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Bus rapid transit: Will it solve traffic problems in MoCo?

Tuesday - 3/19/2013, 7:37am  ET

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A plan presented to the Montgomery County Planning Board proposes a 79-mile bus rapid transit network with the hope of easing overall traffic in the county between now and 2040. (WTOP/Ari Ashe)

Ari Ashe, wtop.com

SILVER SPRING, Md. - As lawmakers in Annapolis debate a bill to fund projects like the Purple Line in Montgomery County, a plan for another mass transit option called bus rapid transit is also in the works.

"There is already congestion on 29 and 355 (Rockville Pike)," says Larry Cole, Master Planner for the Montgomery County Planning Board, who presented a bus rapid transit plan on Monday evening. "The traffic doesn't move on 355 sometimes. So what do you do? Do you accept the situation that the traffic will get worse or find a better way to use the lanes?"

According to a recent Metropolitan Washington Council of Government report, the population in the Washington Metro region will go up 21 percent between now and 2040.

There will also be a 40 percent jump in employment in Montgomery County, adding to the amount of people in the area who will be commuting to and from work.

But Montgomery County resident Jim Zapp questioned how bus rapid transit users would incorporate it into their daily lives.

"Most people do multi-segment trips," Zapp says. "They're not going straight to work and back. They're dropping off their child. They have to pick up dinner. If you have to hop from bus to bus, you're not improving their trip and they won't use it."

He also wondered how people would get to the bus stop to begin a trip. Unlike Metro, with parking lots for commuters, this transit network wouldn't have such an option.

Ideally, bus rapid transit would allow buses to travel in dedicated lanes, bypassing traffic in other lanes.

However, there would be locations on Rockville Pike between the D.C. line and the Capital Beltway, as well as U.S. Route 29 in Four Corners, where an existing lane of traffic would be eliminated in each direction, according to a proposed 79-mile plan.

"Both of them are physically constrained on the roadway, but also have a lot of traffic congestion," says Cole. "On Rockville Pike, you have federal facilities on both sides that have built close to the road. On the navy side, there are gates. Then here's a parking garage on NIH's side that constrains our options."

AAA Mid-Atlantic's Lon Anderson tells WTOP that he supports bus rapid transit where new bus-only lanes can be built, but opposes removing existing lanes because he thinks it will make traffic worse.

Several neighborhood groups have also popped up in Four Corners to oppose the effort to eliminate existing lanes for bus-only use.

"If there are choke points where in order to give to give BRT its own lane, you may further congest the driver in short sections...that may be what you have to do," says Tina Slater, President of the Action Committee for Transit of Montgomery County.

Slater says even if 10 percent of people in the Montgomery County area use the buses, it will take cars off of the road.

Along Route 29 between Southwood Avenue and Lockwood Drive, existing homes next to the road make new bus-only lanes impossible. Between Sligo Creek Parkway and Georgia Avenue, one reversible lane would be eliminated to make room for the bus- only lane.

"We believe that by 2040, countywide traffic will go down," said Larry Cole during a Montgomery County Planning Board meeting. "That's not to say conditions on that particular road might not be worse, but overall it'll be better."

Chairwoman Francoise M. Carrier had several testy exchanges with Cole, however.

"It's a small comfort to the drivers on the roads that will be moving worse," Carrier responded.

Carrier and Planning Board Commissioner Norman Dreyfuss also expressed frustration at suggestions that bus rapid transit would get "priority treatment" and a "traffic advantage" over cars on local roads. Both were concerned about how the plan would change the relationship between drivers and mass transit users in Montgomery County.

"To me, this document screams that we don't care what happens to drivers and I'm not comfortable taking that position," says Carrier.

The bus rapid transit plan also includes routes along Georgia Avenue, Randolph Road, University Boulevard, Veirs Mill Road, Randolph Road and Old Georgetown Road. A recent Institute for Transportation and Development Policy report found that Rockville Pike and U.S. 29 will have the highest ridership.

Cole says those locations would be the first to get bus rapid transit.

A public hearing will be held in May before the issue goes to the Montgomery County Council later this year.

"It comes down to money," says Cole. "All the transportation funding is up in the air, as far as the state, and the county's budget situation is not the best right now. Plus, we also have large projects needing money, like the Purple Line and the Corridor Cities Transitway."

It is still unclear how much Montgomery County will pay and how much will come from Annapolis, but the state will play a role because many of these routes are on state roads.

Cole says if everything goes well, bus rapid transit could appear within the next five years.

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