Montgomery County’s transportation policy is descending toward inco­herence. Policymakers want to put dedicated Bus Rapid Transit lanes on the county’s highways. Yet they continue to prioritize expensive projects that will increase car volumes on those same roads.

A prime example of the contradiction between these 2 policies is a planned underpass taking Randolph Road under Georgia Avenue, near Glenmont Metro.  Construction is scheduled to begin in 2014. 

Image from Maryland State Highway Administration.

Both Georgia and Randolph are part of all versions of the county’s BRT proposal. But the underpass will get in the way of the future bus network.  Buses on Randolph, unable to use a tunnel that gives them no place to stop, will have to slow down for a traffic light that cars can bypass. 

To avoid the buses stopping in the turn lanes, the stops will have to be located on the far side of the light.  Riders connecting to the other BRT line will have to double back on foot and wait for the light a second time.

Yet the county, which has already thrown $14 million of its own money at this project, urges the state to plow ahead with the underpass.  It has not asked for a redesign to accommodate BRT.  And, through its adequate public facilities ordinance, it blocked transit-oriented development around the Metro station until the underpass got funding.

Just this week, the County Council reaffirmed the adequate public facilities ordinance.  It toned down some of the worst features, but the basic principle remains in place: it assumes that if only the county built the right road infrastructure, all traffic would flow freely. Almost a century of road building has proven that’s not the case, but that truth hasn’t yet penetrated into the policy.

Indeed, the two elected officials who initiated the county’s turn toward BRT, Councilmember Marc Elrich and County Executive Ike Leggett, are also the strongest partisans for what Elrich calls “free-flowing highways.” That’s a contradiction, because if highways actually could flow freely, buses would move at full speed, and Bus Rapid Transit wouldn’t be necessary.

In recent decades, the county has accomplished much while building rail transit and new roads at the same time.  The Red Line has been a stunning success, and the Purple Line promises to match it. But rail lines are expensive and transportation budgets are getting ever tighter.  Montgomery’s leaders have chosen to de-emphasize further expansion of rail beyond the Purple Line. 

The county switched its preference for the Corridor Cities Transitway from rail to bus and has found no room among its transportation priorities for the state’s plan for all-day service on MARC.  Many see the BRT network as a way for transit to keep growing in an era of fiscal stringency.

BRT simply won’t work if we pretend that we’re still in the 1950s and keep trying to move more cars at higher speeds (a strategy that is doomed to failure in any case).  It requires rebuilding roads and neighborhoods for a more livable urban future, where people rank ahead of automobiles.  Striving after two contradictory goals on the same roadways is a recipe for failure.