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Is BRT The Transportation Future In Montgomery County?

Buses shown off at county fair

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A BRT bus was on display to the public at the Montgomery County Agricultural Fair.
Martin Di Caro/WAMU
A BRT bus was on display to the public at the Montgomery County Agricultural Fair.

Montgomery County politicians and transit advocates showed off what they hope will be their solution to traffic congestion at the county agricultural fairgrounds on Monday: a bus.

The 60-foot, articulated bus, on loan from Fort Collins, Colorado, is of the type that would be part of the county’s Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) fleet, shuttling tens of thousands of commuters per hour over an 80-mile network of dedicated bus lanes and priority traffic signals.

The BRT network is in the planning stages, but officials intend to pursue two of the seven lines first: Rt. 355 and Rt. 29, connecting suburban commuters to Metro’s Red Line in Bethesda and Silver Spring, respectively.

Compared to building Metrorail, BRT is a relative bargain at an estimated $15 to $30 million per mile. Most of the county’s system would require building new lanes for the buses, but inside the Beltway, where right-of-way constraints exist, lanes now shared by all would be repurposed for buses only.

The bus on exhibit at the agricultural fair can sit and stand about 100 passengers.

“This is a basic bus and this is configured for maximum seating capacity,” said Bill Griffiths, who heads Montgomery County’s bus fleet. “With the bus rapid transit program we will be able to configure this anyway we want it, including bike racks internally and more priority seating for ADA.”

County executive Ike Leggett, who is running for re-election, would like to see the first BRT line open before the end of his next term should he prevail in November. The county is pursuing a $10 million study to determine which lane configurations make the most sense (new lanes vs. repurposing lanes, median lanes vs. curb lanes), but still needs to secure funding for the system itself.

The BRT line for Rt. 355 would run 22 miles; Rt. 29 is 11 miles, so just the first two lines, potentially built in segments, would require an investment of at least an estimated $500 million.

“We are moving now much closer to a time in which we would have at least some funding for the buses, and the right-of-ways in place, and we have major development projects that are already on the way or will be on the way soon,” said Leggett. “We need to move [BRT] along.”

Leggett said the county would not be in a position to fund the BRT system alone, and will look to developers in the private sector for possible financing. Regardless of who pays, Leggett and other elected officials are touting BRT as the most sensible way to battle traffic congestion in a growing county of 500 square miles whose population tops 1 million.

“We have a choice: either you continue with the same level of traffic in these areas, or you come up with alternatives,” said Leggett as he pointed to a map where the county has approved future residential development.

“You've got transportation needs that aren't going to go away, and so the question I keep asking people is, if not this, what?” said at-large county councilman Marc Elrich, a BRT supporter.

By using dedicated lanes, priority traffic signals, and an off-board payment system integrated with Metrorail and Metrobus, the BRT network could alleviate congestion, even if it takes away lanes now used by single-occupant vehicles, said Rob Puentes, a transportation policy expert at the Brookings Institution.

“You can picture BRT working in lots of different corridors, particularly in Montgomery County, particularly if it is done appropriately. By that I mean, it is not just considered an express bus,” he said.

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