By 2020, Montgomery County will have a working bus rapid transit system. The $67 million system should help clear up traffic congestion, but more importantly, it will promote promote social mobility, connect workers to jobs, and allow families to save hundreds on transportation.

BRT in Virginia. Photo by Dan Malouff

Background on Montgomery’s BRT Plans

In 2013 the Montgomery County Council unanimously passed plans for an 82 Mile bus rapid transit network, and this March, County Executive Leggett committed to having Route 29 be the first BRT route in the county.The idea is to create a new rapid transit system that would help alleviate congestion and increase economic development. The first phase of BRT will be along MD-355, US-29 and Veirs Mill Roadd corridors that intersect with key master plans or connect important transit hubs. MD-355 will be the site of some of the largest job expansion in the county (White Flint), while Veirs Mill Road connects the Rockville and Wheaton Metro stations (which sit on opposite ends of the system). Route 29 will also see large job expansion in White Oak.

Leggett plans to have the system in operation by 2020, and his choice of Route 29 as the first BRT corridor presents Montgomery the opportunity to bring real transit options to a part of the county that has none and to help diminish the county’s east-west economic divide.

A draft of what the Route 29 BRT route will look like. Image from Montgomery County.

Here’s why building this system will create a more equitable Montgomery:

BRT on Route 29 will help increase social mobility

Access to transportation has emerged as the single greatest indicator of someone’s odds of escaping poverty— greater than the number of two parent households or the amount of crime in a community. Further studies have found that as sprawl increases social mobility decreases. This is particularly important on Route 29, where over 12% of households have no access to a vehicle. Digging deeper we see that many folks who live on the Route 29 corridor are also those who can least afford sprawl. 50% of renters on Route 29 earn under 50% of the area median income and a total of 30% of corridor households earn under 50% of AMI.

Further compounding the need for better transit access is Montgomery’s uneven recovery from the recession. The Route 29 Corridor in particular was hit hard, median income fell 12% between 2009 and 2014, compare this to 1% in the Bethesda area.Consider this stat: in 2000, none of the county’s census tracts had more than an 18% poverty rate, now there are 12 census tracts exceeding that standard. Much of this new “suburbanization of poverty” is affecting communities in the east far more than those in the west— the Route 29 BRT could help equalize odds in a part of Montgomery that has not seen major transit investments.

BRT will help offset high rent costs

Perhaps nothing illustrates the need for affordable transportation on the Route 29 corridor than the number of residents who are rent-burdened, which means they spend more than 30% of their incomes on rent. Looking at data from the US Census we see that 43% of the corridor are renters, 60% of whom are rent burdened.

When you combine housing and transportation costs you see the heavy price of living in a car dependent area. Certain census tracts in Burtonsville show that the average household is spending 71% of their income on rent+housing. That leaves little left over for groceries, healthcare, or savings. The trend continues when looking at other communities along Route 29. In White Oak we see households spending 50% of their income on rent+housing costs, this compares with averages in transit accessible Downtown Silver Spring of 30%-35%. Providing a brt system on Route 29 will allow families to spend more money on essentials like food, and housing.

BRT will bring economic benefits

According to county research by 2040 the Route 29 BRT system will save 33,489 Vehicle Miles Travelled (VMT) per weekday and an average annual savings of 9,711,752 VMT. Once in operation BRT will help contribute to $6.5 million in statewide annual income. It is also projected that the full build-out of phase one of BRT— MD-355, Veirs Mill Rd, Route 29 —would bring in $871 million in net fiscal revenue to Montgomery County by 2040. The Route 29 BRT system will connect 16 shopping centers, nine federal offices, and 61,000 jobs lifting job opportunity scores which are as low as 25. Job growth in White Oak and Silver Spring alone is also projected to grow 80% by 2040. The Route 29 BRT system can help ensure this growth is equitable.

Building BRT along Route 29 is a chance for Montgomery to fulfill its progressive legacy

For decades Montgomery County has been a nationwide progressive leader on important policy issues, from inclusionary zoning program to environmental protection. Once again the county must be a bold progressive leader and build the Route 29 BRT system.

The burden of this past recession has fallen most heavily on the poor, and we have seen the high cost of poverty: forcing those who make the least to spend the most on simply living. During the recession, Montgomery County had the most significant increase in poverty of any jurisdiction in the DC region; from 2002-2016, poverty rose 59%.Transportation determines who has access to what; there is no greater equalizer in creating opportunity than building transit. Increasing transit options in our suburbs is the next great civil rights battle, as inequality of mobility leads to inequality of opportunity. A BRT system will go a long way toward giving people chances to thrive in Montgomery County.

Pete Tomao is the Montgomery County Advocacy Manager for the Coalition for Smarter Growth.  A former campaign staffer and union organizer, Pete is passionate about creating better transit options for the Washington, DC region. He graduated from American University with a degree in Political Science.