Wednesday, December 03, 2008

The Elrich Plan, Part Three

In Part Two, we discussed Council Member Marc Elrich’s choice of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) as a transit mode for most of the county. Where would he locate the routes?

Elrich’s routes are intended to connect residential areas to commercial destinations. Their primary purpose is to facilitate work-related commutes. Here is his route list:

1. US-29/Columbia Pike

Connects Burtonsville to Downtown Silver Spring. Also has a loop through the developing centers around Cherry Hill and White Oak. Offers connection to Silver Spring Metro Station. Can be augmented by garages in Burtonsville for Howard County commuters, further reducing traffic on Columbia Pike.

2. New Hampshire Avenue
Connects Colesville to the Langley Transit Center, which will have a Purple Line stop. Also connects to the US-29 route and its Cherry Hill/White Oak loop.

3. ICC
Elrich has opposed the ICC since Moses crossed the Red Sea. If he had his way, it would be stopped yesterday. But if it is built, Elrich would use it to run BRT between Fairland and the Rockville and Shady Grove Metro stations.

4. Purple Line
The state is currently considering whether the Purple Line should be BRT or rail. Elrich is agnostic on the mode. Whatever the Purple Line is, it will connect Prince George’s County to Bethesda through Silver Spring. It will also serve as a connection for some of Elrich’s BRT routes.

5. University Boulevard
Connects the Langley Transit Center to Wheaton. The Wheaton connection provides access to a Metro station as well as other BRT routes. This route also provides Four Corners with a transit option, something that is badly needed considering the horrendous US-29/University Boulevard intersection.

6. Georgia Avenue
Connects Olney to the Glenmont Metro station. Offers a transit option to Aspen Hill. May provide relief to the awful Georgia Avenue/Randolph Road intersection, which is scheduled for an expensive grade separation project. This route is already a priority for the county in its project request list for the state.

7. Georgia and Connecticut Avenues
A spur off the Olney route, separating at the Georgia/Connecticut intersection. Connects Olney to Chevy Chase and the Purple Line.

8. Veirs Mill Road
Connects Wheaton to Rockville. This route is another county priority for state projects.

9. Route 28
Connects Norbeck to Rockville.

10. Route 355
Parallels the western branch of the Red Line from Shady Grove to Bethesda. Includes an option to run as far north as Clarksburg. Also has a spur to Montgomery Mall.

11. Corridor Cities Transitway (CCT)
This is a state project, although not one for which the state is scheduling a lot of money. If the CCT is a BRT line, it can have an express route from Clarksburg to Shady Grove as well as a local route through Montgomery College to the west.

Each of the BRT routes would rely on one dedicated bus lane, perhaps with occasional tunnels under particularly difficult intersections. Why only one lane? One of the consequences of Montgomery County’s sprawl is that weekday traffic is often unidirectional. In the morning, traffic heads south (or sometimes west) from residential communities to commercial centers. In the evening, traffic reverses. Auto progress is slow when in the direction of most of the traffic, so the dedicated lane would be used in that direction (such as south in the morning). Buses could make a return trip in the regular traffic lanes, which are relatively clear when going against the flow of traffic. The reversible lanes on parts of Georgia Avenue and US-29 operate on a similar premise.

Another aspect of the BRT routes is their operation as a feeder network. Buses can go into residential neighborhoods and use their street networks. When entering the main roads (like US-29), they can enter the dedicated lanes and travel at higher speeds. Some routes can also operate as express routes. By cycling the buses through their routes faster, the same amount of bus stock can carry more passengers. That reduces per-passenger capital and labor costs.

By using existing rights-of-way, including in some cases medians, BRT can be a lot cheaper than rail. The Purple Line is estimated to cost $75-102 million per mile if built as rail, and that does not include the purchase of the Capital Crescent Trail decades ago. Cleveland is building a BRT line on Euclid Avenue for roughly $20 million per mile. Rail can still be justified in very dense areas like Bethesda and Silver Spring where high ridership is worth the cost. But BRT can be a more cost-effective option in lower-density areas.

Best of all, this system offers real transit options to parts of the county that have never had them before: Colesville, Olney, Burtonsville, Norbeck and other places far from Metro. These are places that are probably never going to get rail.

But the Elrich plan does not end here. We’ll continue in Part Four.