Last November, Montgomery County passed a master plan envisioning high-quality Bus Rapid Transit on its eight busiest corridors. Unfortunately, Maryland officials are pushing to design BRT in an unreasonable way that would harm the community along the route, and have unnecessarily stirred up opposition to BRT as a result.

The Maryland State Highway Administratrion (SHA) hosted an open house in May to discuss alternatives for BRT on Georgia Avenue from Olney to Wheaton. This image from SHA’s map of the area shows how it would add two bus lanes to a three-block stretch north of Glenmont:

Image from Maryland SHA.

On this segment, SHA shows a 200-foot wide right of way. The current road is only 88 feet wide, with 6-foot sidewalks on each side, meaning that SHA wants to widen the road by 100 feet just to add two bus lanes. This would require destroying 34 residences — the red R’s on the map — along with a business and a church.

And that’s just one small part of the corridor. From Wheaton up to Olney, SHA estimated that adding a single reversible dedicated transit lane in the median would mean destroying 142 properties. Adding two dedicated BRT lanes brings the number to 155.

Not surprisingly, these numbers have generated concern along Georgia Avenue. Opponents point to them as one more reason to stop BRT.

Thankfully, there’s no reality to these numbers. This is true for two reasons.

First, SHA’s assumptions for road widths, busway widths, and necessary buffers are unnecessarily large. For example, SHA assumes six traffic lanes and two bike lanes are 88 feet wide, while the Montgomery County Planning Department scopes the exact same road at 66 feet wide.  SHA overestimates the width of a two-lane busway by six more feet as well, making the road 28 feet wider than the county believes necessary. 

Second, on top of these bloated road widths, SHA routinely tacks on anywhere from 28 to 62 additional feet of width for no clear reason. Here, just adding two bus lanes to a regular 6-lane road somehow adds a full 100 feet to the cross-section. Clearly, the lanes are not each 50 feet wide.

A better study of BRT alternatives for Georgia Avenue would have applied the standards used by Montgomery County’s planning staff when they developed the county’s BRT master plan last November. The planning staff’s cross-sections for the exact same roadway (meaning the same number of travel lanes, turn lanes, and bus lanes) are more than 20 feet narrower curb-to-curb than the cross-sections used by the SHA. Excluding the extra unexplained width in the SHA cross-sections makes an even bigger difference.

To illustrate this point, here’s the same three-block stretch of Georgia Avenue north of Glenmont, preserving all lanes and turns, drawn using the Planning Department’s design standards:

Image by Communities for Transit using Google Maps base image.

Just by changing which agency’s assumptions we rely upon, the number of endangered properties drops from 36 to exactly 1 (marked with a red pin). The reason is simple: instead of requiring around 200 feet of right-of-way, as SHA does, this layout requires only 106 to 112 feet, with sidewalks adding another 12 feet. All this space is saved without changing the number of traffic lanes, turn lanes, and bus lanes.

Switching from SHA to Planning assumptions totally changes the story of BRT’s impact on the community along Georgia Avenue. Under the Planning standard, the number of endangered properties would drop by more than 80%.

And this is just a first cut. Shifting the road’s centerline or using a narrower sidewalk and planting strip than Planning’s recommended 20 feet could save nearly all of the remaining threatened properties.

Finally, repurposing a traffic lane to transit-only won’t affect any properties. That’s an important option to consider, especially in constrained areas.

The question remains why SHA ignored the planning department’s recommended BRT cross-sections and instead produced alternatives that affect so many properties, which they must have known would provoke opposition. If SHA repeats this unnecessarily destructive approach when it studies BRT alternatives on MD-355 (Bethesda to Clarksburg) and on US-29 (Silver Spring to Burtonsville), it will only compound the harm.

The county’s residents deserve a realistic assessment of how BRT would fit in our communities. If you live nearby, you can submit a comment to SHA asking them to create community-sensitive BRT alternatives for Georgia Avenue.