TRANSPORTATION: Bus Rapid Transit revving up in Montgomery County

by Greg Kohn

A plan to add special lanes to major roads for fast-traveling buses, hailed by supporters as one solution to traffic congestion in Montgomery County, took a step closer to reality with the announcement of a $260,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation on November 21.

The money will expedite studies that the County Executive’s Transit Task Force needs to prepare its report for “Bus Rapid Transit” (BRT), an innovative idea to increase bus speed by giving buses priority at stoplights and using designated lanes built into the median or onto the flank of thruways.

BRT would provide all the benefits of a light rail system – such as the long-delayed Purple Line – at just a “fraction” of the cost, according to Mark Winston, the leader of the task force.

Because there is no need to construct rails, the system is more affordable, said County Councilmember Marc Elrich of Takoma Park, who was the first to propose a BRT system for the region. “BRT offers more bang for your buck,” he said. “I’d support light rail if I could, but there’s just no money for that. This gets the job done by being realistic, not perfect.”

“We could be the first county to build a comprehensive transportation system: 150 miles of interconnected transit lanes, connecting all of the science centers in Montgomery County.” — Councilmember Marc Elrich

A study conducted by Parsons Brinckerhoff, a global firm that consults on the implementation of infrastructure, the creation of the grandest version of BRT would cost between $2.3 billion and $2.5 billion. This version would cover nearly 150 miles, putting the cost-per-mile at roughly $17 million. Estimated cost-per-mile of the Purple Line, on the other hand, is about $120 million, according to Maryland transportation officials.

Despite how inexpensive the BRT looks in comparison to light rail, however, there is still skepticism about how the county would fund it. “I really like the idea, but I don’t yet see how we would pay for it,” said County Councilmember George Leventhal, also of Takoma Park.

After construction, the county would face annual operating and maintenance costs between $150 million and $180 million, only recovering at most 33 percent of that from fares, according to the same Brinckerhoff study. In the worst projected case, the county would face a $135 million deficit every year.

Figuring out financial options for the BRT is one of the challenges the taskforce aims to address by the end of February, according to Winston.  He declined to comment on whether he favors reallocating county funds or increasing taxes. “Many in the community have made the judgment that we can’t afford to implement BRT,” he said. “I’m of the opinion that we can’t afford not to.”

Councilmember Roger Berliner, the chair of the Transportation Committee and a member of the taskforce, shares the same sentiment. “The things most important in our community – quality of life, increasing our economic base, a strong environmental and energy ethic – are all promoted by rapid transit,” Berliner said. “No single other act we could take accomplishes so much.”

Supporters of the BRT system hope to capitalize on a rare consensus across various groups to solve the transit problem. “People interested in environmental issues, quality of life issues, and economic development frequently have little in common,” Winston said. “But they all recognize the centrality of solving our transportation problem when dealing with those issues.”

But BRT faces another very real obstacle in addition to funding: the perception among affluent Americans that riding buses is socially unacceptable.

“The question is will members of the upper class ride the bus to work?” said John Townsend, the manager of public and government affairs for the AAA Washington office. “There is something uniquely American about being the lone ranger in a car by yourself. We feel a sense of security and sense of status.”

However, if there was a wealthy region most likely to try something new, Townsend said, Montgomery County would be it. “There’s a laid back suburban approach here and, frankly, people are fed up being in traffic,” he said. “It’s just a matter of how the county sells it and how appealing they make it seem.”

Eric Randall, a senior transportation engineer at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, also stressed the importance of branding. “If the BRT vehicles are introduced with proper cleanliness and branded as a premium service, that’d go a long ways,” he said. “Then you can advertise the concrete improvements offered by the bus system over driving.”

The biggest such improvement would be travel time.  BRT vehicles could average 25 mph during the entirety of a trip, compared to 14 mph for cars, Randall said. However, he pointed out these advantages are the result of a tradeoff decision the county must make, where it gives the buses priority at lights and adds further delays to cars and trucks.

“Once the bus is faster than the car, there will be a massive shift in ridership,” Randall said. “Then if parking costs and oil prices go up while the bus fare stays relatively stable, there’s even more shift.”

“I mean, I wish I had something to get me out of my car,” Townsend quipped.