department of Transportation director Art Holmes wants to look at Route 355, Route 29, and Randolph Road first, while the Maryland State Highway Administration is already studying BRT on Georgia Avenue and Veirs Mill Road.

The approved BRT network. Red are corridors with at least one dedicated lane, blue are mixed-traffic, and purple are sections to be determined.
The plan has been controversial. While many civic, environmental, activist, and business groups endorsed BRT, a vocal minority in neighborhoods like Four Corners and Chevy Chase West fought the plan based on claims that it would take their property or endanger their children.

In response, councilmembers added language to the plan that would create more opportunities for public input. Each BRT corridor will have its own Citizens Advisory Committee of local stakeholders. And the council approved an amendment from Councilmember Valerie Ervin to not allow funding for BRT projects unless there's a public hearing first.

"We've taken almost unprecedented steps in this plan to make sure our communities are engaged," said Councilmember Roger Berliner, chair of the council's transportation committee.

Though all nine councilmembers voted for the plan, not all of them were satisfied with it. Echoing many skeptics of BRT, Councilmember Nancy Floreen noted that most Montgomery County residents drive, and that the BRT may not deliver as promised. "Montgomery County is largely suburban, and I think it's going to stay that way," she said.

It's true that this plan won't solve all of the county's transportation issues, as skeptics and opponents frequently point out. But the alternatives, whether it's improving existing bus service, building more highways, or extending Metro, are either too small, too destructive, or too expensive to really make a difference. And in a county with a growing number of car-free residents, increasing transit use, and an eagerness to attract young people, finding cost-effective ways to expand our transit network can do a lot of good.

Montgomery County has a million residents and 500,000 workers, 60% of whom live and work here. Cities half our size wouldn't think twice about investing in better transit. While the fight may not be over, we just made a pragmatic step in the right direction.

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