ROCKVILLE, Md. —
The official kickoff to Montgomery County's BRT discussion was punctuated by worry and hope -- and was underscored by the sense that the densely populated county is at the transportation crossroads.
A coalition of 32 groups representing civic associations, environmental activists, smart growth advocates, and real estate developers testified in favor of constructing an 80-mile bus rapid transit (BRT) network in Montgomery County, Maryland over the next decade during the first public hearing held on the issue by the County Council Tuesday night.
The hearing kicked off what will be a months-long public process culminating in county legislators deciding whether to build what observers say is the most cost-effective way to cope with traffic. Montgomery County’s population –already bulging at one million people in 500 square miles– is expected to grow substantially.
“Our task force recommended a 160-mile system. An [80-mile] system is a good start. We hope it gets fully implemented and when it is successful the county will add additional corridors,” said Mark Winston, the chair of county executive Ike Leggett’s transit task force and chairman of the group Communities For Transit.
While building heavy Metro rail costs hundreds of millions per mile (see: Silver Line; 23 miles, $6B) or a light rail system costs tens of millions per mile (see: Purple Line; 16 miles, $2.2B), bus rapid transit is relatively cheap. Winston estimates the county’s BRT network could run $15 to $25 million per mile in capital costs. During the hearing, however, a representative of Executive Leggett’s office was unable to provide a cost estimate.
The BRT network will require building new lanes for buses as well as re-purposing existing car lanes with traffic signal prioritization, otherwise the express buses would just sit in traffic with everyone else.
“Dedicated lanes allow for the fastest, more reliable service and the most effective alternative to sitting in traffic,” said Stewart Schwartz, the executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, who said the region is at a “crossroads” when it comes to dealing with growth, congestion, and climate change.
“On a day to day basis our suburban transportation networks are in gridlock due to the pattern of development and lack of adequate transit options. With expected population growth, conditions will get worse unless we change course,” Schwartz said in his testimony.
Several opponents of the BRT network raised a range of issues in their testimony: whether the county would displace homes and businesses to clear the way for the bus lanes, the unknown cost of construction, and whether it's fair to take away car lanes.
“It won't reduce crime. It won't increase employment. It won't lessen the effects of global warming. It won't promote gay marriage and it most assuredly will not reduce traffic congestion,” said Silver Spring resident James Williamson, sarcastically mocking supporters’ claims about the benefits of BRT.
Paula Bienenfeld of North Bethesda Neighborhoods said the county is aiming to displace thousands of homeowners and businesses to acquire right-of-way for the bus lanes and stations.
“We have learned that over 3,000 properties have already been assessed for taking along Colesville Road, New Hampshire Avenue, Rockville Pike and Georgia Avenue,” she said. “All will be cleared wholesale if you approve this plan.”
Her claim was strongly dismissed by County Councilman Marc Elrich, who said no decisions about right-of-way or eminent domain have been made.
“Nothing is going to be taken and nothing is going to be done until we get down to the level of looking at every single route,” said Elrich as Bienenfeld repeatedly tried to interrupt him.
“You need to listen because you had your chance to speak and I want to be clear from my end so people can hear a different perspective,” Elrich said to Bienenfeld. “I’m probably on the minimalist side of taking right of way… repurposing lanes and minimizing any intrusion on residential communities.”
The council has scheduled the first of several work sessions Oct. 7. The public process is expected to take months with a vote possible by the end of the year.
Because of the excessive cost and impracticality of building heavy underground rail throughout the suburbs, BRT is emerging as a preferred alternative. Alexandria is constructing a BRT network which is set to open in 2014 consisting of a new median bus lane along most of the route and repurposed curb lanes within Crystal City. Other major cities are pursuing BRT; Cleveland, Oakland, and Los Angeles have decided to dedicate general traffic lanes just to transit.