Questions remain on bus-rapid transit in Montgomery Co.

SILVER SPRING, Md. — As the Purple Line gets closer to construction next year, transit advocates are pushing for a bus-rapid transit network to relieve congestion in Montgomery County.

The Coalition for Smarter Growth and Communities for Transit have released a guide that examines how other cities have successfully built such networks.

Montgomery County wants to build an 80-mile network; the first phase would be limited to Md. 355 (Wisconsin Avenue and Rockville Pike), U.S. 29 (Colesville Road and Columbia Pike) and Md. 586 (Veirs Mill Road).

The distinguishing characteristic of a bus-rapid transit system is the bus-only lane, where cars are not allowed to travel. Northern Virginia residents are familiar with this concept; the Crystal City-Potomac Yard Transitway provides similar benefits to local bus service.

“It can produce a 25 percent travel savings for commuters,” says Pete Tomao, of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. “Without other traffic, it can move much faster and reduce delays.”

Bus-rapid transit systems need a couple things to be successful. First, service needs to be predictable and reliable: Commuters are well aware of the regular delays on Metrorail and Metrobus.

“I think every Metrobus rider has experienced the phantom [ghost] bus on their WMATA app,” Tomao says. “That’s why making sure that you have frequent, reliable service is so important. You need to know buses are coming every five to 10 minutes.”

Second, bus-rapid transit systems should offer amenities to make the buses attractive — such as bike racks, Wi-Fi and outlets to charge smartphones and tablets. If the buses are comfortable and modern, people are more likely to give them a chance, Tomao says.

While some people would rather see new lanes everywhere, the biggest controversy has to do with the locations in Four Corners and Bethesda. In both places, there are proposals to take away a current lane for cars and re-purposing it for buses. The concept doesn’t sit well with many drivers.

The timetable is also unclear. For now, county transportation officials are focused on starting construction for the Purple Line. Once that’s off the ground, Montgomery County must decide what it wants to do with the Corridor Cities Transitway. The bus-rapid transit system is likely third on the county list, since it’s still in the early stages.

Money is another hurdle. Like the Purple Line and the Corridor Cities Transitway, the bus-rapid transit system would require state money and state approval, given that the routes would be on state roadways.

Some have privately suggested that while Gov. Larry Hogan supports the Purple Line, he’s unlikely to back any more major transit-based projects in Montgomery County. He prefers road projects to relieve congestion.

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