As expected, a hearing on a proposed Bus Rapid Transit system that would dedicate lanes exclusively to buses drew a wide range of opinions from a wide range of Montgomery County residents on Thursday night.
Some argued for the system, an 80-mile network of 10 bus corridors designed by county planners, as a common sense approach to solving the area’s traffic issues. Others said taking away traffic lanes for cars makes no sense. Then, there were residents — including a group from the Chevy Chase West neighborhood along Wisconsin Avenue — who argued against the proposal on the basis it won’t work for their specific communities.
The Planning Board’s public hearing on the Countywide Transit Corridors Functional Master Plan went on for more than three hours and included testimony from developers, transit advocates, bicyclists, environmentalists and one Bethesda resident who claimed the idea of taking away lanes of regular traffic was not just “a war on cars, but also a war on working families.”
“I think an anti-car attitude is just counterproductive at this point,” said Robert Dyer, blog author and one-time County Council candidate. “When the product requires sabotage of the highway system to get ridership, it’s a bad product.”
Transit advocates made the case the Bus Rapid Transit system isn’t a choice against cars, but simply a choice.
“People will tell you this evening that there’s no room for transit. That’s false,” said blogger and activist Dan Reed. “People will continue to come here and that’s a good thing, but forcing them to bring their cars isn’t. This plan isn’t about taking away from drivers, but putting those who ride transit on equal footing with them.”
The debate is particularly heated in Bethesda and Chevy Chase, where lead planner Larry Cole says Rockville Pike/MD 355 would serve as the most popular BRT transitway, capable of supporting one bus-only lane each way along the median in some of the road’s most congested stretches.
Daily ridership projections by 2040 show between 44,000 and 49,000 riders for a southbound MD 355 system and between 22,000 and 34,000 riders for a northbound MD 355 system. County planners say that’s enough to keep regular traffic moving with the loss of of a mixed traffic lane going each way between White Flint and the District line.
“Each time a rapid transit vehicle buzzes by cars stalled in gridlock, the system will gain a few more customers,” said Amy Donin, who testified in favor of BRT on behalf of the Friends of White Flint. “Car has long been king on Rockville Pike, and just as we are introducing a new mix of uses, we need to introduce new transportation uses as well.”
Advocates say the system will provide more convenient stops along Rockville Pike than Metro. With congestion expected to get worse as more people move into the area, supporters say moving more people at the same time should take priority over moving cars occupied by one or a few people.
The project, with an estimated first phase price tag of $2 billion, is a long way from a final product. In various community meetings before Thursday, Cole described the current proposal as a look at the project “from the 10,000-foot level,” meaning many specific operational details have not been worked out.
But many residents along Rockville Pike/MD 355 raised concerns about those details in their testimonies.
“The Board should not include median busways inside the Beltway in the 355 corridor,” said Locust Hill Citizens Association President Richard Levine. “Incorporate the less disruptive and potentially more transit-friendly curb lane alternative. Median bus lanes would ship high-volume traffic into the curb lanes, which is not good for residents, while the curb lane approach would serve as a buffer.”
Residents of the Chevy Chase West neighborhood along the “Green Mile” of Wisconsin Avenue took the opposite opinion. They don’t want the curb BRT lanes along that stretch of the road, as the first phase calls for, because they said young pedestrians will be in danger and getting in and out of the neighborhood will be more difficult.
“Any MD 355 BRT first phase should go only to the Bethesda Metro stop as its southernmost point,” said Chevy Chase West resident Elaine Akst. “An extension should be dependent on an extension of WMATA bus lines between D.C. and Maryland.”
Cole chimed in, explaining that a curb lane dedicated to buses could actually make turning on to Wisconsin Avenue easier because drivers would be able to take advantage of large gaps in BRT bus traffic.
“Stop it at the Bethesda Metro,” Chevy Chase West resident Elizabeth Ewing testified later. “Don’t interfere with what is working very well between that Metro stop and Friendship Heights.”
The Planning Board will accept written public comment on the proposal for the next 30 days, at which time the Planning Board is scheduled to vote on it. The Planning Board hopes to send the BRT plan to the County Council for final approval in July.