BRT station in Guadalajara, Mexico. Photo by itdp on Flickr.

The “gold-standard” bus rapid transit network proposed for Montgomery County will be expensive, but money might not be its biggest problem. Lack of will to take the first steps now could be a bigger obstacle to creating a bus system that is truly rapid.

The county’s BRT Task Force correctly insists that BRT will only live up to its promise if buses can speed past traffic in their own lanes. Its report offers a clear and compelling vision of complete streets that both move commuters quickly and create the walkable environment that transit-oriented development needs.

But the task force found itself unable to make the hard choices about street design that BRT requires. Until the county faces those issues, it won’t be possible to deliver on the “gold-standard” promise.

The county panel, willing enough to ask taxpayers for money, would not ask drivers to give up pavement.  As a result, the much-discussed $2 billion cost estimate isn’t the price of a gold-standard bus network.  It’s the cost of a lesser system that will leave fancy new buses still stuck in traffic, and will result in streets that are still hostile for pedestrians.

The devil is always in the details, and fitting bus lanes into existing streets is the bus planner’s special hell.  Here the task force barely made it into purgatory. The panel asked its consultants, The Traffic Group, to plan a system that “could be built as swiftly as possible by minimizing the need to acquire large amounts of new right-of-way.”  To do this without taking lanes away from cars, the consultants found, buses would have to run in regular traffic lanes on a quarter of the entire system. 

Not only that, the stretches where buses would mix with cars include most of the intersections where 4- and 6-lane roads cross (see pages 48, 88, and 90 of the report).  Such intersections are usually where traffic backs up the most.

The task force admits that the consultants’ system fails to “achieve the level of operational performance that the task force has established as minimally needed to have a transformational rapid transit system.”  Nonetheless, all the cost estimates in its report are the costs of building this not-so-rapid bus network.

The panel deferred the job of figuring out how “gold-standard” BRT might actually be fit into existing highways. That is legitimately a difficult job, but it’s a necessary one if “gold-standard” is actually to be achieved.

There’s more on the to-do list.  How will extra-long buses maneuver in and out of traffic?  How will pedestrians cross the bus lanes?  How will cars make left turns across them? 

The task force left these questions unanswered for good reason: the right answers, the solutions that don’t just move commuters, but build walkable environments, can only be found with experience. As long as the questions remain theoretical, the hard choices will be put off.

Thus, the job of building Montgomery’s BRT network needs to begin right away. Not only because commuters so desperately need a way to get past traffic jams, but also because the full solution can’t be identified until push comes to shove and theoretical issues become practical ones.

Metro’s Priority Corridors Initiative has already identified some places where existing traffic lanes could be reserved for buses only, with no expenditure needed beyond signs and striping.  It should be implemented without delay.  The next step is bus lanes and signal priorities on busy corridors like Veirs Mill Road (where planning is already underway) and New Hampshire Avenue south of White Oak.

Once low-budget projects like these have worked the bugs out and proved the BRT concept, then the time will come to turn to the taxpayers for additional help.

The task force report is a fine starting point for Montgomery’s transportation needs.  But paper studies cannot take the county much further.  To prove the concept, and work out the kinks, Montgomery should begin immediately to turn its vision into reality. Start building now.