Laying Down Rapid Transit in the Maryland Suburbs

Laying Down Rapid Transit in the Maryland Suburbs

A $2 billion plan to create 160 miles of bus rapid transit has planners in Montgomery County, Md. hoping to offer a shiny new alternative to driving in the Washington metropolitan region.

Bus rapid transit emphasizes separated lanes for buses, as see on this system in Istanbul. Credit: Adrianna on Flickr

Montgomery County, Md. is one of the core counties of one of the nation’s most appealing metropolitan regions — the nation’s capital. Yet much of the county is relatively built out — mature, one might describe it — making the construction of any significant new transportation capacity, especially in terms of roadways, very difficult if not impossible. The Intercounty Connector that opened last year is likely to be the last major road built in the area. But the demand for movement will continue to increase.

This is the challenge that has motivated the county’s Transit Task Force, appointed last year by County Executive Isiah Leggett. Earlier this month, the group released its proposal for a network of 160 miles of new bus rapid transit lines crisscrossing the county. The roughly $2 billion plan would offer dedicated lanes for RTVs — rapid transit vehicles — that planners hope will offer a shiny new face for transit in the region and attract a new group of choice riders onto buses operating at headways of 3-7 minutes at all times of the day. On many of the corridors, the transit system would be the “most cost effective way” to absorb excess traffic congestion, by moving it from cars into buses.

Montgomery County planners have insisted on the game-changing nature of what they are proposing, nothing that the vehicles to be used “will operate more like ‘light rail on rubber tires’ than what is more typically referred to as ‘bus rapid transit‘” — thus the name difference. Buses will have doors on both sides and be branded entirely different from the existing system.

As can be seen in the map below, the proposed interventions would radically change the face of the county by offering improved transit service to a whole network of east-west and north-south corridors, vastly augmenting the existing Metro and MARC lines there. Along its corridors, it would be the “best hope for creating vibrant, mixed-use communities” that will be denser, more walkable neighborhoods. If well designed and actually implemented, RTV’s sheer scale and the connectivity it offers could indeed offer a compelling reason for commuters to switch out of their private automobiles. It is an audacious proposal.

Credit: Montgomery County

I spoke to Mark Winston, Chair of the County Executive’s Transit Task Force, and Tom Street, Assistant Chief Administrative Officer for the county, to better understand the motivations behind the RTV proposal.

“We’re not looking at solving 25 discrete problems,” Winston argues. “We’re looking at this on a systemwide basis.” The plan suggests that the 160 miles of RTV lines be implemented in three phases, beginning with a $1.2 billion, 84-mile investment, and Winston believes that there is adequate political support to begin construction of at least four to five lines — not just one — within the next few years. 

Montgomery County planners have chosen to prioritize the concept of network development with the RTV plan, arguing that the project will only work if it is developed as a unified system. In this way, they are following other regions “like the Twin Cities”: that recognize that the old method of studying transit lines corridor by corridor (e.g. the federal New Starts process) is opposed to the manner in which people actually use public transportation: As part of a network.

Winston emphasizes that “this is not a bus system” but rather a “new animal” that is designed to “change behavior” among riders who would otherwise be driving cars to and from work. As such, he argues, “if we produce a system that’s just a network of buses, this is not going to work.”

For Winston, this means that the county cannot “do a half-ass job” and “compromise the system.” In essence, he does not accept the idea that his grand vision for a RTV system could be narrowed down to a series of gussied-up shelters with only slightly faster buses. When asked what features of the system were most important, Winston said, “We can afford to build a first-class system here. the determination will be whether or not we choose to.” For him, the mode shift he wants to promote away from cars and towards transit can only occur if the system is built as best as is possible.

Street, on the other hand, was a bit more cautious, noting:

I think what is most important are dedicated guideways, and that’s what separates the RTVs from mixed traffic. I think it’s going to be actually critical to get the riders of choice to have a system that looks and feels different, but i think that criteria number one is not running in mixed traffic and you get that express feeling during periods of congestion.

Indeed, the proposal as currently laid out puts a major emphasis on the separated lanes, prioritizing them over other features. In terms of image, that might make sense, since dedicated lanes show where buses are going and thus illustrate a sense of solidity and long-term development that is often said to be the strength of rail, not bus, lines. But it is not clear that dedicated lanes will be enough to spur on a major shift of people towards transit. Two ideas that might be more effective in doing so — right-of-way enforcement in RTV lanes through photographing violators and peak road pricing — are dismissed by the report as “preferable but not necessarily highly desirable.”

Moreover, while the report highlights dedicated lanes for the vehicles, Winston notes that “in a community like this, one answer does not fit everything.” In the case of the RTV report, that seems to mean that there will be many cases where vehicles will actually run in mixed-traffic lanes by design because of “capacity constraints” or in a single, reversible median lane for both directions of the service. While the county claims to have big goals for its transit network, these adaptations do not appear to be for the benefit of making the transit system as effective as possible but rather for the maintenance of the claims on certain roads by car drivers.

Just as revealing is the RTV committee’s treatment of the Corridor Cities Transitway, which is a proposed BRT project that would be incorporated into the RTV system if the latter is implemented. Claiming that the expenses the state of Maryland is currently estimating for the project are too high, the Task Force suggests significantly decreasing its costs by eliminating many grade separations over major roads that would make this project as fast for riders as possible. The changes suggested would put buses in mixed traffic for some segments and increase round trip travel times massively, from 62.1 minutes to 70.4 minutes.

The primary explanation for the need for these changes is that the project as currently designed — at $545 million for a nine-mile segment — is too expensive. And indeed, perhaps it is unreasonably high. But whereas the state expects to pay about $60 million a mile for that full-scale rapid transit line, RTV proponents are suggesting that their project would cost only about $1.8 billion in total, or a bit over $11 million a mile (not including financing, which could admittedly double the cost). While the Task Force’s recommendation that the system be built using an integrated design-build-operate contract will likely save some money, it is hard to see how the improvements it is proposing will ever work out to be as novel as the Corridor Cities Transitway as currently designed, simply because there will not be enough funds in the county’s coffers to make full investments possible.

Nonetheless, the RTV Task Force has not been shy when it comes to identifying potential funds for the project and has instead noted that district taxes on property located with a half-mile of route alignments, direct county funding, and private sector contributions could all be used to pay for the project, with no federal aid. These are realistic sources of funding that could be implemented relatively easily — in combination with significant county bonding — to pay for a large percentage of the lines discussed here. But political support beyond just the study phase will be necessary to begin discussing such an increase on local taxes, especially when it becomes apparent that the cost of a system like this could expand prodigiously.

Yonah Freemark is a journalist who writes about cities and transportation. He created and continues to write for the website The Transport Politic, and has also contributed to Next American City, The Atlantic Cities, Planning, and Dissent.

Tags: infrastructurewashington dcbus rapid transit

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