East County has long suffered from a lack of reliable and convenient transit options. But the County plans to fix this in the next three years by providing a transit system along US 29. The County anticipates that the new system will be able to carry commuters from Burtonsville to downtown Silver Spring in half an hour.
Currently, residents either have to deal with congestion on US 29 or struggle with the overcrowded Z Metrobus lines. To make matters worse, long-distance commuters have been taking US 29 as an alternative to Interstate 95 or the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, which clogs up the road for local commuters and bus riders. Although politicians and planners have been discussing a better transit line in East County for nearly 40 years, lack of funding and political will has resulted in broken promises and no results.
Fortunately, progress is in sight: County Executive Ike Leggett yesterday proposed nearly $50 million to build a bus rapid transit (BRT) system to serve East County. The $30 million increase from his previous year’s budget is necessary to fulfill his promise to have a BRT system running on US 29 by 2020.
So what is BRT?
BRT is commonly described as a “train on rubber tires”. Unlike standard buses, BRT vehicles are more comfortable, carry more people, and run more frequently. The proposed system for US 29 would run every 6 minutes during morning and afternoon rush hour, and 10 minutes the rest of the time. The service is anticipated to operate from 5 am to midnight.
Successful BRT systems are designed to avoid getting stuck in traffic, since the buses are provided with a dedicated lane. Newer systems, such as the one proposed for US 29, also are equipped with “transit signal priority” devices that interact with traffic signals to reduce the time buses have to wait at red lights.
BRT also offers conveniences both onboard and at the station. Instead of bus stops, BRT would have comfortable and accessible stations with seats, bike racks, lighting, real-time travel info, and roofs. Boarding would be quick and easy because the fare is paid at the station and each vehicle has multiple doors, like a train. Stations would have raised platforms at the same elevation as the doors so passengers with wheelchairs and bicycles are not inconvenienced. And finally, buses would be equipped with Wi-Fi and power outlets.
How will BRT reduce congestion on US 29?
The greatest benefit of BRT is that it can significantly reduce congestion: a single BRT vehicle can take up to 90 cars off the roads. So even if you are not a rider, you would benefit from the system. The County estimates that in its first year alone, the US 29 BRT would serve approximately 17,000 riders each weekday and take 4,460 cars off the road.
BRT will also reduce travel time for both transit riders and car drivers. The proposed system would get most East County residents to the Silver Spring Metro Station in less than half an hour. According to a study published last week by the Montgomery County Department of Transportation (MCDOT). Residents in Burtonsville East County activist and blogger Dan Reed noted:
“Today, a bus trip from Burtonsville to Silver Spring can take nearly an hour in the morning. The study found that the same trip on BRT could take as little as 29 minutes, making it even faster than driving. In some cases, car trips would be shorter as well.”
–Dan Reed, justupthepike.com
The County’s proposal for BRT on US 29 will run from Burtonsville to the Silver Spring Transit Center, with stops in Briggs Chaney, White Oak, Burnt Mills, and Four Corners. There is also talk about extending the route into Howard County, with stations at Maple Lawn and the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab, one of the region’s largest employers.
Unfortunately there will be some parts of the route where the buses will not have dedicated lanes and therefore could get stuck in traffic.
“Depending on the alternative, buses would use the right-hand lane along sections of Route 29 south of New Hampshire Avenue, where it’s more of a city street. North of New Hampshire Avenue, where Route 29 becomes more of a freeway, buses would either travel on the shoulder or in the median, where new lanes would be built.”
–Dan Reed, justupthepike.com
The County is currently evaluating two different design alternatives (A and B). Advocates for BRT are supporting Alternative A, because it would use dedicated transit-only lanes along more of the route. Alternative B on the other hand would open certain portions to HOV cars and right-turning lanes.
How else will BRT help East County?
In addition to relieving congestion, the proposed system on US 29 is anticipated to bring economic benefits to East County. County planners note that BRT will make it possible to redevelop places like White Oak, Fairland, and Burtonsville with thousands more jobs in the next few decades.
Affordable and reliable transportation options are sorely needed along the US 29 corridor, where 1 in 8 households have no access to a car. The lack of transit options make it difficult for residents to go to work and run errands like picking their kids up from daycare or buying groceries. According to Pete Tomao, Montgomery County Advocacy Manager for the Coalition for Smarter Growth,
“Access to transportation has emerged as the single greatest indicator of someone’s odds of escaping poverty— greater than the number of two parent households or the amount of crime in a community.”
Pete attended one of my community’s civic association meetings last year to discuss the benefits of BRT. My neighbors noted that although we don’t live within walking distance of the planned station in Burtonsville, this project would be a great benefit for us because it would provide a better connection to the DC metropolitan transit network.
Families could visit the city without having to drive to and park at the nearest Metro station, and commuters would have an alternative way to get to work downtown, without having to sit in traffic.
Since the system is planned to operate until midnight, people would also be able to use it in the evenings for date nights, shopping, or to work a night shift. Late-night service will benefit communities that are planning to grow more nightlife, retail, and attractions in the near future, such as White Oak and Burtonsville.
What can you do to get involved?
- Montgomery County recently launched an awareness campaign called “Get on Board BRT” to inform residents about the benefits and plans.
- The Coalition for Smarter Growth has a petition to encourage the County to design the BRT system with more dedicated lanes, which would ensure reliable service and help buses avoid getting stuck in traffic.
- On February 7, the County Council will have a public hearing about whether to provide money to build bus rapid transit, and you can sign up to testify here.