Photo by the author.

Over the past 5 years, Montgomery County has envisioned building a countywide Bus Rapid Transit network, making it a model for communities around the country. But transit advocates worry that the latest proposal takes another step backward from the vision.

Last November, planners proposed a 92-mile system where buses had their own lanes, whether in the median or in repurposed car lanes, on all or part of each of the 10 routes. But some residents and the Montgomery County Department of Transportation resisted calls to take away street space from cars.

The latest draft of the plan, which now has 79 miles of routes, has backed away from that recommendation. Under the current proposal, the only places that would get “gold-standard” BRT with dedicated lanes are Route 355 and portions of Route 29 and New Hampshire Avenue that have wide medians.

The BRT network proposed in November. Blue represents curb bus lanes, purple is buses running in mixed traffic, and median busways are red. Click for an interactive version.

The current BRT proposal. Image from the Montgomery County Planning Department.

Planners removed repurposed lanes along Route 29 in Four Corners after vocal opposition from a small group of neighbors, but say it’s because bus lanes would conflict with an on-ramp to the Beltway. On Wisconsin Avenue in Chevy Chase, where neighbors say the buses would endanger their kids, curb lanes have replaced a median busway.

Meanwhile, dedicated lanes on Georgia Avenue between 16th Street and University Boulevard, on Randolph Road between Rockville Pike and Georgia Avenue, and Stewart Lane and Lockwood Drive in White Oak have disappeared altogether. These sections were part of a “Phase 2” in earlier drafts that was meant to be built in the future.

County transportation planner Larry Cole says that many parts of the county aren’t currently dense enough to justify the expense and disruption of creating dedicated bus lanes, especially where streets are constrained by buildings or steep slopes. Likewise, the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, the world’s leading experts on BRT, recommended that the county only pursue 4 of the 10 proposed routes where demand was highest.

Planning staff made the plan more ambitious because the Planning Board wanted an “aspirational plan to look beyond current land use,” Cole says. “Phase 1 is what we, the staff, wanted all along. We didn’t feel pressure all along. We’re the ones who pushed the board to move Phase 2 to the appendix because it caused a lot of confusion and concern from the public.”

Plan allows bikes, right-turns in bus lanes

The new draft does have some strengths. It calls for recommend “gold-standard” BRT, with dedicated lanes in the median, all along Route 355, which will support future development in places like downtown Bethesda and White Flint. And there are still repurposed bus lanes on Georgia Avenue and Colesville Road in downtown Silver Spring. While these streets are already congested, they all serve areas with the county’s highest transit ridership, meaning those buses will be well-used.

“We’re not backing off on repurposing lanes,” Cole said. “We’ve been pretty hardcore about that.”

It also recommends letting bicyclists, emergency vehicles and right-turning drivers use the bus lanes, which lets more people use them without making them as congested as regular lanes. “If a bus was coming every 2, 4 minutes, that would be a safer place for [bicyclists] to be then in the general traffic lanes,” says Cole.

Finally, the new draft also explains what the plan will actually do, like identifying areas where the county should put dedicated bus lanes, and what it won’t do, like decide what kind of buses to use or how much fares should cost.

Cole notes that this plan simply gives policy direction to things that county and state officials can already do. “Some people are determined that nothing should happen,” he says. “As far as curb lanes go, the reality is that [the Maryland State Highway Administration] could make that change today without the master plan.”

We have to think big

Many residents support the county’s BRT efforts, which grew out of a 2008 proposal by Councilmember Marc Elrich. Both planning consultants and task force of community and business leaders found could provide alternatives to driving and support future population growth.

The Action Committee for Transit, an advocacy group for transit, wrote a letter urging them not to “water down” the BRT plan. “To be worthy of support, the bus rapid transit plan must put bus lanes on the most congested roads, not the least congested ones, and include lane repurposing as a major component,” it says.

It’s good that planners want to take a realistic approach, but to those who don’t want BRT on their street, the plan’s evolution sends a different message: yell loudly enough, and it’ll go away or get watered down. That’s a bad precedent for our public process, but worse for drivers and transit riders who will continue to be stuck in traffic.

Montgomery County is known for doing big things. 50 years ago, we created a visionary plan to direct growth into urban areas and preserve farmland. 40 years ago, we created one of the nation’s largest subsidized housing programs. 30 years ago, we preserved almost 1/3 of the county as open space forever.

It’s likely that each of those things encountered some opposition, but in the end they made this county a better place to live. BRT isn’t a panacea, but it is right for the corridors that county planners have studied. And it could be the next big thing that Montgomery County’s known for. That is, if we don’t let a few naysayers dominate the conversation.

If the Planning Board votes to approve this plan, it’ll go to the County Council later this month, with a public hearing to follow in the fall. Hopefully, they’ll make sure that this bus doesn’t stop prematurely.