Montgomery County residents speak out on bus rapid transit

More than 50 residents testified Monday about bus rapid transit in Montgomery County. (WTOP/Ari Ashe)

SILVER SPRING, Md. – More than 50 residents testified about bus rapid transit at a public hearing before the Montgomery County Planning Board Thursday evening.

A draft plan for a 79-mile network would connect major arteries like U.S. Route 29, Md. 355, Rhode Island Avenue, Georgia Avenue, Randolph Road, University Boulevard and Veirs Mill Road.

Proponents call it another piece in a bigger plan to offer commuters options to ditch their cars. Other possible pieces include the Purple Line, a 16-mile light-rail from Bethesda to New Carrollton, the Corridor Cities Transitway from Shady Grove to Clarksburg and better Metro and MARC service.

“We can’t afford to be wishy-washy about this. People will continue to come here, and that’s a good thing. But forcing them to bring their cars isn’t,” says Dan Reed of Silver Spring.

“This plan isn’t about taking something away from drivers, but putting those who ride transit on equal footing with them.”

The county’s current bus rapid transit (BRT) plan calls for taking existing lanes of traffic for vehicles along U.S. 29 in Four Corners and Md. 355 from the District line to the Beltway and repurposing them for buses.

That stretch of Md. 355 includes the new Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, which already is suffering congestion problems from relocation related to the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission (BRAC).

Tina Slater of the advocacy group Action Committee for Transit believes bus rapid transit will provide the best solution to fix congestion.

“We must increase our people-moving capacity, rather than to move the most cars at the fastest speeds possible,” she says. “Widening roads is not only expensive, but it creates a hostile environment for pedestrians and bicyclists. So how can we move more people without widening roads? We can use part of our road for BRT.”

Theodore van Houten feels bus rapid transit will help fill in gaps between other transit services.

“On Veirs Mill Road and U.S. 29, bus rapid transit is the best way to connect growing communities,” van Houten says. “Traffic across the county is bad enough. If we don’t take advantage of bus rapid transit, traffic will only get worse, choking our environment and Montgomery County’s economic competitiveness.”

Still, critics aren’t so convinced BRT can solve traffic problems and are worried about the $2 billion price tag.

“How much time is saved by commuters along Route 29 using the BRT? What study has been conducted to determine this?” says James Williamson of Silver Spring.

“The number of riders gained from a BRT (system) will be overwhelmed by the additional traffic from the proposed development,” Williamson says. “It is most certainly not enough to justify the cost and the disruption to our neighborhoods.

“It is easy to be for something if it doesn’t directly affect you. I urge you to slow the process down.”

Michele Riley of Four Corners is one of those directly affected.

“While we would love to be able to embrace the current BRT proposals, unfortunately far too many questions remain about this plan. When these questions are asked, we’re told it’ll be taken up in the next phase,” she says.

Robert Dyer of Bethesda says the idea that BRT will ease congestion is junk science.

“When you look at 355, it’s 70 percent over capacity right now,” he says. “This plan decreases it 33 percent, putting us 103 percent over. If we agree that 15 percent of people will use the BRT, we’ll still be worse off afterwards.”

“This is a terrible product. It’s a war on cars. It’s a war on working families,” Dyer says. “Should we declare a war on the working mom riding 355 to get to day care to pick up her child and go home to Montgomery Village? I think an anti-car attitude is counter-productive at this point.”

The planning board will submit a final draft plan to the Montgomery County Council this summer, with hearings later this year.

If approved, funding would then have to be secured. Master Planner Larry Cole tells WTOP that if all goes right, bus rapid transit could be unveiled within five years.

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