Activists say transit priority essential to traffic relief

As Montgomery County planners tweak wording in a draft transit master plan, some activists say prioritizing the 10 corridors and 79 miles of proposed future bus rapid transit is essential to easing traffic gridlock.

The county’s planning board on March 18 rejected the first draft of the Countywide Transit Corridors Functional Master Plan, sending it back to the staff to soften language and explain why the plan recommends giving transit priority over cars and drivers.

The planning board is scheduled to discuss the updated draft at 9 a.m. April 4.

Action Committee for Transit President Tina Slater expressed disappointment that debate over transit priority has delayed the plan’s progress, even if only for a few weeks.

Unlike the county’s Ride On bus system, which is mired in the same traffic that gridlocks cars, BRT will give residents an option they never have had before by moving riders more rapidly in dedicated lanes, she said.

The population of Montgomery is expected to increase by 205,759 people by 2040, according to a Montgomery County Demographic and Travel Forecast, based on a 2012 Metropolitan Washington Council of Government report. Slater questioned how even more residents will get around if the county does not prioritize transit.

“We are going to have a major transportation problem on our hands if we don’t do something now,” she said.

Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, saw the planning board’s delay as doing its homework to ensure the right routes and dedicated service are recommended.

However, Schwartz said his organization feels there are more corridors poised for dedicated lane service than the staff recommended.

During the discussion on March 18, Planning Commission Chairwoman Francoise M. Carrier said she quarreled with the plan’s “categorical statements that transit gets priority all the time everywhere.”

Carrier argued that any priority should be expressed in more nuanced language.

Acting Planning Director Rose Krasnow said that under the existing procedure, roads get priority, all the time, everywhere, which has greatly harmed the quality of life.

Planning Board Commissioner Casey Anderson cautioned watering down the language.

If the board were discussing a rail line, it would not debate whether it was fair to give it priority over other traffic, he said.

But both the problem and advantage of BRT is that it can operate in a myriad of ways — dedicated lanes, dedicated right-of-way, mixed in traffic, etc. — depending on where it is built.

“And that’s great because it’s very flexible,” Anderson said. “The problem is, whatever is in this plan then gets negotiated down from there. And so this is the high-water mark. If you don’t put it in the plan now, it’s not going to get better for transit, it’s only going to degrade.”

Dedicated lanes, signal priority and queue jumping are proven approaches to bus transit and are being implemented in Montgomery by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority with its MetroExtra limited stop bus service, Schwartz said.

About 700 people ride MetroExtra every day on its route on New Hampshire Avenue, and more routes are planned.

“There’s no better option to manage growth in traffic while maintaining economic competitiveness than investing in dedicated lane transit and transit-oriented communities,” Schwartz said.

Historically, the county approach to traffic congestion was to widen roads.

Yet, many routes proposed in the draft transit master plan cannot be widened, Slater said.

“The only thing you are left to do if the road is as wide as it is today, and you are trying to stuff more people down it, is to put people on something that can move more people than a car,” she said.

But to give BRT dedicated lanes north of the Beltway only to let it snarl in the urban traffic for fear that taking a lane could worsen congestion for the cars would defeat BRT’s purpose, she said.

Once built as planned, BRT will be its own advertisement, Slater said.

Drivers sitting in traffic who see buses bypassing the gridlock will consider taking a bus to get to their destination more quickly, she said.

Reduced from the 160-mile network of 20 corridors recommended last May by the Transit Task Force, planning staff have proposed a 79-mile network of 10 corridors, including U.S. 355 north and south, Georgia Avenue north and south, U.S. 29, Veirs Mill Road, Randolph Road, New Hampshire Avenue, University Boulevard and the North Bethesda Transitway.

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