Montgomery County paves the way for bus network that could zip by traffic

The map shows how the entire network, including a BRT system, would look (click to expand). (Courtesy of Communities for Transit)

ROCKVILLE, Md. — With Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett running for a third term in November, transit advocates are planning an agenda for his next term.

Leggett will run against Republican James Shalleck in an overwhelmingly Democratic county.

For transit advocates, this means a push to turn projects such as the Purple Line, Corridor Cities Transitway and a bus rapid transit network into reality.

Both the Purple Line and CCT are in the works, but an 80-mile bus-rapid transit (BRT) network is still in the early stages.

At a forum in Rockville this week, the Communities for Transit and Coalition for Smarter Growth discussed how the BRT network would tie the Purple Line and CCT together into a transit network that could drastically reduce the need for cars.

“As the population grows in Montgomery County, it’s going to be harder to get from point A to point B. Traffic is only going to get worse,” says David Hauck, executive director at the Communities for Transit.

“Bus rapid transit is more dependable. It has its own transit-only lane. These vehicles can move past traffic jams. It can maintain a schedule. A trip from Rockville to Wheaton at noon might take 25 minutes. The same trip will take 25 minutes at 5:30 p.m. Or 6 p.m. Or 8 a.m.”

Getting the job done will require the reworking of a lot of major roads. It would mean narrowing existing lanes where you drive, shortening the shoulder, buying up lanes or paving over grass in the median between lanes.

A draft document from the Montgomery County Planning Board finds that most of these roads can support a brand new 11-foot lane without too many changes for drivers.

The proposed network would include lines on Md. 355, U.S. 29, Georgia Avenue, New Hampshire Avenue, Veirs Mill Road and Randolph Road. But the most likely scenario would include the Md. 355, U.S. 29 and Veirs Mill Road routes being built first, the others later.

But some stretches along 29 in Four Corners and 355 near the National Institutes for Health and Walter Reed can’t accommodate new lanes.

Along these stretches, a proposal would take away a current lane of traffic for cars and repurpose it for buses only. People living in these areas have opposed that idea because they are worried it’ll make bad traffic even worse for drivers.

“Common sense tells us that when you remove one of three lanes for cars, then 33 percent of cars will need to find a new lane. But if you actually go out and study it, the number of cars in a curb lane is 22 to 25 percent, because a lot of drivers already know they could be stuck behind a bus and avoid the lane,” says Hauck.

“But we don’t know whether traffic will get worse in those other two lanes. If we do nothing, traffic is going to get worse anyway along Route 29, so there might be more cars in those two lanes. But if we can also get people on these buses, it’ll give everyone a solution.”

The BRT line on Route 29 would connect Burtonsville to the Silver Spring Metro, giving Montgomery County residents access to Metro and the Purple Line. The Md. 355 route would start in Friendship Heights and connect to the Purple Line in Bethesda and the CCT at the Shady Grove Metro before ending in Clarksburg.

The CCT also will provide a bus-rapid transit network west of I-270 that connects to the Metropolitan Grove MARC station and eventually to the COMSAT Life Sciences Center in Clarksburg.

The biggest obstacle is money, even with the higher gas tax in Maryland providing more transportation cash.

Montgomery County will vie against other counties across the state for dollars. There will be competition within Montgomery County to get money to fund the BRT network, Purple Line and CCT. A slew of road projects including new interchanges and road widening, are also looking for funding.

Whether all three projects are under construction in 2018 remains to be seen, but the consensus is that something needs to be done about growing congestion during Leggett’s third term.

“Money will be spent in Montgomery County. I don’t believe residents will accept the scenario of a growing population, more jobs, more commuters and crippling traffic,” says Hauck.

State Highway Administration officials are now reviewing the draft plan for the network, then will make recommendations and changes to it.

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