Montgomery County BRT Plan is Good Start but Needs Modifications

Last month Montgomery County, Maryland released a final report on a countywide Bus-Rapid-Transit (BRT) system. While the report comes to the logical conclusion that building BRT is better than building new light-rail, parts of the plan need to be rethought. This wealthy county is an excellent transit market due to its population density and propensity to Washington D.C. Over the past 20 years many U.S. cities have built successful BRT lines. But Montgomery County is the first jurisdiction to propose building a complete network.

Consultant Parsons Brinckerhoff (PB) conducted an initial feasibility study and concluded that a countywide BRT system was feasible. A county transportation task force has been meeting since February 2011 to communicate with PB and prepare an official report for the public. The task force recommends 25 new lines totaling about 160 miles. The report offers growth estimates for the next 20 years to explain why new service is necessary.

The proposed system could be built in nine to twenty years depending on the funding mechanisms chosen. Capital costs for the system are roughly estimated at $1.83 billion. Annual operating costs are estimated to be $1.1 million per mile. Although these costs are not cheap, they appear realistic compared to cost numbers for other U.S. BRT systems. Most importantly, for the cost of 1-2 light-rail lines, the county will be able to build an entire BRT network. In addition, BRT operating costs are somewhat lower than light-rail operating costs. The report is honest about the funding challenges; it states that its forecasts are merely estimates. More of this approach is needed in transportation; too many transit projects make wildly optimistic cost/benefit and revenue projections.

While Montgomery’s decision to build BRT offers many advantages over light-rail, there are several problems with its proposed system. One weakness is that system relies on dedicated guideways. Most Montgomery County highways do not have large medians to accommodate these new guideways. In most corridors exclusive guideways will require the construction of one-two additional lanes by using eminent domain to seize land. This will be very pricey especially in southwestern parts of the county. Adding lanes to I-270 or the Beltway could accommodate buses, carpools, and vehicles that choose to pay a small fee. Another strong option is building managed highways such as the InterCounty Connector. More is available on I-495 BRT here. In addition, homeowners are reluctant to sell their land either for sentimental reasons of because the funds offered for their property are below the actual property value.

Another weakness is that the proposed Montgomery County system operates in a vacuum. Montgomery does not consider neighboring Prince Georges and Frederick counties in Maryland nor the District of Columbia, Fairfax or Loudoun counties in VA. The immediate Washington DC region consists of numerous counties in three states. One of the advantages of Planning agencies such as the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments is that they approach commuting patterns from a regional perspective. This Montgomery plan that is clearly aimed at Montgomery politicians has few lines that reach outside of the county. Many people live in Montgomery County and work in the District and vice versa. Montgomery needs to work with its neighbors and amend the plan to make it regional. Montgomery also needs to consider routes that the state and other counties are already running.

There are other problematic parts of the report. First, new public transit systems have NOT been proven to lure people out of cars any better than existing systems. Second, there is an assumption that the state will pay the debt service because the Corridor Cities Transitway (CCT) is included in the area. The CCT is not directly related nor does the state have an infinite amount of money. State priorities are often political in nature. Projects in the home district of the State Assembly leaders or the Governor often receive priority.

Finally two of the four arguments justifying the critical nature of this problem are problematic. While BRT technology could create live-work communities, the costs of a dedicated lane system increase the timeframe. And does everybody in Montgomery want to live in live-work-play communities? While I understand their appeal in Bethesda and Kensington, I have doubts about their success in Damascus and Sandy Spring. Second, the county’s land use rules require it. Tying transportation to land use is important. But if making small changes to the land use map creates a better more cost effective system, then land-use changes may be justified. Yes, appropriate zoning and land-use rules are needed before transit can succeed. However, the land-use map is a living document; making minor changes from time to time is necessary.

Montgomery County is one of the first places to study BRT service on a countywide basis. BRT is a cost-effective alternative to rail. However, to build the most effective, cost-efficient system the county needs to consider using shared guideways, cooperating more extensively with neighboring counties and states and making minor changes to its land-use map. While this study is an excellent first-draft, it needs a little more fine-tuning before it becomes the official county plan.