Bus rapid transit in Istanbul. Image by adrimcm licensed under Creative Commons.

By 2020, Montgomery County plans to have its first leg of bus rapid transit (BRT) in operation on Route 29, which will stretch from downtown Silver Spring to Burtonsville. However, anti-BRT activists are fighting to block the county from studying increasing dedicated space for buses, which is a key component of BRT.

The Montgomery County Council is having a key hearing next week to decide the issue.

Background on Montgomery’s Plans for BRT

In 2013, the Montgomery County Council unanimously passed plans for an 82-mile bus rapid transit network, which planned for 78 percent of the network to be in dedicated bus lanes. The idea was to create a new rapid transit system that would help alleviate congestion and increase economic development.

The first phase of BRT was planned to be along MD-355, US-29, and the Veirs Mill Road corridors that intersect with key master plans or connect important transit hubs. But after plans for funding a full BRT network fell apart in 2015, County Executive Ike Leggett announced plans to prioritize Route 29 as the first BRT implemented in the county.

We’ve written before about the large benefits that a BRT line would bring to the Route 29 corridor, which include cutting transit commute times by 25 percent, curbing future carbon emissions, and generating between $269 million to $520 million in net economic benefits to the county. Construction would start in late 2018 or early 2019, and operations would start in 2020. (You can read a project overview here.).

Dude, where’s my bus lane?

While the current plans for a Route 29 BRT are a big improvement for transit in eastern Montgomery, only 40 percent of the system is in dedicated space — mostly in the northern, more highway-like portion. But East County residents Sean Emerson and Sebastian Smoot came up with a proposal to bring dedicated lanes into the southern, more traffic-clogged portion of Route 29. The “Better BRT” plan builds upon the county’s current plan as a follow-up “Phase 2” project.

Typical cross sections of Route 29 existing conditions and the Better BRT plan. Lanes and the median would be narrowed to accommodate a bidirectional or reversible busway. Image developed using streetmix.net, provided by Sean Emerson and Sebastian Smoot.

The key feature of “Better BRT” is to “squeeze in” bidirectional or reversible bus-only lanes from Tech Road to Sligo Creek Parkway by narrowing existing travel lanes by one foot and repurposing part of the median. Using this approach, the plan would require minimal road widening, retain six car lanes (three each way), and still provide left turn pockets into each neighborhood. Under the “Better BRT” plan, 90 percent of Route 29 would have some form of dedicated busways. Additionally, the plan could lead to long-requested safety features such as crosswalks and traffic signals that the State Highway Administration has been unwilling to implement.

The Better BRT plan proposes a median bus station at University Boulevard/Four Corners with two dedicated busways to maximize the reliability of the bus service in this highly-congested area. Relocating the bus stop to the median would also reduce obstructions in the southbound right lane caused by buses stopping to pick up passengers on the curb. Image provided by Sean Emerson and Sebastian Smoot.

This past spring, the top council transportation advisor Glenn Orlin noted that, “Mr. Emerson’s general concept shows great promise for creating what the master plan calls for: a dedicated lane along most of Rt. 29.” Orlin continues, “A design with 10-foot-wide lanes would also result in drivers reducing their speeds (when the speed isn’t already reduced by congestion) in this area where residences, businesses, and pedestrians are close to the roadway.”

At a May 4 work session, the council asked the Montgomery County Department Of Transportation (MCDOT) to submit a request for a supplemental appropriation to study the idea, and the State Highway Administration indicated they were open to reducing travel lanes to foster a better BRT system. It’s worth noting that both proponents and opponents of BRT were at this May 4 meeting, where they discussed the Emerson proposal in great detail.

The council and leading organizations from the Sierra Club to the AFL-CIO were behind plans for Route 29 BRT, but anti-BRT activists have been working to kill the BRT network since 2013. Many of these same individuals were appointed to the county’s citizen advisory group that is supposed to provide feedback to help implement BRT.

The anti-BRT empire strikes back

This past December, the Montgomery County Council asked MCDOT to move forward with funding the Emerson study, citing the large benefits that more dedicated lanes would bring to the Route 29 Corridor. MCDOT found $425,000 in unused funds that could be reallocated to move forward with the study, and the council was set to approve the funding at their January 30 council session. This is where things got interesting.

Anti-BRT activist Kevin Harris accused the council of behaving in a shady manner and demanded additional public hearings before any study could move forward (he was testifying at a public hearing that was televised). Harris opened by stating, “I'm here at the last minute because what we’ve seen here is a last minute move to insert funding for a study to study putting the BRT in the median of Route 29…this is a CIP [Capital Improvements Program] for a cost savings plan. Not a pork plan!”

Harris accused the council of thwarting democracy, saying, “When you open up the Washington Post what it says is 'Democracy Dies in Darkness.' This is darkness!” He ended with, “The residents of District 5 demand democracy and because of shenanigans like this, I am announcing my exploratory committee to oppose Councilmember Hucker in this upcoming election. The citizens of District 5 and the county demand democracy.”

Councilmember Roger Berliner pushed back, saying: ““I regret your choice of words…This was above board from May going forward, in part to try to find a better solution for your community.”

After interrupting the council several times, Harris was asked to turn his microphone off.

Lead council transportation staffer Glenn Orlin said there was nothing abnormal about the council’s actions to fund the study, saying to them, “In terms of the process, you have followed the process that has regularly been followed.”

Nonetheless, after much discussion the council decided to postpone their vote to study the Emerson proposal until after an additional public hearing. (You can watch a video of the interaction here.)

Are dedicated lanes for BRT a new thing?

Are council plans to study dedicated bus lanes for BRT some wild, out-of-left-field idea? Absolutely not. In January 2016, 7 of the 9 Montgomery County Councilmembers sent a letter to Leggett in support of dedicated lanes as a key feature for any BRT system.

The councilmembers advised against “BRT creep” (transit-speak for watering down BRT to the point that it isn’t effective) and asked MCDOT staff to advocate for an engineering approach that, “guarantees the most required dedicated right-of-way possible, while avoiding unnecessary expenses”.

The letter cites Oregon as an example of successful BRT, stating: “Eugene, Oregon was able to design high quality BRT within right-of-way and financial constraints. This project can be an important model for our efforts here.” The Better BRT proposal fits exactly within this policy framework and in fact shares many similar features to the Eugene system.

The Better BRT plan proposed for Route 29 is very similar to the Franklin Corridor Line of Oregon's Emerald Express (EmX) BRT system, which began service over ten years ago. Photo from Lane County, Oregon.

We Need BRT

In 2013, the county council unanimously passed a plan for BRT, and the centerpiece of a BRT system is dedicated lanes. Attempts to block studies for a better BRT have only one purpose: to stop it from being successful.

Dedicated bus lanes in the US have been able to move 3,700 people per hour, while a single lane of auto traffic moves 1,200 people per hour. Evaluating how to make the BRT better and use our roadway more efficiently is a win for Montgomery residents. Route 29 isn’t getting any wider, so if we want better mobility for residents we have to use our existing roadway the best we can.

If you’re interested in supporting BRT at the February 27 hearing, please contact Pete Tomao pete@smartergrowth.net or Sebastian Smoot at growingeastcounty@gmail.com.