New FLASH bus line aims to help speed commutes on eastern side of Montgomery Co.

“We owe this to east county,” said Tom Hucker, the county council’s vice president. “[These] residents deserve first-class transit, just like those who live within walking distance of a Metro station.” (Courtesy Montgomery County Dept. of Transportation)

A number of FLASH buses were on hand for Wednesday’s Montgomery County presentation. (Courtesy Montgomery County Dept. of Transportation)

Montgomery Co. executive Marc Elrich said he and his colleagues felt the need was greatest along Columbia Pike. (Courtesy Montgomery County Dept. of Transportation)

The new buses will have easy to access bike hooks. (Courtesy Montgomery Co. Dept. of Transportation)

The FLASH bus stops are conveniently located to bike share docking stations and park and ride areas on the east side of Montgomery County. (Courtesy Montgomery County Dept. of Transportation)

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With the launch of Montgomery County’s FLASH bus rapid transit on Wednesday, local leaders said they have finally settled a transit debt to residents who live along Columbia Pike/Route 29.

The bus service, which serves the eastern section of the county, went into action on Wednesday after a ceremony in Silver Spring. Service on the line will run seven days a week.

The service runs from 5:30 a.m. to midnight and connects the Silver Spring Transit Center with Burtonsville, Maryland, and uses modern buses that have Wi-Fi and USB ports.

Buses will run every 15 minutes throughout the day and twice as often during peak hours. At full capacity, they will carry up to 80 passengers and be more efficient than traditional buses because they’ll stop less frequently and have access to dedicated lanes along one of the county’s most congested commuter routes.

“We owe this to east county,” said Tom Hucker, the county council’s vice president. “[These] residents deserve first-class transit, just like those who live within walking distance of a Metro station.”

Casey Anderson, the chair of the Montgomery County Planning Board, said, “It’s fantastic to see this finally move forward,” but stressed that even with some projects being slowed due to the coronavirus pandemic, “we don’t have time to waste” in moving ahead with transportation and development projects, especially in the eastern side of the county.

The county said one FLASH bus can take up to 90 cars off the road and move more people per lane than cars.

FLASH will have two service patterns, both starting at the Silver Spring Metro Station. The first pattern will have 10 stops from the Silver Spring Metro Station to Castle Boulevard. The second will offer a more direct route to the Park and Ride lot in Burtonsville from the Silver Spring Metro station, sharing four other stops with the first pattern along the way.

Earlier this week, Hucker said the area where the bus route will operate suffered from an unemployment rate three times worse than the average unemployment rate in Montgomery County before the coronavirus pandemic hit, and it’s only getting worse.

“So they’ve never been served by a high-quality, rail-like, first-class transit product. They have ride-on buses that they’re very dependent on,” Hucker said.

County Executive Marc Elrich said Montgomery County has a number of travel corridors that could have been served well by an express bus service like FLASH, and eventually, service will migrate to the western edge of the county, but he and his colleagues felt the need was greatest along Columbia Pike.

“These people deserve to get to work in under two hours like everybody else,” Elrich said, with the new green buses as his backdrop at the presentation.

He said Montgomery County’s development has been unfairly focused along Wisconsin Avenue and Metro’s Red Line stations that run through Bethesda, Rockville and end at Shady Grove.

“If we had 20-20 hindsight, we could have had two successful parts of this county,” Elrich said. “These people have one of the worst commutes in the county,” he said, noting that those coming into or out of Silver Spring have limited ways to get home — either Route 29 or Randolph Road, the second of which is not conducive to handling significant commuter traffic.

Hucker promised more transit initiatives will be forthcoming, including a study of FLASH service expansion along Veirs Mill Road and Rockville Pike.

“We’re hopeful people will leave their cars at the Park and Ride lots and plug into Wi-Fi and listen to a podcast all the way down to the transit center,” Hucker said. “This is not a one-off; this is the first corridor. We are already funding the growth of the [bus rapid transit] network.”

The same virus mitigation procedures that have been in place on most transit services in the area will be in place for FLASH, and that includes wearing face coverings, keeping distance between riders who are not part of the same households and more.

WTOP’s Thomas Robertson and John Aaron contributed to this report.

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