BRT groundbreaking. Image by Will Roberts used with permission.

On Thursday morning, Montgomery County broke ground on the first line of the county’s long-planned 82-mile Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) network. This first segment, running between downtown Silver Spring and Burtonsville, will stretch for 12 miles. When completed, it will be the region’s longest BRT line.

However, to make the system successful, Montgomery County must ensure the system is frequent, reliable, and prioritizes dedicated lanes.

BRT wasn’t built in a day

In 2013, the Montgomery County Council unanimously passed plans for an 82-mile BRT network, which planned for 78% 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. However, after his plans for funding a full BRT network fell apart in 2015, County Executive Ike Leggett announced Route 29 would be the first BRT line implemented in the county.

Planned BRT lines.

We’ve written before about the large benefits that a BRT line would bring to the Route 29 corridor (Burtsonville to Downtown Silver Spring), which include cutting transit commute times by 25%, curbing future carbon emissions, and generating between $269 million to $520 million in net economic benefits to the county. Operations will start in 2020; you can read a project overview here.

When service is frequent and reliable, riders choose the bus

Study after study has shown that providing quick, reliable, and frequent service is crucial to the success of any transit system. Montgomery’s BRT will run from 5 am to midnight seven days per week, have 7.5-minute peak frequencies and 15-minute off-peak frequencies, and include features like offboard fare payment. This robust service bodes well for the BRT ridership.

Recent bus rider surveys conducted by the Montgomery County Department of Transportation found that 70% of respondents would rather walk farther to access a bus that has frequent headways than have a close stop with longer waits.

Importantly, the most-cited barrier to increased transit usage was slow bus speeds. When pressed on ways to improve bus service, the most common response was “more service.”

BRT supporter at February "Better BRT" Hearing. Image by the author.

In fact, a recent WMATA staff report found that the most effective way to attract riders back to the Metrobus is by a series of service improvements, including dedicated bus lanes, all-door boarding, offboard fare payment, and increasing limited-stop service.

WMATA’s study found that for every 10% increase in average bus speeds on a corridor, ridership is expected to increase by 3.9% to 9.9%. Crucially, only 40% of the Route 29 BRT system is in dedicated lanes; increasing the amount of dedicated bus lanes could take this project from good to great.

Phase 2 of the Route 29 BRT project is being studied

While the current plans for a Route 29 BRT are a big improvement for transit in eastern Montgomery, only 40% 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, 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.

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.

Under the “Better BRT” plan, 90% 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.

Some backlash, but mostly support for the BRT plan

Some anti-BRT activists were not happy about the plan and tried to block it from happening. One activist even suggested that prioritizing this plan was hurting democracy.

However, transit supporters along the Route 29 corridor rallied to support the plan at a February council hearing. The president of United Food and Commercial Workers International (UFCW) 1994 Gino Renne, who represents thousands of Montgomery County union members, testified in support of the project.

Renne stated: “We have a lot of members that live in the east county and they rely on public transportation to get to work, take their kids to programs, so forth and so on. So it’s important and we enthusiastically support the enhancement of the public transit system. We believe however, if we have an opportunity to step back, take a fresh look at things, determine the most efficient way to do that we should take advantage of that opportunity. It’s my understanding money to conduct the study is already in the budget and so there’s really no reason not to do it.”

The council ended up supporting the Emerson/Smoot proposal, which is currently being evaluated. The results of the study are expected soon.

This groundbreaking is a big step forward

The Route 29 BRT comes to a corridor where bus trips can take 60% longer than car trips, and where half of households have one car or less. By investing in frequent service and dedicated lanes, Montgomery can ensure the system is successful.

In 2013 the Montgomery Council unanimously passed a plan for BRT, with the goal of bringing sustainable and efficient transit to all parts of the county. The BRT groundbreaking is a big step forward toward that goal.

Tagged: transit

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.