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Bus rapid transit debate continues in Montgomery County

Wednesday - 9/25/2013, 9:33am  ET

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Businesses and members of the community attend a hearing to discuss bus rapid transit in Montgomery County. (WTOP/Ari Ashe)

ROCKVILLE, Md. - At the first of two public hearings on a 79-mile bus rapid transit network, about 100 residents and interest groups turned out to testify on how the proposal would affect the future of commuting in Montgomery County.

"Our traffic is bad, that's not news to any of you. Our traffic isn't going to get any better, and that shouldn't be news to any of you, either. So the premise is really, what are we going to do about it?" said Montgomery County Councilman Roger Berliner.

The bus rapid transit (BRT) network would provide express bus service in bus-only lanes. There would be limited stops and bus stations where passengers could pay for the trip before getting on board.

Suzanne Hudson of North Bethesda, Md., said drivers don't use mass transit because it's not convenient, but that a good bus rapid transit option would change the equation for commuters.

"If less than 1 percent of the drivers choose other forms of transportation, we could feel significant relief in congestion on our roads," she said.

Tina Slater, of the advocacy group Action Committee for Transit, agrees with Hudson, and said BRT will ease traffic for everyone, including drivers. She said repurposing lanes is a good idea where it's necessary.

"A bus can hold 50 to 80 people at a fraction of the space of 50 to 80 single-occupancy vehicles. If 15 percent of the drivers moved to BRT, that would really free up the congestion and give people a fast and predictable commute," she said.

Travis Baille, of Silver Spring, Md., said younger residents believe public transit is the top priority that will convince them to settle down in Montgomery County.

"D.C., Arlington, Alexandria and Fairfax are all building new transit systems. They're threatening to lure away young people with public infrastructure that meets our needs and lifestyles. We cannot keep the young transplants in Montgomery County by doing more of the same," he said.

But opponents also turned out to say why BRT would be a bad idea. James Williamson, who lives in the Woodmoor section of the Four Corners neighborhood, said BRT will not work and developers are just trying to ram it through.

"The lead staffer of the planning board stated that the time saved for the average commuter is 1 1/2 percent. One-and-a-half percent! Nowhere does staff figure how much longer will it take for drivers on roads where a lane has been taken away, or as planners would say, 'a lane has been repurposed,'" he said.

Williamson lives in one of two locations where taking away a lane of car traffic for bus-only use is recommended in the first phase of BRT. The two locations are on Route 29/Colesville Road just north of the Capital Beltway in Four Corners and on Route 355/Rockville Pike/Wisconsin Avenue south of the Capital Beltway to the District line.

"To think that a BRT is going to reduce congestion with that much development is ludicrous. This is not smart growth," Williamson said.

Stephen Miller of the Heritage Walk Homeowners Association said his opposition is simple: No one has explained how the project will be funded. Estimates indicate the full 79-mile BRT system would cost $1.8 billion or more.

"I've heard people within a mile of the BRT routes and commercial businesses would be paying new taxes for the convenience of being near the line. I must ask: Is this even needed?" Miller said.

Harold McDougall of Four Corners believes BRT also doesn't make fiscal sense in the current economic environment.

"The county can't afford a BRT system. Not with a significant county government deficit and a history of projects like the Silver Spring Transit Center. Actually to me, BRT for me stands for 'billions required from taxpayers,'" McDougall said.

The Montgomery County Council's Transportation, Infrastructure, Energy and Environment Committee will take up the BRT proposal in work sessions in October, then a full council vote could come toward the end of the year. Early signs indicate the proposal has a decent chance of approval.

"All of you drive our roads. There's no way our roads can handle what's coming. And so if you don't provide a transit alternative, you are going to be in traffic and in parking lots that extend from one end of the county to another," said Montgomery County Councilman Marc Elrich.

Even with approval, bus rapid transit is likely years away, and there currently is no plan for how to fund the project. It likely would require state funding since most of the routes would be on state roads.

While county transportation planner Larry Cole says the best-case scenario is five years until the first BRT line is ready, it could take much longer.

A second public hearing on bus rapid transit will take place at 7:30 p.m. Thursday in the council's third-floor hearing room.

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