BRT on converted travel lanes in downtown Cleveland. Image from Wikimedia.

A Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) network could bring major transportation improvements to Montgomery County. But instead of pushing to advance the project as soon as possible, county transportation officials have thrown up obstacles and mired the project in unnecessary delays.

Montgomery County’s roadways are filled to capacity with single-passenger vehicles. To help Montgomery residents and workers get where they need to go, the county is considering an ambitious, and popular, 150-mile BRT network.

Unfortunately, while publicly embracing this idea, the Montgomery County Department of Transportation (MCDOT) is unwilling to do what must be done to make it succeed.  Asked to find a few places where buses could be moved faster right now, MCDOT refused, saying that it had to do a study first, and then didn’t start the study. MCDOT officials also insisted that planners weigh BRT against a preposterous assumption that every single car on the road is a 4-person carpool.

BRT could move far more people more quickly using the existing roadway space. The simple fact is that a bus-only lane can carry far more people than a general traffic lane, as long as bus service on that lane is fairly frequent. In the built-up business and residential districts along the county’s busiest bus corridors, the only way to make room for BRT is to convert existing travel lanes into bus-only lanes.

Elsewhere, BRT will stop along major 6-lane arterials, at intersections which often have multiple turn lanes.  There too, it’s best to put the busway on existing lanes.  Widening these roadways to add new lanes could defeat the intent of the transit plan to create walkable spaces, since 10-lane suburban highways are rarely welcoming to people on foot.

Converting lanes will not be easy. Traffic planners will need to use some trial and error to find the best configuration. If there is to be any hope of meeting the ambitious schedule that BRT proponents have laid out, the county needs to start quickly. 

The learning process can start now. Montgomery can benefit now by designating a few short sections of bus lane right away. Even if full BRT is not running yet, there are many existing buses, often running at high frequency. WMATA’s Priority Corridor Network Plan has already identified some good locations.

The County Council recognizes this need.  Last April, then-Council President Valerie Ervin and all three Transportation and Environment Committee members (Roger Berliner, Hans Riemer, and Nancy Floreen) asked for immediate action to give buses higher priority at intersections.  They also requested — “separately,” they emphasized — a longer-range study of passenger throughput on the roads.

Unfortunately, MCDOT, which trumpets its support for BRT sometime in the future, expressed no interest in doing anything now.  In an August reply, MCDOT Director Art Holmes said that nothing could be done to speed up buses until the passenger throughput study was complete.  Nine months after the County Council letter, that study still has yet to begin.

While MCDOT stonewalled, the county Planning Board began its own work on the BRT plan.  Staffer Larry Cole looked at the throughput issue and found that converting a car lane to BRT adds almost as much passenger capacity as building expensive new lanes. 

MCDOT planning chief Edgar Gonzalez then emailed Cole insisting that he redo the calculation with the assumption that each car carries 4 people. Cole found, of course, that roads would carry a lot more people if each car had a driver and three passengers.

Four people per private car is clearly an absurd assumption.  If the county could impose an HOV-4 rule on all its highways, there would be no need for BRT nor any other road project because traffic congestion would disappear instantly. 

This is not an isolated incident. Gonzalez has a long and disappointing track record on transit matters. He tried to pass off a highway interchange as a pedestrian underpass. His consultants claimed that it will take 7 years to design a new Metro entrance in Bethesda. His department asserted that adding bus lanes and bike lanes would make Rockville Pike less friendly to pedestrians than it is now. 

These current and past actions from MCDOT officials make it hard to avoid the conclusion that MCDOT is interested in moving cars, not people. While DC and Arlington have taken significant steps to treat pedestrians, cyclists, and transit riders more equally, MCDOT zealously hews to a cars-only mindset for its roads.

It’s long past time for the department to change its approach to issues and follow the examples of sound transportation planning set by its counterparts in the District and Arlington.