Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 8, 2008; B01
Montgomery County Council member Marc Elrich thinks he might have found a way to let the suburbs grow without putting more cars on the roads: Build a rapid bus system that can speed past traffic.
If his efforts succeed, Montgomery could become a leader in the region and one of only a dozen or so jurisdictions in the nation to embrace the low-polluting, high-end bus systems that can move thousands of riders at fairly high speeds, often in their own lanes.
"The county ought to think about calling a halt to building roads for five years, building a transit system and then seeing what else you need," said Elrich (D-At Large). "Now, we identify a traffic problem and our first instinct is to add lanes to fix it. We never have the money to do a transit project."
Elrich has been talking up rapid buses with developers, lawyers, lawmakers, regulators and community groups. He said he hopes to organize a meeting with regional transit officials soon.
Rapid buses, sleek vehicles that look like trams or light-rail cars, run on alternative fuels and can include comfortable seating, WiFi, multiple doors and cashless fares. They operate in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami and Pittsburgh, among other cities. They are planned for a dozen other jurisdictions, including New York, Atlanta, Albany, N.Y., and Hartford, Conn. Rapid buses are used in Australia, China, England, France and South America.
Elrich's plans for higher-end buses would add more east-west lines to parallel the proposed Purple Line, under discussion by officials as a bus or light-rail link between New Carrollton in Prince George's County and Bethesda. His proposed north-south bus routes would run along Route 29, parts of Connecticut Avenue, Georgia Avenue, Rockville Pike and Interstate 270.
Esther Bowring, a spokeswoman for Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D), said the county is interested in Elrich's ideas.
"We have an overall commitment to really try to expand transit, to make it easier and more convenient for everyone," she said.
In the next decade, thousands more people are expected to move into Montgomery, pushing the county's population to more than 1 million. Despite expected increases in housing density that will make parts of the county look like small cities, there is little urban-style infrastructure, such as sidewalks or closely spaced Metro stops. Many residents get in their cars for the shortest of trips.
A rapid bus system may be the cheapest and quickest way to add seats for new riders, said Lurae Stuart, a bus expert at the American Public Transportation Association. "It is flexible, too. You can do something very low-cost and then move up the scale."
Rapid buses can run on paved medians, or special bus guideways, without competing with car traffic. The buses often are longer and more luxurious than standard Metrobuses. They use magnetized fare card systems and often have station stops that look like rail stops.
"It is what a real transit system in a real city would do," Elrich said.
Cost is always a concern, but Metro senior planner Jim Hughes said that over time, faster bus systems could boost revenue and increase efficiency. Metro officials want to add about 20 express bus routes in the next seven years across the region to the four it has. In Montgomery, possible routes are Veirs Mill Road and Georgia Avenue.
The opportunities for speedy travel by transit are now limited in Montgomery to Metro's Red Line, which runs on a north-south axis with long spans between stops. The Red Line requires riders to travel south to the District to move east-west in the county.
Elrich said that a rapid bus system could help fill those gaps and would be more appealing to riders than the slow-moving, county-run RideOn system of small buses or the larger Metrobuses that also cover substantial distances and make multiple stops.
Rapid bus systems are less expensive to build than rail, with some estimates saying rail is twice as costly. Light-rail operating costs can be cheaper, however, because more drivers per passenger are needed for rapid buses.
Elrich said it costs about $20,000 per bus to attach guide wheels that allow the buses to run on their own roadways while also enabling them to ride on regular streets when necessary. The overall cost to build the system varies, but a high-end estimate is $20 million a mile.
A bus system using clean fuel also has the potential to improve air quality, meeting another challenge for the region.
Elrich said that although he is pushing rapid buses, he's not trying to take sides in the debate over which system should be used for the Purple Line, where the debate is among light rail, bus and subway.
But he said a rapid bus line could be put in place more quickly and replaced more easily on the Purple Line with rail if policymakers so choose.
Jerry Pasternak, who was a top aide to county executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) and is now a lobbyist, lauded Elrich's concept but said it faces many hurdles.
"You have to line up so many other pieces of this puzzle. Is there a commitment from the state, [Metro], the council, the executive? Everybody has to line up behind it."
Riders also need incentives to use it, he said.
"If you want to get people out of their cars, you have to make the buses convenient, reliable and free. There is no reason why it should cost me more to take the Metro into D.C. than it takes me to drive and park," he said.
Figuring out who will fund the system is also a challenge, Pasternak said.
"If developers get added density, height and are able to make a profit, they will participate and pay a fair share of the cost. If this is another extraction from developers, there will be no reason for them to buy into it," he said.
County Council member Valerie Ervin (D-Silver Spring), a longtime Purple Line proponent, said she supports rapid bus transit as long as it doesn't replace the prospect of light rail in many of the communities she represents.
She said ridership studies show that poor or working-class residents ride buses in Montgomery and that more affluent riders shy away. Despite light rail's high upfront cost, she said it ultimately would bring more riders, reduce traffic and limit pollution from cars and buses in poorer communities.
"We have to make the hard decisions now. Our grandchildren will appreciate it," she said.
Elrich said he hopes to tap into impact taxes that developers pay to fund the bus system.
He is also examining caps on parking, something Boston did more than two decades ago. That pushed riders to public transit and has improved air quality, studies show.
"We need to figure out what would work here at a cost that we can afford to build," Elrich said. "Don't start out way over your head."