Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Council member's rapid bus system on transit table - Gazette

Plan touted as way of relieving county's most clogged roads

by Janel Davis | Staff Writer | Wednesday, Dec. 10, 2008

Some area officials seem to be warming to the possibility of a rapid bus system in the county as another method of relieving congestion on some of the county's most clogged roadways.

The brainchild of Councilman Marc Elrich, the bus service is being touted as a way to ease traffic, reduce pollution and alleviate budget demands.

The plan, which was first reported by The Gazette last month, would involve the use of upscale buses to run along county routes on dedicated bus lanes, or in medians, at speeds equivalent to trains.

To Elrich (D-At large) of Takoma Park, the rapid buses are beneficial for the environment, cost effective — they're less expensive than light-rail projects — and can begin using some of the county's newer energy-efficient buses. Under the plan, rapid bus service would run along Interstate 270, Route 29, Rockville Pike, and Connecticut and Georgia avenues.

Cost of the project would be between $6 million and $19 million a mile — depending on whether track can be laid down an existing median or shoulder or streets have to be retrofitted from curb to curb — Elrich said, roughly the midpoint when compared with similar systems worldwide.

"Employers want to guarantee that their employees can get to work. I look at this as a way for everyone, including developers and employers, to be at the table," Elrich said. "This is the kind of long-term investment that is needed."

To get — and keep — motorists out of their cars, Elrich is proposing parking caps to meet ridership goals.

In a region with one of the worst daily commutes in the country, there is always a need for additional transit, transportation officials and local leaders said.

"Bus rapid transit is very much a part of our rapid transit corridor studies in the county," said Henry Kay, deputy planning and engineering administrator for the Maryland Transit Administration.

MTA is currently working on possible alignments of the Purple Line, linking Bethesda and New Carrollton, as well as a Corridor Cities Transitway, from Shady Grove to Clarksburg. Rapid bus service is one of the possible alternatives that the administration is studying.

"I think we can conclude that it's an option that works in both corridors," Kay said. "However, we also have to look at environmental and community impacts and whether there is support from elected officials and others."

Rapid bus service already has the support of Del. Alfred C. Carr Jr. The Cleveland native rode that city's rapid buses during a trip home for Thanksgiving.

Cleveland began its rapid bus service in October. Cities including Boston; Charlotte, N.C.; Miami; Santa Clara, Calif., and Los Angeles also operate the service, as do London, Mexico and Brazil.

"The BRT idea is very cost effective compared to some of the other options," said Carr (D-Dist. 18) of Kensington. "It includes things such as smart traffic signals [allowing buses to continue through intersections], prepay stations. It's much more like transit."

To pay for the system, Elrich is reviewing a range of strategies, including impact fees that would go toward a dedicated rapid transit fund, taxing districts to pay for the routes in specific areas, carbon tax credits and state and federal funding. But with the county and state facing sizable deficits, and state transportation department funding down, some of the project might have to be funded privately.

The county's chamber of commerce is interested in protecting the state's Transportation Trust Fund and identifying other transportation funding, said Lisa Fadden, vice president of public affairs for the local chamber.

"We are interested in [Elrich's] proposal as a part of the solution to our ongoing transportation needs in Montgomery County," she said. "However, we believe that what is needed is a comprehensive, bimodal approach that includes both road and transit improvements."

With Elrich's plan, the "devil is in the details," said Councilwoman Nancy M. Floreen, chairwoman of the council's transportation committee.

The concept of busways throughout the county isn't new. The county has focused on road improvements because the vast majority of its residents don't use public transit, she said.

"The real issue is 80 percent of my people never take transit, and we have to respect that portion of the population," Floreen said.

Implementing busways could be done quickly by dedicating a lane on existing roads to it, she said, but operating costs could be tremendous if the service is extended to parts of the county where fewer people would use it, she said.

"You could do it in Silver Spring, Bethesda, Rockville, but once you deal with those densely populated places, you're then dealing with a different set of issues," Floreen said.

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