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Votes

Reacting to Countywide Transit Corridors

On Friday [July 26], the Planning Board sent to our council its 130-page recommendations regarding the proposed bus rapid transit (BRT) system. It is recommending a network of 81 miles along 10 specific corridors — (1) Georgia Avenue North; (2) Georgia Avenue South; (3) MD 355 North; MD 355 South; (5) New Hampshire Avenue; (6) North Bethesda Transitway; (7) Randolph Road; (8) University Boulevard; (9) US 29; and (10) Veirs Mill Road.

Our Council will hold a public hearing on these recommendations on the evening of Sept. 24. The public hearing had originally been scheduled for Sept. 10, but I felt that such an early date did not give our community enough time to absorb this important document and its recommendations, and the Council President agreed. So we were able to push it back two weeks. After that, the committee I chair, the Transportation, Infrastructure, Energy & Environment Committee, will hold a series of work sessions in October. The goal is to get this before the full Council before the end of the year.

While I am sure many of you will read the entire document, I am going to try my best to summarize here what the Planning Board is proposing. Hopefully, I will do it justice and provide a service to you.

But first — context. This "functional plan" does not in and of itself do anything. What it does do is give the County the legal basis for using, and where appropriate, acquiring rights of way for the purpose of accommodating BRT. As such, it is a predicate to being able to do anything in this realm. Much more work and detailed analysis will be done on this system as we move forward, work that the public will be fully engaged in, before our County commits to a specific plan along a specific road.

With that in mind, here is my cut at a summary of the Planning Board's recommendations:

  • This is a "functional" plan. A functional plan gives the legal basis for acquiring the rights of way to accommodate the desired service. The focus of the plan is to identify the corridors needed for a BRT network and the rights of way in those corridors needed for the level of service deemed appropriate.

  • The predicate to the plan is that between now and 2040, our typical planning horizon, traffic is going to get much worse. And it already is the worst in the nation.

  • Making more efficient use of our existing rights-of-way is our best option in response to increased traffic congestion.

  • Concurrently, we need to redefine our transportation metrics from how many cars get through a particular intersection to "person-throughput: providing as many people as possible with reliable travel options along our major transportation corridors; where feasible, providing a travel advantage to those who use transit; and reducing the growth of traffic congestion into the future."

  • Frequent, reliable transit service requires a network of dedicated lanes. Dedicated lanes can be achieved by either expanding the right of way or by repurposing existing lanes.

  • The Plan identifies three different types of BRT transit corridors: (1) Activity Center Corridors that connect multiple dense mixed-use areas; (2) Express Corridors that connect commuters at park and ride lots to employment centers; and (3) Commuter Corridors that connect moderate density residential areas to employment centers.

  • The Planning Board recommends giving first priority to the corridors with the highest ridership potential, which the Board believes to be the southern segments of the US 29 and New Hampshire Ave corridors plus MD 355.

  • The final rights-of-way will be determined during facility planning and design for individual corridors. Costs will be determined then as well and there will be opportunity for community input.

  • There are other communities that have successfully implemented BRT systems, including Eugene, Oregon and Cleveland, Ohio. In Cleveland, ridership increased 50 percent on what had been the most heavily used regular bus route.

  • Why BRT? It can be implemented faster, cheaper, and more flexibly than light rail. It can be implemented in phases, matching both demand and availability of capital. And it provides "a fast, convenient, reliable alternative to the single-occupant vehicle and increasingly congested roads." BRT also helps the County achieve its greenhouse gas emission goals — it could eliminate as much as 44,000 metric tons a year.

  • BRT will serve as a feeder to Metro and MARC stations, while local bus service will feed into BRT.

  • One-half of the forecasted BRT patrons are expected to be new transit riders.

  • The corridor treatments recommended "are tailored to reflect the specific conditions for each corridor segment and include the following decisions: (1) are dedicated lanes warranted; (2) should the dedicated lanes be at the curb or in the median; (3) can existing travel lanes be repurposed as dedicated bus lanes; (4) what segments of the recommended transit network can be implemented without adversely affecting current planned land use or general traffic operations."

  • Dedicated lanes are warranted where there are forecasts for 1,000 passengers (combined BRT and local bus ridership) during the peak hour moving in the peak direction.

  • Using the median for dedicated lanes provides the highest level of BRT accommodation. By definition, they are exclusive lanes. They are warranted in the eyes of the Planning Board where ridership is forecast to be very high, between 1,500 and 1,700 peak passengers.

  • Dedicated curb lanes are more appropriate for lower levels of ridership.

  • The Planning Board is not recommending adding much right of way because of the obvious constraints (homes, businesses, etc.). "Lane-repurposing designating an existing travel lane for bus use only — provides the most efficient use of available transportation facilities."

  • The Planning Board is recommending the following standard to determine where lanes should be repurposed: "lane repurposing is recommended where the number of forecast transit riders exceeds the general purpose land capacity and/or where general traffic demand would not exceed capacity."

  • The Planning Board recognizes that lane repurposing may have an impact on traffic. Accordingly, "where lane repurposing is recommended, a thorough traffic analysis should be performed as part of facility planning to identify what transportation improvements could be implemented to mitigate the impacts of lane repurposing ...."

  • "The transportation modeling performed for this Plan forecasts an overall improvement in traffic speeds with the introduction of BRT over the no-build condition (doing nothing)."

  • For each of the 10 corridors identified at the top of this summary, there are a wide variety of "treatments" (designs) recommended. In some instances, where ridership is expected to be very high, two dedicated lanes in the median are recommended. That is what the Planning Board recommends for portions of the 355 corridor, where the Planning Board forecasts the highest peak and all-day ridership numbers. At the other extreme, where either the ridership numbers are not high enough to justify dedicated lanes or where rights of way are simply not available, BRT would run in mixed use traffic.

  • While as chairman of our Transportation Committee I will be focused on each and every corridor, I am also a district councilmember and therefore pay an extra dollop of attention to what is proposed for the community I represent. Here is what the Planning Board proposes for our (District 1) community:

  • Obviously, the big deal for our community is 355, where ridership is expected to be the highest and where the proposed treatment — two lanes in the median to Bradley — is the most supportive of BRT. From Hoya Street to Grosvenor Lane, that would mean six lanes for traffic plus two bus lanes. From Grosvenor Lane to Bradley, that would mean four lanes for cars and two lanes for BRT.

  • From Bradley to Western Ave., the Planning Board is recommending using dedicated curb lanes for BRT, which would mean two lanes each way for general purpose traffic and a dedicated bus lane on the curb. That treatment is proposed all the way to Bradley Blvd. Curb lane treatment permits cars from the adjoining neighborhoods to pull into that lane to enter Wisconsin Ave.

  • The other transit corridor in District 1 that is proposed for BRT treatment was master planned in 1992 and named the North Bethesda Transitway. The Planning Board is recommending that this corridor should now start at the White Flint Metrorail Station and end at Westlake Terrace near Montgomery Mall, running down Old Georgetown to Rockspring Drive using a reversible one-lane median transitway, and then from Rockspring to Fernwood Road and Westlake using a two-lane running transitway.

I have no doubt that these proposals — within District 1 and beyond — will generate considerable discussion. What is proposed by the Planning Board, and what was recommended by the County Executive's Rapid Transit Task Force, represents a very significant shift in how we use our limited road capacity. Whenever there is limited capacity, the choice of how to use that capacity can create conflicts. That is true here for sure where traffic congestion is — and has been for far too long — a serious impediment to the quality of life we desire. How we resolve those conflicts will define our community for years to come.