Mockup of the Flash bus rapid transit by MCDOT.

On July 30, the Montgomery County Council advanced two long-awaited Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) projects on Route 355 and Veirs Mill Road to the next stage of engineering. However, the Council put off selecting a preferred design for BRT on Route 355, and it’s not clear when it will decide.

Instead of choosing a design, the Montgomery County Department of Transportation plans to ask the private sector for recommendations for Route 355 BRT. Verbally though, staff indicated that their focus will be on dedicated median BRT lanes, which are considered the highest standard for this type of bus project.

MD-355 BRT project plan. Image from Montgomery County Department of Transportation.

Background on Montgomery County’s BRT plans

Veirs Mill and Route 355 (part of which includes Rockville Pike) are two of three priority corridors for Montgomery County’s planned 82-mile BRT network, passed in 2013 with the support of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, Sierra Club, and other community members. The first BRT line along the Route 29 corridor is currently under construction. BRT is expected to cut transit commute times, decrease carbon emissions, improve social mobility, and spur economic development.

Route 355 runs north-to-south from Wisconsin Avenue in Bethesda to Frederick. The proposed BRT route would run 22 miles from downtown Bethesda to Clarksburg, and offer more frequent, reliable, comfortable, and convenient service than local bus routes. Station features will include real-time transit information and level boarding which makes things easier for people with mobility challenges, as well as real-time off-board fare payment and all-door boarding which speed up travel.

Veirs Mill cuts east-west from Wheaton to Rockville, and current bus routes along the corridor have some of the highest ridership of any bus line in Maryland. The preferred design for Veirs Mill BRT was selected in June 2017. The design would create queue jumps at 12 BRT stops between Rockville and Wheaton.

Last year, the county approved $3 million for preliminary engineering and $4 million for the final design of the Veirs Mill preferred concept. That funding was scheduled to go into effect in July 2022, five years after the preferred design was selected. Councilmember Hans Riemer recommended a faster schedule, which is why funding for Veirs Mill’s next stage was moved to this summer.

What were the design options for Route 355?

The BRT design options for the Route 355 BRT included:

  • Alternative A, which would put BRT vehicles in mixed traffic;
  • Alternative B and B Modified, which is primarily dedicated median BRT lanes; and
  • Alternative C, which is primarily dedicated curb BRT lanes.

Alternative B street section for MD-355 BRT. Image from Montgomery County Department of Transportation.

Alternative C street section for MD-355 BRT. Image from Montgomery County Department of Transportation.

Dedicated median lanes are considered the highest standard for BRT, producing better frequency and reliability, which translates into higher ridership. Curb lanes, although dedicated, run a higher risk of other vehicles using the lane for right turns, which slows and delays buses.

Alternatives A and B put BRT in mixed traffic in Clarksburg and Bethesda. Alternative C includes one curb BRT lane, peak direction only, in Bethesda. Both the Planning Board and Coalition for Smarter Growth have recommended dedicated BRT lanes in downtown Bethesda, in addition to dedicated median lanes throughout the rest of the corridor.

Neither Alternative B nor C includes fully built-out median or curb lanes due to right of way considerations. Median lanes require more widening compared to curb lanes, so Alternative B Modified was created to anticipate some of the right of way challenges in Gaithersburg, Rockville, and Germantown. Instead of two median BRT lanes, there would be one median BRT lane that is either reversible or operates in the peak direction only.

Alternative B has the most benefits, but biggest cost

Alternative B wins out on ridership, reliability, and time savings. Alternatives B and B Modified would produce the highest ridership at 9.28 million annual riders, followed by Alternative C at 8.63 million and Alternative A at 7.74 million. Due to its physical separation from traffic, buses in Alternative B would be on-time 87-96% of the time, compared to 83-93% of the time in Alternative C.

However, Alternative B has the highest right of way needs and, subsequently, cost. Alternative B requires 61 acres and Alternative B Modified requires 54 acres. In comparison, Alternative C and A require 39 and 13 acres, respectively. All of the designs fit into the Master Plan right of way, but much of that right of way is not currently available, and not likely to be any time soon.

The needed right of way can be acquired as properties come up for redevelopment, but many property owners – especially those in the Pike District where right of way acquisition costs are highest – aren’t willing to redevelop until BRT is in place. To entice property owners to redevelop, the Planning Board recommends interim streetscape improvements. But will that be enough?

Another way to get around property acquisition costs would be to convert general purpose traffic lanes to BRT lanes, rather than expand the highway. This should be seriously considered because it would speed implementation, cost less, and reduce the future Route 355 crossing distances for pedestrians.

In all, it is estimated that Alternative B would cost $886 million, followed by Alternative B Modified at $820 million, Alternative C at $534 million, and Alternative A at $184 million. Given the concerns about the accuracy of Alternative C’s ridership projects, it could be likely that Alternative B is more cost effective per rider than Alternative C.

Advocates support dedicated BRT lanes, so what happened?

At a hearing on July 16, the public was clear in its support for both Veirs Mill and Route 355 BRT, and for the Route 355 BRT to run in bus-only lanes. Those who made technical recommendations were in favor of two dedicated median BRT lanes, wherever feasible. Survey results from outreach events also confirmed the community’s interest in dedicated lanes.

Dedicated median lanes found support from the Planning Board and the City of Rockville. The City of Gaithersburg supported dedicated curb lanes.

County Executive Marc Elrich wasn’t prepared to recommend a preferred alternative and asked MCDOT staff to solicit the private sector’s opinions on improving travel times, ridership, and reliability, as well as construction best practices and potential public-private business models.

MCDOT agreed and requested that the Council not choose a preferred alternative for Route 355 BRT this summer. Instead, the next stage of engineering would focus on major risk factors and physical design.

Chris Conklin, MCDOT Deputy Director for Transportation Policy, confirmed that the agency is “working in the direction of thinking Alternative B is the one that should be the basis for further exploration.”

In the end, the Council concurred with the executive branch and did not choose an alternative. The request for information is expected to go out later this summer, and responses are expected by the fall.

What’s next for BRT on Route 355?

It’s unclear. There are still many questions that need to be answered. What will the private sector have to say? Will the preliminary engineering process remain transparent and accountable without a recommendation from the Council? When will the Council have a chance to ultimately select a preferred alternative?

This stage of engineering for Route 355’s BRT is estimated to take three years.

Meanwhile, transportation is the number one source of emissions in Maryland, and the environmental impact of transportation will only be worsened if Governor Larry Hogan’s highway widening proposals come to fruition. We need to be shifting away from highway expansion and moving towards growing transit through projects like Montgomery County’s BRT network.

Jane Lyons is the Maryland Advocacy Manager at the Coalition for Smarter Growth, where she works to build coalitions that support smart growth policies in Montgomery and Prince George's Counties. She recently graduated with a Master of Public Policy from the University of Maryland and enjoys biking the Trolley Trail near her home in College Park.