Wednesday, April 8, 2015

guest post: breaking the gridlock on BRT (part two)

For years, Adam Pagnucco gave us an insider's look at the ins and outs of Montgomery County and Maryland politics, both here on JUTP and on Maryland Politics Watch, before stepping away from the keyboard in 2010. 

That's why I'm honored to have Adam here again with a three-part series on Montgomery County's Bus Rapid Transit plan. While BRT could be a boon for the county's future, it's mired in controversy. But why? In part two, we'll look at the disconnect between who benefits from better transit and who participates in the discussion over making better transit. Click here for part one.

A Challenge of Perception

The observations made so far in this series are not meant to denigrate the benefits of BRT. The County Executive is fundamentally correct in his case for the system. BRT can be a flexible, high-performing transit service that can realize higher ridership levels than standard buses and lower capital costs than rail.

Checking Out BRT at the Montgomery County Fair
A Bus Rapid Transit vehicle on display at last year's Montgomery County fair. All photos by the author.

It can also play a part in promoting economic development. The Urban Land Institute has reported that Cleveland’s Euclid Avenue route generated $5.8 billion of transit-oriented development less than four years after its opening. That is especially impressive considering Cleveland’s long-standing economic problems.

Furthermore, the Executive notes that the potential for new road projects is limited, leaving transit and non-auto transportation modes as the only viable ways to increase transportation capacity. If the county were a business, it would have a strong rationale for investing in BRT as a way to increase its growth and profitability in the future.

But the county is not a business. It is a polity governed by politics. Consider the average regular Democratic voter in Montgomery County. According to voter registration and U.S. Census data, she is a white woman, age 64, who owns a single-family home in Silver Spring and has a household income of just over $160,000.

She is probably not a regular Ride On user. She is on the verge of retirement and thinking about how she and her spouse will live on fixed income. She and/or her family and friends have probably had some experience working with government as employees or contractors, so she is not ideologically opposed to government spending. But taxes are a growing concern for her and issues related to employment (including commuting options) are becoming steadily less relevant to her life.

The challenge for supporters of BRT inside and outside county government is to convince this voter, and many other voters who are both like her and not like her, that BRT is worth a large investment of taxpayer money.

Chelsea Heights Sign, Georgia Avenue
People board a Ride On bus in downtown Silver Spring.

That task is complicated by the fact that very few county voters have significant experience in using BRT. They understand Metro rail. They understand standard buses. Some have used light rail. But when many voters hear the term “bus rapid transit,” they only hear one word: bus. The existing bus system is already financed by existing taxes. A voter might ask why a new bus system must be financed by new taxes when the existing one seems to be working just fine. (Voters who are not regular bus riders will be especially prone to ask such questions.)

Some voters will resist property acquisitions associated with impending BRT construction. The Executive gave aid and comfort to such opponents when he canceled the Georgia Avenue North BRT study between Glenmont and Olney.

Such skepticism is both natural and inevitable. It must have a response. The response cannot be limited to economic data and pictures of nice-looking buses. BRT can and will attract a groundswell of support that will offset the opposition but only if people truly understand what it is. They must be SHOWN what it is.

And there is one way to do that: build a short, affordable pilot route that does not require a tax increase. And do it as soon as possible. Luckily, an outstanding candidate exists that fills the bill. More in Part Three.

1 comment:

lisajeane said...

This is an excellent overview of the BRT situation. You raise all the right issues/concerns. You may wish to tackle who other cities have reinvented existing bus services without the need for taking down homes and trees and building sound walls to "protect" residents from the very thing they should embrace.