SILVER SPRING, Md. – A Montgomery County Ride On bus depot in Silver Spring that’s been rattling nearby homes and emanating a perpetual rumbling has residents wondering whether it’s necessary.
“Unfortunately, there is quite a bit of noise,” says Evelyn O’Brien, who lives in the unincorporated Chevy Chase area. “We can hear them during the night and very early in the morning.”
O’Brien says the noise of idling buses from the Brookeville Depot travels through a wooded area and into her home even with the windows closed.
Her husband, Bernie O’Brien, is hard of hearing, but he says the buses come through loud and clear.
“Having moved from a quieter place we can’t believe the noise,” he says. “It’s constant.”
County downplays idling
The depot serves as a hub for 150 buses, as well as dozens of other vehicles — all of which carry rules and regulations.
One policy pertains specifically to buses left running.
“Our general policy is that we don’t allow our buses to be idled for longer than 3 minutes,” says Carolyn Biggins, chief of the Montgomery County Division of Transit Services.
“We don’t just blanket-idle the buses,” she says.
Biggins admits the vehicles run often for cleaning, safety checks and general maintenance, but she and other county officials have said prolonged idling is not a problem.
“There’s a multi-part process for how buses are placed back in their parking spot,” says Bill Griffiths, division chief for Montgomery County’s Division of Fleet Management Services.
“We have a monitor on-site that makes sure that the buses aren’t left idling for any amount of time,” he says.
Still, on numerous occasions, WTOP spotted vehicles idling with nobody in sight for well over the 3-minute limit.
Sometimes, buses ran for at least 30 minutes with their interior lights off.
In one instance, a driver stepped out of her vehicle and turned off a separate bus that had been running for nearly 20 minutes after she noticed WTOP documenting the scene.
Both she and the driver refused to answer any questions.
As a result of WTOP’s investigation, the county released a statement from Biggins and Griffiths saying the county is committed to running the depot “in a way that minimizes its impact” on the surrounding neighborhood.
“That includes eliminating unnecessary idling of buses. Unfortunately, we have discovered that everyone working at the depot has not been following established operating standards,” the statement reads. “This is unacceptable.”
Montgomery County Executive Isiah “Ike” Leggett called the idling buses “a concern” and said the county’s goal is to make sure buses are idling below 3 minutes.
“I want to make certain we are not idling for inappropriate reasons,” Leggett says. “We’re going to work to see whether or not we can reduce those times.”
Idling harms the environment
Drivers are not simply disregarding rules when they leave buses running, they also may be harming the environment.
The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, which closely monitors air quality in the D.C. area, recently launched a campaign aimed at limiting idling.
“We were focusing on trucks and buses that are fueled by diesel and are putting nitrogen oxides and fine particulates into the air,” says Joan Rohlfs, COG’s environmental resources program director.
Rohlfs says the council has worked to get cleaner government vehicles on the roads, but the anti-idling initiative centered around commercial fleets.
“We have limited resources, and idling is very widespread,” she says. “It’s a difficult thing to address.”
Read the full statement from Montgomery County below:
“For 38 years, Montgomery County has operated a bus depot in Silver Spring that is currently the hub for 150 buses. The County is committed to operating this facility in a way that minimizes its impact on our neighbors, and that includes eliminating unnecessary idling of buses. Unfortunately, we have discovered that everyone working at the depot has not been following established operating standards. This is unacceptable.
This week, we have taken a number of steps to prevent this problem from recurring, including ordering staff and contractors to follow proper procedures and providing staff resources to oversee operations and ensure compliance.
The bus depot is a 24/7 operation that involves inspecting buses before they go into service and washing, cleaning, fueling and maintaining buses when they return to the depot. Buses must be turned on – sometimes for extended periods of time – to conduct Federally mandated safety checks, to heat them or cool them for passengers and to move them around the lot for maintenance.
Over the years, we have worked closely with the community to modify our operations to reduce noise whenever possible. We will continue to address operational issues that do not meet our guidelines for minimizing noise.”
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This story has been updated.