Montgomery County eyes Bus Rapid Transit as gridlock reducer

BETHESDA, Maryland (WUSA9)--Transit advocates and elected officials in Montgomery County say the status quo is unsustainable when it comes to traffic congestion. The roads are jammed today, and more people and jobs are expected to pour into a county whose population already tops one million. Residential development along major commuting corridors is underway.

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Their proposed solution is to build a network of express bus lanes, known as Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), an 80-mile system of dedicated bus lanes with traffic signal prioritization and off-board payment systems. The county is planning to construct seven lines to shuttle tens of thousands of suburban commuters to their jobs every rush hour.

Two lines totaling 33 miles are priorities: Rt. 355 to the Bethesda Metro Station and Rt. 29 to the Silver Spring Transit Center.

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The challenge lies in building dedicated bus lanes without worsening traffic in corridors where there is no room to expand the road, such as downtown Bethesda. By enticing single-occupant motorists to leave their cars at home and board a bus instead, the BRT system would flow unencumbered through consecutive green lights, completing the commute in a fraction of the usual time.

"Our goal is to relieve congestion, not create congestion, and you do that by having a first-class transit system," said County Council member Roger Berliner, a BRT supporter.

"The only way you do that is by having dedicated lanes. If a bus is sitting in traffic, no one is going to get on a bus."

The advocacy group Communities for Transit says commuters who use buses now would see significant time-savings once their buses are moving in dedicated lanes, not sharing lanes with everyone else.

For instance, a bus trip from Silver Spring to Rockville that takes 79 minutes today would take only 46 minutes in a BRT system. A transit trip from Wheaton to downtown Rockville would be trimmed from 31 to 24 minutes, the group said.

Still, motorists may have to be convinced that the bus will be a better choice, or if they choose to stay in their cars that the new bus-only lanes will not make their commutes even worse.

"As you can see there is already a lot of congestion as far as traffic goes and having only one or two lanes as opposed to three would be a little tougher," said one woman as she waited at a red light on Rt. 355 in downtown Bethesda Tuesday morning, a few blocks from the Bethesda Metro station.

Montgomery County's planned BRT network is three or four years from being realized. While the county currently is pursuing a $10 million study to determine how to reconfigure the proposed routes (curb lanes vs. median lanes, new lanes vs. repurposed lanes), funding for the buses, stops, and road infrastructure needs to be secured.

BRT has an estimated price tag of $15 million to $30 million per mile, significantly lower than the expense of heavy rail (Metro) of $300 million per mile. The county is eyeing a combination of tax revenues and contributions from real estate developers along the routes to pay for BRT.


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