Transit Controversies Heating Up
by Larry Dickter, SFCCA Vice-President
Posted August 30, 2017
Declaring it an “elegant” proposal, Montgomery County Council President Roger Berliner, along with others, is enthusiastically promoting a proposal to run a dedicated busway down the median of Colesville Road (Route 29) straight through the Four Corners intersection. What Berliner is calling an “elegant” proposal, others are calling a “zombie” proposal, one that has been studied previously and rejected for Route 29, as well as for other heavily traveled County roads such as Rockville Pike and Georgia Avenue.
Nevertheless, the County Council is poised to pay for yet another study that some members, including Berliner, are undoubtedly hoping will validate their enthusiasm for the busway proposal.
Those of us who live along the Route 29 Corridor know from personal experience how congested and dangerous the roadways leading into and through Four Corners are. In order to create the room to run a busway through the intersection without eliminating an existing travel lane, each of those existing lanes would have to be reduced from 12 to 10 feet. Berliner and other busway advocates, insist that can be done without adversely affecting roadway safety.
On the other hand, if one takes into account the increasing number of larger vehicles (trucks and SUVs are currently outpacing car sales) and oversized loads traveling our highways today, it may be that narrowing existing lanes is just asking for more accidents.
In addition to roadway safety issues, the busway proposal being pushed by Berliner and others would profoundly impact traffic patterns leading into and around our neighborhood. For instance, left hand turns to and from non-signalized intersections (like Lanark Way) between Sligo Creek Parkway and New Hampshire Avenue would be eliminated.
And to make matters even worse, left turns from University Boulevard onto northbound and southbound Colesville Road would also be eliminated. Instead, motorists would have to take what is called a “Michigan Left” by overshooting the intersection, going through a u-turn lane, and coming back to the intersection from the opposite direction before turning right. This confusing maneuver is also known as a “Michigan Loon,” Northern Michigan’s iconic bird notable for its violent mating dances and eerie wail.
The reason for all of this is to make way for Montgomery County’s “Bus Rapid Transit” (BRT) route along the Route 29 corridor, which is being designed not to relieve traffic congestion, but (as some County officials are candidly admitting) primarily as a mega-million dollar infrastructure gift to the developer of the massive new “Viva White Oak” project just up the road from Four Corners. In fact we know that once White Oak is built out, gridlocked traffic leading into Four Corners is projected to get even worse, with or without BRT.
At a recent meeting in Silver Spring, Berliner told local civic leaders and others who came to engage with him that Four Corners residents would just have to “bear the brunt” of any adverse impact on our community from BRT and the busway. And although he was supposed to stay and answer questions, Berliner fled the building without taking a single question from the audience
As reported previously in this newsletter, the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) released a thousand-plus page report (at a cost of millions of dollars) earlier this year showing that the best overall performing alternative among those it studied was the No Build Alternative, meaning that MTA is unable to recommend BRT for Route 29. This was not surprising, since previous analyses and studies completed over the years also concluded that BRT would not be an effective way to address traffic and other challenges along the Route 29 corridor.
Since Montgomery County officials did not get the endorsement for BRT they wanted out of the MTA study, they decided to toss aside two years’ worth of work and start all over again with their own consultants and hand-picked advisory committee they packed with nine members from a single pro-BRT advocacy group and other long time BRT champions. Some civic leaders, independent-minded advisory committee members and other knowledgeable observers are saying that the County’s new process is being conducted in ways that stymie meaningful participation by those who have long studied the issues and who have been asking the tough questions about BRT-related matters for well over two years.
It should be noted here that the County is currently paying a public relations firm over a million dollars to wage an aggressive marketing campaign designed to gin up public support for BRT, support that up to now has been largely confined to special interests and their political allies.
The BRT mailer you may have received recently from the County appears to be part of that campaign in that it contains what have been identified as many of the same highly questionable, exaggerated claims and unsupportable, misleading assertions being made about the purported “benefits” of BRT and its ultimate cost to County taxpayers.
At the same time, this mailer scrupulously avoids any mention of potential disruption to neighborhoods along the route or any adverse impacts on traffic, let alone any mention of far more cost effective, proven alternatives that would improve transit operations along Route 29.
In addition to the busway and related traffic matters, there are many other unresolved issues concerning BRT, not the least being station location and design. Four Corners is slated to have two stations, and since (supposedly) no property can be taken to build these stations, this is a highly problematic issue for our neighborhood.
There is also the question of what would become of existing local bus routes that pick up and discharge passengers from the curb lane along the Route 29 corridor.
South Four Corners Citizens Association (SFCCA), the Greater Four Corners Alliance, the Montgomery County Civic Federation, and neighborhood representatives to the Corridor Advisory Committee (Karen Michels is the designated representative from SFCCA) will continue to monitor developments and report back to you.
Bus Rapid Transit Report
by Karen Michels, BRT/CAC Committee Member
Posted on May 2, 2017
The reorganized Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project continues. Three Open Houses were presented in March and a Citizens’ Advisory Committee (CAC) was held on April 3. Little real data was given to support the figures given in the presentations. On April 18 the County Council held a hearing on the project. The County Executive (Isiah Leggett) has requested funding to move the project to construction, even though it is still little more than a concept at this time. Fifty speakers were given three minutes each. The presentations were clearly either pro-BRT as currently conceived and promoted, or against this version and this very strong and fast pressure to push the project through while avoiding usual county procedures and without providing the critical details and analysis needed to make an informed decision. That hearing is available for viewing on the county cable channel. It lasted three hours.
The opinion of an engaged group of Four Corners residents, who have been involved with the process from the beginning, is that the current plan is poorly thought through and causes some serious problems for Route 29 and for Four Corners. Many normal county procedures have been ignored in order to do this thing quickly. The County is refusing to consider alternatives to BRT for the US 29 corridor, such as MetroExtra service, that would cost a tiny fraction of what BRT would cost, and which could be implemented in a matter of months, as opposed to the years it would take BRT to become operational. MetroExtra and enhanced Ride-On bus service would accomplish the same objectives as BRT and are being adopted for other heavily travelled corridors in Montgomery County. And while individuals driving cars will always constitute the vast majority of traffic on US 29/Colesville Road, the County admits that BRT is not intended to provide any relief to motorists. In fact traffic congestion will only worsen with BRT on the road, especially once the massive new development (primarily residential) in White Oak is built out. It is estimated that travel time between White Oak and the Beltway could take well over an hour by then.
The projections to 2040 that are being used to justify the project are at best highly speculative and simply not credible. Many of us feel that the project was conceived and is being pushed to support that very large development projected for the White Oak area. The initial cost for BRT is $31,500,000 with a TIGER grant (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) from the federal government of $10,000,000 to be applied. The system would be “limited access” with eleven special bus stops constructed along the way at a cost of $1,000,000 each. These stops would be raised so that a passenger can go directly into the bus, with fare paid outside the bus, at the station. The buses, at $1,500,000 each, would be articulated (extra-long) and fancy. At this time, the plan is to run the buses on the shoulders in the stretch between Burtonsville and New Hampshire Ave., then mix them into regular traffic below New Hampshire. One station will be at Four Corners, but the exact location has not been determined. Perhaps in the median. No public discussion has occurred as to how this station would affect the locations of the other stations or how this would affect pedestrian traffic at our congested intersection. Being discussed as a possibility for the system is a Transit Signal Priority, meaning that the special buses could have some control over signals. Besides the unknown station location, the TSP could really affect the traffic on University Boulevard, backing it up even more and sending the frustrated drivers through our local streets.
On April 16 John Holden posted an informative article on the SFCCA listserv which expands on this article.
The Montgomery County Department of Transportation (DOT) group which is involved in this project has so far spent $1,250,000 to advertise this venture. The videos, hand-outs, flyers, etc., are presenting BRT as a done deal, soon-to-be-available, rather than a project not even funded. The DOT group has some web sites which allow you to see what they are presenting. The first- http://montgomerycountymd.gov/BRT/Resources/Files/US29BRTProjectDescriptionMarch2017.pdf
A second web site contains some of the reports to which the first refers. http://montgomerycountymd.gov/brt/US29project.html
Transit Study Completed
by Karen Michels, BRT/CAC Committee Member
Posted on March 1, 2017
On February 25, 2015 Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett established a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) Corridor Advisory Committee (CAC) for the US 29 corridor. BRT is defined as a “rapid mode of transportation that can provide the quality of rail transit and the flexibility of buses.” It includes elongated special buses, special stations in limited locations along Route 29, fare collection at the stations outside of the buses, dedicated bus lanes. The BRT system would be a separate entity from METRO and Ride-on, funded and administered separately by Montgomery County.
The study was to be conducted by three groups of independent consultants hired and paid for by the county. As of February 25, 2015 the county had dedicated or programmed $21,000,000 for three similar studies: Route 355 from Rockville to Clarksburg, Viers Mill to Route 355 in Rockville, and Route 29 from Burtonsville to the Metro Station in Silver Spring. More money for the studies was added later. The project teams of consultants were to meet with and discuss the latest results of their studies at least quarterly with the CAC advisors of each corridor.
The Route 29 study had two committees, one from Burtonsville to New Hampshire Avenue (North) and one from New Hampshire Avenue to the Silver Spring Metro Station (South). The committee members were nominated from civic associations along the route, from Chambers of Commerce representing businesses along the corridor, individuals living in potentially affected communities without a civic association, and transit or road users within the study area. The CACs were to be advisory not decision-making.
The Route 29 project team was to investigate the current traffic situation along the corridor and make projections for traffic up to 2040. It was to examine ways to implement BRT on Route 29 to improve commuter time along the route, with the completion date for all changes to be in 2040. No property or businesses were to be taken. Above New Hampshire Avenue, shoulders could be used for the BRT buses. Despite being directed by the Montgomery County Council to study the option of sending BRT south down New Hampshire Avenue and past the U. S. Food and Drug Administration campus when it reached the White Oak area, the project team declined to do so.
Meetings were held, study results were presented, questions were allowed from the CAC members. As you know Route 29, south of New Hampshire Avenue, is bordered by houses and businesses. No shoulders exist for conversion to bus use. The entrance to the Beltway causes back-up. The sheer volume of vehicles on the three lanes of traffic causes back-up. The Four Corners advisors wondered and questioned what could possibly be done to make room for the specialty buses moving down Colesville Road in dedicated lanes. And where would the large stations be built?
On January 28, 2017, two years after the study began, the consultants presented a draft report of their findings that included a dedicated lane for the BRT buses or a dedicated lane for the BRT buses, other buses, and perhaps HOV. The draft report showed very little or no time saved below New Hampshire Avenue but at a cost of millions of dollars to buy the buses and build the stations. It said nothing about the traffic time for individual drivers in vehicles after a lane is taken away for the fancy buses. It is known that gridlock along the Route 29 corridor south of New Hampshire Avenue will only get worse, with or without BRT, once the new residential and commercial community just above White Oak is built out.
More immediate alternatives to BRT do exist to give some relief to the congested commuter traffic, costing the county significantly less money. They were not studied by the CAC/BRT because the stated purpose of the CAC/BRT was to look at the feasibility of putting the large buses, with stations, on Route 29.
Several days before January 28 when the draft report was given, Mr. Leggett closed down the CAC/BRT study. The draft report was given as scheduled, but the study is over. As BRT on US 29 transitions from planning into design, Montgomery County’s Department of Transportation will assume full management responsibility for the project.