Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Transportation and Environment Committee Begins Review of Proposed Bus Rapid Transit System

The Montgomery County Council’s Transportation, Infrastructure, Energy and Environment (T and E) Committee has started its review of the Countywide Transit Corridors Functional Master Plan. The primary purpose of the master plan is to identify the specific lines and approximate station locations for the proposed bus rapid transit (BRT) lines within Montgomery County, as well as the minimum rights-of-way required for the segments in each line.

The T and E Committee, which is chaired by Roger Berliner and includes Councilmembers Nancy Floreen and Hans Riemer, held its first two of several worksessions on the plan on Oct. 7 and 14. The next worksessions are Oct. 25 and  29 and Nov. 1.

Bus Rapid Transit would be a public transportation network in which buses with modern designs run mainly in dedicated lines.

The County Planning Board is recommending a master-planned network of eight BRT lines, covering about 81 miles and 101 stations. Two of the corridors--Georgia Avenue and Maryland Route 355—are each split into two segments due to their length, so the Draft Plan presents the system as 10 corridors. The BRT network would be in addition to the Corridor Cities Transitway, a master-planned BRT line between Shady Grove and Clarksburg. This system is considerably pared down from the 160-mile network of exclusive bus lanes proposed by County Executive Isiah Leggett's Transit Task Force in May 2012.

Portions of three of these lines are already in master plans: Georgia Avenue North (Corridor 1) between Glenmont and Olney; Veirs Mill Road (Corridor 10) within Aspen Hill; and Maryland Route 355 South (Corridor 4) within White Flint.

The Georgia Avenue Busway and Veirs Mill Road BRT Line are in project planning by the Maryland Department of Transportation, funded with $5 million and $6 million, respectively, provided by the County. Project planning also is underway for the White Flint segment of Corridor 4, funded as part of the White Flint District West Transportation project.

Fundamentally, the Master Plan should make three types of recommendations for each corridor: the route; the general location of stations; and the minimum right-of-way needed. Even those recommendations will be considered as guides rather than prescriptions. A subsequent project planning study could likely indicate that a given route be diverted slightly to serve a major destination.

The transit corridors master plan also proposes establishment of several Bicycle-Pedestrian Priority Areas and the addition of a third track on the CSX Metropolitan Branch between Metropolitan Grove and Frederick County to allow for the potential for MARC rail service during other than weekday peak periods.
Prior to the start of the T and E Committee’s first worksession, Committee Chair Berliner made the following statement:

“This morning, our Committee begins its review of the Draft Countywide Transit Corridors Functional Master Plan recommended by our Planning Board.

It is as ambitious as it is necessary.  It would create, if all 81 miles along eight corridors were constructed, the most extensive rapid transit system in the country. For a community that has suffered through decades of some of the worst traffic congestion in the nation—traffic that is projected to only get worse not better—rapid transit is considered by our planners, the County Executive and the County Executive's Transit Task Force, to be our most promising, cost-effective option. Doing nothing is not an option.  Just imagine what it would be like—and what the benefits to our community would be—if we were able to describe Montgomery County as having the finest transit system in the county instead of the worst traffic

And it isn't as though we just thought of this yesterday. As Dr. Orlin's packet observes, portions of three of the eight corridors—Georgia Avenue, Viers Mill and Rockville Pike—are already master planned for rapid transit and more than $10 million of County dollars has been allocated for that purpose.      
That said, at the heart of this plan and our future work—and I stress the phrase "future work"—is a critically important, yet simple, concept. The concept is that, in using our scarce public resources—our roadways—we must prioritize moving people, not cars.  It is a ‘People First Plan’ in effect.

Like all of my colleagues, I heard both much praise and many concerns expressed during our two full nights of public hearings on this plan. And as a District Councilmember, I listened very carefully to the concerns articulated by my constituents, too.  But as I said at the beginning of those hearings, and as I repeat this morning, almost all of the concerns that have been expressed anticipate decisions that are not being made now, and will only be made after extensive study, public comment and future action by the County Council.

It is understandable why the community has these concerns. The Planning Board document "recommends" various treatments in addition to the right of way decisions, including dual dedicated lanes in the median, some single dedicated lanes in the median, some dedicated curb lanes, some repurposed lanes, and some mixed traffic.

We are not taking up those recommendations in this plan. In this plan, those recommendations will have the equivalent of an asterisk that makes it clear those are the Planning Board's recommendations, not our conclusions.  Those decisions will be left for a future Council after much more work is done by both the Planning Board and our Department of Transportation.

The Planning Board itself—and the plan before us—recognizes that it too has more work to do. For this network to achieve its goal, we must ensure that it performs well, and for that to occur, we need performance standards.  As the draft states on Page 63, "the Subdivision Staging Policy should be amended to incorporate standards for transit service in the recommended BRT network area that are consistent with the minimum level of service that would be provided by this Plan's recommendations.”

DOT has much work to do as well.  Before any treatment is ultimately selected, we will need to know what impact it has on traffic generally, as well as on specific corridors, and we should make sure that we understand the impact on surrounding neighborhoods.

All of this detailed work will be done before a future Council decides exactly how and where rapid transit will be employed in our County. What we have before us now is a necessary predicate to doing that detailed analysis. In that regard, it is no different than what we have done for major roads in our County forever, many of which, like M-83, have been in our master plans for years, and then studied and given more precise cost estimates. And yet, no decision has been made on that project or many like it.
Our Committee's plan for addressing the issues that are before us—rights of way, general station locations and the corridors themselves, as well as any issues my colleagues raise—is to have a day of big picture discussion, then have three worksessions on groups of corridors, leaving one additional session for follow-up items.

We have asked the Planning Board to present its work, and for both the Executive Branch and the Transit Task Force to offer its guidance to begin this important discussion.”  

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