Today, Montgomery County unveiled the detailed report from its “Transit Task Force,” a group of officials, advocates and experts who have been meeting for over a year to plan a 160-mile Bus Rapid Transit system.

Planned “Rapid Transit Vehicle” system for Montgomery County.

Phase 1 Phase 2 Phase 3 Full system View larger version

Montgomery County is growing, and residents need to be able to travel around without worsening traffic. But there isn’t room to keep widening arterial roads, and that’s not a sustainable approach in any event.

Outside the dense Silver Spring-Bethesda area and along the existing Red Line corridors, there isn’t the density or the density isn’t linear enough to make rail worthwhile. Maryland needs to build the Purple Line, but the future of transportation elsewhere likely lies in high-quality bus transit.

What is a “world class” system?

The report calls for this to be a “world class” system. They’ve set out a clear principle in the report that the service must run in dedicated lanes, and even call it “the most important principle”:

To the maximum extent possible, having physically separated, dedicated RTV lanes THROUGHOUT THE ENTIRE SYSTEM, so the system’s RTVs would not become commingled into mixed general traffic.

The question will be, where does the space for these lanes come from? The report also says, “This preference for, and weight given to, RTV use within the maximum potentially available right-of-way should not be interpreted as being hostile to the on-going requirement for effective automobile use … The Task Force does not advocate for the elimination of a large percentage of current automobile lane use.”

But what about a small percentage? Will Montgomery dedicate some car lanes for buses even in some places? That remains to be seen, and could be a critical factor in whether the countywide RTV system succeeds. The Montgomery DOT has been reluctant to change even a single car lane thus far.

Potential BRT vehicles (left) and stations (right).

Images from the Transit Task Force report.

The report also calls for “unique branding” to further emphasize that this system is “world class” and not just a bus, and sets out a number of other distinguishing factors as absolute “must haves”:

  • RTVs must be sleek and stylish.
  • RTVs must have multiple wide doors on both sides of the RTVs.
  • RTVs equipped with WiFi capabilities and electronic real-time messaging.
  • Stations must be of a consistent and distinctive style.
  • Stations must be safe, wide, and weather-protected.
  • Stations must have level platform boarding with handicap accessibility.
  • Stations must be equipped with real time data and with user-friendly maps.
  • Stations must provide off-vehicle fare collection.
  • Peak-peak period frequency of 3-5 minute headways.
  • Off-peak period frequency of 5-7 minute headways
  • Lanes with intersection improvements and coordination with other modes of transportation.
  • Multi-modal integration (pedestrians, bicycles, Zipcars®, taxi service, Ride-On and Metrobus, shuttle buses and neighborhood circulators).

Other factors, like stations set slightly away from the road, late-night service, and photo enforcement are also recommended but less critical.

Do we call it a bus? Does it matter?

These elements come directly from ITDP’s report on BRT where they try to define a LEED-like rating system to classify BRT systems as “gold,” “silver,” etc. That’s because the term “BRT” has often gotten watered down in jurisdictions that skimped on one or more elements in what Dan Malouff calls “BRT creep.”

It’s gotten so bad that this report actually disavows the terms “BRT” and “bus” as well. “We are not building a bus system, we’re building a transformational transit system,” said task force member David Hauck at today’s press event. The report states,

These systems are frequently referred to as bus rapid transit (“BRT”) systems. However, the Task Force has deliberately elected to refer to it as an RTV [Rapid Transit Vehicle] system because the nature, appearance and performance of the system will be qualitatively different from what is typical of BRT systems in the United States or abroad, which do not offer transformative qualities to be considered transportation solutions of choice.

This is a little ironic because the term “BRT” originally was supposed to distinguish these high-quality systems, similar to light rail only without the tracks, from regular bus service. Whatever they call it, Montgomery County will have to make a strong commitment to avoid its own BRT creep, or RTV creep.

Today’s BRT announcement. Photo by CSG.

BRT system could set standard for other cities

If the county can build it, the system could be both transformative and groundbreaking. No US metropolitan area has such a large system; others are generally a small number of lines in smaller cities. If it succeeds, other metropolitan areas that mix lower and higher densities might be able to start meaningfully expanding transit.

Montgomery is also a wealthy enough county to be able to afford to build the system and create a model for others. The report acknowledges that little federal money is possible, given both cuts in support to transit, the failure to raise the gas tax, and higher priorities for state money like the Purple and Baltimore Red Lines and Corridor Cities Transitway.

The report suggests a fairly modest increase in property tax, focused around areas near the lines. Supporters have built a strong coalition with businesses, neighborhood activists, and transit advocates.

They all agree that, coupled with the light rail Purple Line, this could be Montgomery County’s future. There will be many challenges and disagreements to make it a reality, but there’s really no other option.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.