The Montgomery County Council on Tuesday formally began its review of the master plan for a bus rapid transit system, and it’s not going to be an easy haul.
More than 30 people testified on the plan in the first of two public hearings and there is already obvious disagreement on the Council about the proposed 81-mile, 10-corridor system.
“The fundamental premise behind this is that our traffic is bad and our traffic is not going to get better, and that should not be news to any of you,” Councilmember Roger Berliner said. “We can’t afford to build more subways and we can’t afford to build any more light rail after the Purple Line. We have only one real option and that is rapid transit. It is, without a doubt, the most cost-effective, flexible option that is available to us. And it is a proven option.”
Councilmember Nancy Floreen (D-At large) made it clear she doesn’t agree.
Floreen asked Department of Transportation Director Art Holmes how the Council could approve the master plan without an idea of how much the system would cost. Holmes said County Executive Isiah Leggett supports bus rapid transit on just three routes, Rockville Pike/Wisconsin Avenue, Randolph Road and Route 29.
Floreen also seemed to call into question the motives of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, a D.C.-based organization that has helped organize support for bus rapid transit. Floreen asked CSG Executive Director Stewart Schwartz if his group’s effort was funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. Schwartz said it was.
On Monday, Floreen told a group of Friendship Heights residents that she is opposed to bus rapid transit, according to The Gazette.
“We could run express buses today,” Floreen reportedly said. “But we don’t. Why don’t we? Also, is it that much better than driving? Or taking the regular bus? Is this really worth the gazillions of dollars it’s going to cost? You tell me.”
A county task force that recommended a 160-mile network of 23 rapid transit corridors put the cost of the system at $1.8 billion.
Kelly Blynn from the Coalition for Smarter Growth and David Moon from newly-formed advocacy group Communities For Transit introduced a coalition of 30 environmental, civic, business and development groups that supports the plan in a press conference before the public hearing.
The group supports bus-dedicated lanes “to the maximum extent possible.”
“From our standpoint, for this whole concept of getting people out of cars so you don’t have to worry about the traffic, you don’t have to worry about the parking, you have to provide a real broad array of transit options,” said Georgetown Village Condominium President Ed Reich, a member of the coalition. “The dedicated lanes are critical, because otherwise it’ll just be caught up in the same traffic.”
Moon, a Takoma Park resident also running for a District 20 House of Delegates seat, said the coalition was a group of “strange bedfellows.”
“This movement has really got broad support,” Moon said. “All of these groups have come behind this idea that the rapid transit system is a visionary, game-changing, catalytic project for traffic reduction, sustainable environmentalism in Montgomery County and economic development.”
ACT’s position reflects the number of nuanced stances on the plan, even among supporters.
Councilmember Marc Elrich (D-At large), who is credited with first proposing a bus rapid transit system for the county, wants a Connecticut Avenue route put back in the plan. The Planning Board did not include it.
Elrich got in a back-and-forth with North Bethesda civic activist Paula Bienenfeld, who claimed the bus rapid transit plan would mean the taking of 3,000 properties. That won’t be determined in the master plan process.
Other opponents claimed the bus rapid transit system was a gift for developers.
“I’m not gonna respond to every misstatement that was made. We’re not going to take 3,000 properties from people,” Elrich said after Bienenfeld’s testimony. “I’m probably the last person on earth, or at least in this room, that would do something on behalf of developers. …There’s no way our roads can handle what’s coming.”
The Council’s Transportation & Environmental Committee, chaired by Berliner will have at least five worksessions on the plan on Oct. 7, Oct. 11, Oct. 14, Oct. 18 and Oct. 21.