Transportation planner Larry Cole gives a presentation on his BRT proposal. All photos by the author.

Montgomery County planners are making the case for a countywide Bus Rapid Transit network, saying it will reduce commute times and help absorb population growth. At an open house last night in Silver Spring, residents weren’t opposed to improving transit, but hadn’t yet been convinced of the merits of BRT and whether it justified giving up car lanes.

Last week, Planning Department staff released their recommendations for a 10-line, 92-mile network of rapid bus routes across the county. The system, which may not be finished until 2040, would feature substantial stations with waiting areas and fare machines, stops spaced between ½-mile and a mile apart, and have frequent service all day.

Planners focused on what they saw as the most successful places for transit, namely congested roads in the downcounty and along the developing I-270 corridor. They also emphasized giving buses their own dedicated lanes, whether in the median of a road or on the curb.

Not only did they find that this would reduce travel times, but that it could help the county absorb the 200,000 additional residents who will live here in 30 years.

Ongoing development in places like White Flint and proposed development like the White Oak Science Gateway is designed to encourage transit use, and without more transit, they will be a greater burden on the road network.

Map of proposed BRT network. Blue lines represent 2 dedicated on-street bus lanes, purple segments are buses running in mixed traffic, and median busways appear in burgundy. Click for interactive version.

There wasn’t any outright opposition to the plans, but residents clearly weren’t convinced of the merits of BRT. Some struggled to understand what made BRT different from Metrobus or Ride On. “BRT is like a starry-eyed concept … but I keep looking for a purpose,” said Harold McDougall, a law professor who lives in Four Corners. “Once you come through a community like this, you have to have answers.”

Much of the discussion revolved around Route 29, which backs up for miles at rush hour with drivers heading towards the Beltway and the District. North of New Hampshire Avenue, Route 29 has a wide median where buses could run, but south of New Hampshire, the road is hemmed in by houses and shopping centers with no room to expand. Residents asked why it was necessary to take away lanes from cars on an already congested road, and questioned why improvements to existing service, like more frequent buses and safer waiting areas, wouldn’t suffice.

Cole noted that their traffic models showed that a bus lane could carry far more people. “We will have more bus riders than cars we can move,” he noted.

A few residents felt that the plan was a step in the right direction. “You can’t assume that the current model of everyone driving is sustainable” as the county grows, said one resident who refused to be quoted by name.

Route 29 Sideview

Traffic on Route 29 already backs up for several miles during rush hour.

It’s not surprising that people are skeptical. There are very few examples of BRT in North America, and many people in Montgomery County aren’t familiar with it. They want to know how the service will look in their neighborhoods, including where stops would go and how bus lanes would interact with cars, pedestrians and bicyclists. And they’re frustrated that four years since County Councilmember Marc Elrich first introduced the idea of a countywide BRT system, those details aren’t yet available.

As a result, the burden is on the Planning Department, the Department of Transportation and other related agencies to make a case for BRT. While they aren’t yet studying the system at the level of detail many residents want, it’s important to make this concept as clear and compelling as possible.

For starters, county planners need to show how BRT can help neighborhoods like Four Corners where residents already take the bus. Jim Zepp, Four Corners resident and member of the Montgomery County Civic Federation, argued that the BRT system would benefit long-distance commuters from “Howard County and Burtonsville” while buses passed over closer-in neighborhoods south of New Hampshire Avenue.

However, those communities still benefit if residents living further out choose to take BRT instead of driving through their neighborhood. And even if stop locations won’t be finalized for a long time, planners should stress that BRT will serve closer-in neighborhoods as well. After all, whether your bus trip is 10 miles or 3 miles long, having faster bus service means a shorter trip for everyone.

Bus Approaching, Reseda Station

A BRT station in Los Angeles.

Either way, bus rapid transit may not come to Montgomery County for a long time, especially with recent comments from County Executive Ike Leggett that there’s no money for new transit. Cole noted that individual features of the system, like more frequent buses or limited-stop routes, could give commuters some of the benefits of BRT right away, hopefully making them more receptive to future changes.

In fact, Montgomery County will see its first experiment with BRT later this year. At the meeting, Gary Erenrich of the Montgomery County Department of Transportation announced that WMATA will introduce a frequent, limited-stop bus route along New Hampshire Avenue, the MetroExtra K9, at the end of December.

Cole stressed that not doing anything wasn’t a solution for congestion or projected population growth. “The traffic is going to be bad anyway,” he said. “The question is whether there will be improved service.”

There will be two additional open houses this week, tonight at the Shady Grove Training Facility in Rockville and tomorrow at the Wheaton Library. Both meetings will start at 6:30 pm with a brief presentation at 7.

Planners will take comments at each open house and incorporate them into a draft of the Countywide Transit Corridors Functional Master Plan, which will set aside space for future transit lines. If the Planning Board votes to approve the plan in January, it will then go for a vote at the County Council later next year.