Bus Washington DC

Major Ambitions for Improved Transit in the Inner Suburbs North of Washington

» Montgomery County officials propose a 160-mile “RTV” system that they hope will revolutionize transportation patterns in the area.

Montgomery County, Maryland is one of the core counties of one of the nation’s most appealing metropolitan regions — the nation’s capital. Yet much of the county is relatively built out — mature, one might describe it — making the construction of any significant new transportation capacity, especially in terms of roadways, very difficult, if not impossible. The Intercounty Connector that opened last year is likely to be the last major road built in the area. But the demand for movement will continue to increase.

This is the challenge that has motivated the county’s Transit Task Force, appointed last year by County Executive Isiah Leggett. Earlier this month, the group released its proposal for a network of 160 miles of new bus rapid transit lines crisscrossing the county. The roughly $2 billion plan would offer dedicated lanes for RTVs — rapid transit vehicles — that planners hope will offer a shiny new face for transit in the region and attract a new group of choice riders onto buses operating at headways of 3 to 7 minutes at all times of the day. On many of the corridors, the transit system would be the “most cost effective way” to absorb excess traffic congestion, by moving it from cars into buses.

Montgomery County planners have insisted on the game-changing nature of what they are proposing, nothing that the vehicles to be used “will operate more like “light rail on rubber tires” than what is more typically referred to as “bus rapid transit“” — thus the name difference. Buses will have doors on both sides and be branded entirely different from the existing system.

As can be seen in the map below, the proposed interventions would radically change the face of the county by offering improved transit service to a whole network of east-west and north-south corridors, vastly augmenting the existing Metro and MARC lines there. Along its corridors, it would be the “best hope for creating vibrant, mixed-use communities” that will be denser, more walkable neighborhoods. If well designed and actually implemented, RTV’s sheer scale and the connectivity it offers could indeed offer a compelling reason for commuters to switch out of their private automobiles. It is an audacious proposal.

I spoke to Mark Winston, Chair of the County Executive’s Transit Task Force, and Tom Street, Assistant Chief Administrative Officer for the county, to better understand the motivations behind the RTV proposal.

We’re not looking at solving 25 discrete problems,” Winston argues. “We’re looking at this on a systemwide basis.” The plan suggests that the 160 miles of RTV lines be implemented in three phases, beginning with a $1.2 billion, 84-mile investment, and Winston believes that there is adequate political support to begin construction of at least four to five lines — not just one — within the next few years. Montgomery County planners have chosen to prioritize the concept of network development with the RTV plan, arguing that the project will only work if it is developed as a unified system. In this way, they are following other regions like the Twin Cities that recognize that the old method of studying transit lines corridor by corridor (e.g. the federal New Starts process) is opposed to the manner in which people actually use public transportation, as part of a network.

Winston emphasizes that “this is not a bus system” but rather a “new animal” that is designed to “change behavior” among riders who would otherwise be driving cars to and from work. As such, he argues, “if we produce a system that’s just a network of buses, this is not going to work.”

For Winston, this means that the county cannot “do a half-ass job” and “compromise the system.” In essence, he does not accept the idea that his grand vision for a RTV system could be narrowed down to a series of gussied-up shelters with only slightly faster buses. When I asked what features of the system were most important, Winston said, “We can afford to build a first class system here. the determination will be whether or not we choose to.” For him, the mode shift he wants to promote away from cars and towards transit can only occur if the system is built as best as is possible.

Street, on the other hand, was a bit more cautious, noting:

I think what is most important are dedicated guideways, and that’s what separates the RTVs from mixed traffic. I think it’s going to be actually critical to get the riders of choice to have a system that looks and feels different, but i think that criteria number one is not running in mixed traffic and you get that express feeling during periods of congestion.”

Indeed, the proposal as currently laid out puts a major emphasis on the separated lanes, prioritizing them over other features. In terms of image, that might make sense, since dedicated lanes show where buses are going and thus illustrate a sense of solidity and long-term development that is often said to be the strength of rail, not bus, lines. But it is not clear that dedicated lanes will be enough to spur on a major shift of people towards transit. Two ideas that might be more effective in doing so — right-of-way enforcement in RTV lanes through photographing violators and peak road pricing — are dismissed by the report as “preferable but not necessarily highly desirable.”

Moreover, while the report highlights dedicated lanes for the vehicles, Winston notes that “in a community like this, one answer does not fit everything.” In the case of the RTV report, that seems to mean that there will be many cases where vehicles will actually run in mixed-traffic lanes by design because of “capacity constraints” or in a single, reversible median lane for both directions of the service. While the county claims to have big goals for its transit network, these adaptations do not appear to be for the benefit of making the transit system as effective as possible but rather for the maintenance of the claims on certain roads by car drivers.

Just as revealing is the RTV committee’s treatment of the Corridor Cities Transitway, which is a proposed BRT project that would be incorporated into the RTV system if the latter is implemented. Claiming that the expenses the state of Maryland is currently estimating for the project are too high, the Task Force suggests significantly decreasing its costs… by eliminating many grade separations over major roads that would make this project as fast for riders as possible. The changes suggested would put buses in mixed traffic for some segments and increase round trip travel times massively, from 62.1 minutes to 70.4 minutes.

The primary explanation for the need for these changes is that the project as currently designed — at $545 million for a nine-mile segment — is too expensive. And indeed, perhaps it is unreasonably high. But whereas the state expects to pay about $60 million a mile for that full-scale rapid transit line, RTV proponents are suggesting that their project would cost only about $1.8 billion in total, or a bit over $11 million a mile (not including financing, which could admittedly double the cost). While the Task Force’s recommendation that the system be built using an integrated design-build-operate contract will likely save some money, it is hard to see how the improvements it is proposing will ever work out to be as novel as the Corridor Cities Transitway as currently designed, simply because there will not be enough funds in the county’s coffers to make full investments possible.

Nonetheless, the RTV Task Force has not been shy when it comes to identifying potential funds for the project and has instead noted that district taxes on property located with a 1/2-mile of route alignments, direct county funding, and private sector contributions could all be used to pay for the project, with no federal aid. These are realistic sources of funding that could be implemented relatively easily — in combination with significant county bonding — to pay for a large percentage of the lines discussed here. But political support beyond just the study phase will be necessary to begin discussing such an increase on local taxes, especially when it becomes apparent that the cost of a system like this could expand prodigiously.

Update, 31 May: A planner from Montgomery County emails to note that my use of “planner” in the above article does not refer to the county’s planners, but rather the members of the Transit Task Force. Noted. The Planning Department will deliver a recommended master plan to the council in early 2013, with project planning only beginning after approval.

Image above: Montgomery County RTV System Full Build-Out Map, from Montgomery County

95 replies on “Major Ambitions for Improved Transit in the Inner Suburbs North of Washington”

It really sounds like they are going to get taken to the cleaners for that nine mile section of bus way while the new Norfolk light rail system cost less than that to build a seven mile system and even that could have came at a 100 million less. This bus system for a group of buses driving on their own lane’s costs are out of control it would be cheaper to or about the same to put in a light rail train or maybe expland the DC streetcar system into this area.

I’ve send the jammed packed traffic and stoplights here there would simply be no room to put in new bus lanes on the existing streets. It would be a better idea to extend the heavy rail Redline or build a new light rail line on it’s own grade.

It’s because BRT is a highway-building scam. The elevated costs are usually because they pretend that they have to “construct” new lanes for buses.

Well, no, they could paint “BUS LANE” and tell the cops to arrest people who drive in the bus lane, and save a billion dollars. But that would mean TAKING LANES AWAY FROM CARS, and that is a mortal sin in the eyes of the highway departments in the US (though London does it all the time).

Your reasoning is akin to suggesting that existing rail routes are “easy low hanging fruits” for new passenger service because “you just have to take the tracks away from evil freight railroads”.

In general this is true; see for example the discussion elsewhere on this thread about buying the Brunswick Line from CSX. Of course, freight rail doesn’t have the huge and disproportionate negative externalities and subsidies that private cars have, but using existing rights of way whenever possible makes a lot of sense regardless.

There are a lot of old railroad tracks around Fredrick Mayland that I’ve seen that go though the part of it with several high rises around them and they look like they are not really used that much. This one rail line I remember seeing even followed the main highway for a mile or two before going though the city core with some very dense built up areas but the rail line itself had only one railroad track that looked it hadn’t really seen that many trains on it. Rail lines like this could easly be turned over into a new streetcar or light rail line along with a commuter rail extension.

So the bus was chosen because it allows compromises in constrained areas instead of clear priority.

The short 3-7 min headways are very nice to have but I doubt about their usefulness with travel times as long as 1 hour. Running larger vehicles in 10 minutes all-day headways (probably beefed up to 5 min in AM peak) could have the same effect with lesser operating costs.

All in all, with need to cover such large area, it seems to me that two tiers of service should be created: locals with stop spacing in 700-1200 m range (aka “regular” rapid transit) and limiteds with stops in hubs and very-high-demand places (every 3-5 km) so that corridor-length trips aren’t much slower than by car.

I will never, I emphasize never, make any commuting or permanent plans such as a home purchase based on a bus line. You can tart up a bus plan all you want, and go ahead and throw billions at it, but the moment the state budget creaks just a little, the bus service will be cut back and I’ll be left standing on the corner. No way.

Your map shows a bus line leading north from the Metro red line end at Shady Grove. That should be a red line train extended to Frederick immediately. Run regular red line trains from Frederick and you will instantly cut thousands of commuters from I-270. Run buses, even fast buses on their own special roads, and you won’t.

Trains cost more to build, but they are more credibly permanent. Your bus plan does not appeal in any iteration.

So, to clarify, you’re saying that the most expensive mode of transport possible, fully grade separated heavy rail, should be extended from its present 18 miles or so from downtown DC a further 30 miles or so, through first suburbs of considerably lower density than the line presently services, then about 20 miles of rural area?

You know, I have some economics textbooks that I can lend you if you ever want to find out what money is.

Fredrick Mayland is a very heavly built up area it at one time had a streetcar line go to it from Washingtion DC and that was way back before the 1950’s and 1960’s before it’s population grew like crazy from the 1980’s onward. A Red Line extension to this place would make good logical sense or at least a five mile extension for the time being. Another thing they should consder is a new light rail line to relink Ferdrick into the Washingtion DC metro line such as a new Interurban line.

Surely expanding the MARC Brunswick line to more frequent service and more stops would be wiser than a Red Line extension. (The tracks are already there and all that…)

My thoughts exactly. Supposing that the alignment up to Germantown is four-tracked, a train beyond Germantown (where frequent all-day service would be desirable and possible) at headways of, say, 20 minutes in the peaks and hourly off-peak shouldn’t serve to too greatly disrupt freight operation what tracks remain shared.

“You can tart up a bus plan all you want, and go ahead and throw billions at it, but the moment the state budget creaks just a little, the bus service will be cut back and I’ll be left standing on the corner.”

I don’t doubt that your perception may be shared by others, but the reality is that this can happen with any technology. Helsinki’s tram line 1 runs less than every 20 minutes most of the day, and has a segment that only runs at peak times, and there are periodic suggestions of getting rid of it because buses are more useful to most trips. Budapest is a city with many bits of tram track scattered about that no longer make sense to the network overall. And the Newcastle Metro used to run every 5 minutes on certain segments and every 10 minutes elsewhere; now it’s down to 12 on all parts (largely because of poor integration with buses).

I, admittedly, did favour the location in Leeds in which I live partly because of proximity to suburban rail. But since moving there, I’ve realised how much more useful to me the nearby bus route at a 5 minute headway (15 evenings and Sundays) is, especially where the half-hourly train drops to every 1-2 hours on evenings and Sundays.

So in terms of determining residential choices, it may not ever do quite as well at that as rail, but its being dependably there when you need it will ultimately be most important to day to day travel decisions. And even if you halve a 3-7 minute headway, that’s still a pretty good service.

Budapest is a city in the process of upgrading their tram lines from streetcar like lengths to much longer and high capacity systems. Route 4/6 along the circular boulevard has been transformed by 55m long trams and the segregation of traffic lanes.

The trams now run as little as 90secs apart in peak. That has meant that a lot of old inner suburb lines that used to integrate onto the boulevard now terminate at the edge and people have to change trams. But with integrated ticketing it’s not a big deal. The trade off has been that the line now shifts are truly impressive amount of people. As for the rest of the network, lines are slowly being converted to modern standards.

As for Newcastle, it’s every 6 minutes where the routes combine and at peak extra services reduce this to every 3 minutes.

That particular showcase project is wonderful, but the remainder of the tram network needs a lot of work to be in line with the needs of the city – right now, better served for many residents by the regular, boring buses that are often faster than nearby tram routes.

Well, it depends. A bus in mixed traffic is impermanent and easy to reroute or cut; it’s also generally intolerably slow. But a dedicated busway with physical stations like the LA Orange Line or Boston Silver Line is at least as permanent as many rail lines. It’s inconceivable that Boston would abandon their recent and expensive Silver Line bus tunnel, even as they just cut all weekend service to the end of one of the branches of the Green Line light rail. Of course, if you’re going to all the trouble of building a dedicated busway with stations you’re usually better off building rail anyway, but sometimes politics gets in the way of that.

It seems Montgomery County’s proposal calls for a mix of dedicated busways and mixed-traffic running. The usefulness and permanence of the system will depend on how much of each they end up with.

(Although, given that the MARC Brunswick Line is already there, it seems like improving its frequency could provide better AND cheaper service to the areas that it serves than this busway plan.)

I find it amusing that the term “BRT”, has been so devalued by the slightly upgraded bus services touted as “BRT” to make them sound nicer. BRT was originally supposed to mean “like light rail on rubber tires”, but now is proposing exactly the same same strategy, but now calling it “RTV”, “Rapid Transit with (Bus) Vehicles”.

I read an article a couple of weeks ago about the Columbus, Ohio, “BRT” that described features that BRT “could” have, like dedicated busways and off-vehicle ticket purchases … but then said that the Columbus BRT wouldn’t have any of that. It would just be an express bus service with the traffic light timing adjusted a bit to favor the buses.

I’ve noticed the same debasement of the meaning of BRT, and proposed the replacement term Sporkbus.

A spork as one utensil cannot do the job as well as an individual spoon and fork, but it still find its purpose.

Sporkbus, in order to aspire to rail-like service, is as capital intensive as a rail line and will have the operating costs of a bus. Still, if your alternatives are no improvements or more of the same (more local bus hours), then by all means grab the spork.

Eyes on the ball, people. Can a transformative system like the one envisioned be built for the price envisioned? I seriously doubt it.

The cost revolves around adding full lanes/roadway to accomondate the bus service. As noted in some previous posts, very rarely do you see lane miles taken away from commuters. They simply add lanes, costly proposition in a urban area where ROW is constrained, either for buses, HOV, and now tolled Hov.

When you say “commuters”, I assume you mean “cars”. And that’s not just me being pedantic, neutral language that says car when it means car is important to effective transit advocacy. Because it’s horrible to take space away from commuters who just want to get to work, but less horrible to take space away from people who choose to use a car despite the fact they could get to work in other ways.

There will undoubtedly be a lot of compromises in the way that these buses are built – compromises that could be built into rail systems too (See the Pitkäsilta in Helsinki, a narrow bridge where two general traffic lanes each way are maintained by allowing cars to use the tram lane, or Czaar Peterstraat in Amsterdam, where a general traffic lane is maintained by the tram track becoming single track at one point), though you can argue it out on how more or less likely it would be with rail.

But if Montgomery County is right about the ability to build a lot of significantly improved bus transit really quickly, then I can get behind that, because the decades waiting for something better will be decades of completely auto-oriented development.

Also, Montgomery County does have a potentially useful rail alignment; the CSX railway along which the MARC Brunswick line operates a pathetic peak time only service. It could be expanded to four tracks as far as Germantown to keep passenger trains more or less completely out of the way of freight without too much land acquisition and without reconfiguring roads or relocating utilities; some of the major costs of rail construction.

Supposing that the route were four-tracked, and rail service were provided at high frequency with electric trains with boarding through many doors, the whole bus system would be backed up by a spine into which it could feed, rather than relying on over-capacity metro lines that end at points quite distant from most of the important destinations in Montgomery County. It would also very usefully relieve the northern end of the Metro Red Line.

That idea would work very well in that they could build it as a spur line of the Electric 25Hz 11,000 volt Amtrak NEC main line in that this rail line on google earth goes stright into and feeds into the end of NEC with in five miles of Washingtion DC’s union sation. There is also a power plant with in 20 miles of this which could act as a power feeder into the new 25Hz electric catenary feeder line.

The main problem is, as usual, an uncooperative CSX.

However, the State might be able to buy the line for the right price and guarantees of continued freight usage. CSX doesn’t seem to be quite as actively hostile to offers of money as UP is.

Indeed, as usual. But then, if we’re talking four tracking, we’re talking exactly as much space for freight, and two tracks for passengers. Either that can be done with buying the ROW, or with funding the extra two tracks based on very solid contractual guarantees on two of them being given over to passenger trains.

Buying the ROW. CSX has been copping a bad attitude where they want to waste an entire two trackbeds for their MOW equipment to occasionally drive up and down. They should not be allowed to do this, but I think only buying the ROW can stop them from pulling this shit.

Its not a waste for their bottom line ~ if its wasteful in terms of full economic cost but not private financial cost, its the job of government to bring the two into line.

You are right, of course, and that’s exactly what I mean. It’s a gross waste in societal terms to use complete long-distance trackbeds for the lesser use of dirt MOW paths, but it seems good for them as a private profiteering enterprise.

However, for the right price, they’d probably be willing to give up their “MOW paths”.

You may be right; buying the ROW may be the only way to stop CSX from pulling all sorts of shit. It’s a large up front cost, though, as I imagine CSX won’t give it up easily – so the question is making sure that can be financed. It’s certainly a case of spending the money and doing it right.

Any electrification would certainly do well to be integrated with that of the NEC, but they’d probably be best placed as separate entities in terms of the operation of trains.

The task force was required, as as part of their written work plan, to first publish a draft report. Instead they chose to fast-track a final report. As a result, there has been no public input or comment allowed by the county government on this plan. The special taxing districts, which are mostly located ‘downcounty,’ including some of the poorer neighborhoods of the county, are a bombshell people are now discussing. Excluded from the special taxing districts are some of the wealthiest communities in the county. In fact, they are some of the wealthiest communities in the country. No taxes for them!

As regards no federal funding, part of the intent of that is to avoid the federal National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), with its pesky requirements to examine and publicly report on environmental impacts, including socioeconomic impacts, caused by a project. No federal funding is a way to get around any such considerations.

Given the high cost of this project, there needs to be a lot more study and public comment. Where is such a system used currently and how successful is it? Or is this a completely novel idea? Having dedicated lanes for infrequent buses sounds like a formula for increasing congestion, rather than alleviating it. What makes anyone think people will actually use this?

The Corridor Cities Transitway (CCT) is the trigger for development in the Great Seneca Science Corridor Master Plan and the developers are pushing for construction of the CCT in order to realize their full commercial and residential development capacity. This will potentially add approximately 40,000 workers and residents to an area that is less than one and a half square miles and currently accommodates about 20,000 workers.

The CCT will carry only about 15% of the newcomers leaving 85% of them in their cars on the already highly-congested roads.

According to the state: “The locally preferred alternative travel time is approximately 49 minutes to travel from end to end.” The CCT would run 8 minutes longer using the plans offered by Johns Hopkins and Adventist Hospital, assuming the regular traffic is moving. That would make the trip at least 57 minutes to go from Clarksburg to the Shady Grove Metro which is 14 miles.

Even after all of the infrastructure improvements are made and the CCT is built, the traffic on Great Seneca Highway, now posted at 50 mph, is projected to travel at an average rush hour speed of 9-11 mph.

You can’t see me over the internet, but I’m playing a really tiny violin for how difficult it’s going to get for you to drive your car in a low density, sprawling Montgomery County.

Zoltan, I can’t see your violin and you can’t see what a mess the roads are in Montgomery County. The roads are full now and the transit is being used as the trigger to add tens of thousands of additional people.
There will be minimal or no parking at the BRT stations but the county is full of suburban developments with dead-end roads that end in cul-de-sacs. Residents need their cars to get out of their subdivisions.
We are told that once the BRT system is up and running the county will try to get buses into the subdivisions to pick up people. How many people are going to put up with three different forms of public transit to get to work…Ride-On bus, BRT and Metro.
The Metro is another problem. The platforms are full. The elevators and escalators break down. The trains break down. The doors open en-route. Or they don’t open at all. I rode the Metro for 12 years when it functioned and it was great but it is a mess now and there is no money to fix it. Montgomery County is a mess.

Catch a bus to catch a train can be quite workable, its certainly a quite important rail recruiter for suburban transport service for Perth, and I did it for years to commute from Newcastle, NSW to the Central Coast of NSW, but I wouldn’t hold out much hopes for success for catch a bus to catch a bus to catch a train.

I did that as well, after the Central Coast shuttle from the Newcastle Uni Callaghan campus was canceled and before we moved to a place in walking distance to a catch a direct bus to the train station … and from my experience, I don’t reckon you’ll get many people out of cars with that.

Are the BRT guideways going to be closed lines to BRT-exclusive vehicles, or will they serve as busways? If it’s the latter, then at least one transfer penalty is avoided.

It should be the latter, since passengers are loath to take feeder lines.

This is an important question. If, for example, a Kentlands jitney can run on the busway from the MARC Metro Grove station, then down Quince Orchard to Kentlands Blvd, down Main St to Darnestown Road, up Tiffany Sq. Rd to Kentlands Blvd and then back up Quince Orchard to the busway and through to the Marc Metropolitan Grove station, then getting to the busway is only one of the tasks it performs.

So… it’s a bus system.

But hey, I agree, they shouldn’t compromise it. Every bus system should be as attractive and useful as the buses in downtown London. That should be the target, not new buzzwords.

London has bus lanes (with very aggressive enforcement) *created by taking away car lanes* — this is important if you want to prove you’re serious about buses.

London also has countdown clocks, schedules and maps at every downtown bus stop, frequent service, bus priority through intersections, all buses wheelchair-accessible, etc., etc.

I don’t believe for a minute that this “RTV” system will do anything remotely like that. (But it should, shouldn’t it?)

I don’t believe for a minute that this “RTV” system will do anything remotely like that. (But it should, shouldn’t it?)

No, it shouldn’t because the dynamics of the two areas are completely different.

The areas are different. But why won’t bus lanes, good bus maps, next bus indicators and frequent service not work. They are all about making bus travel convenient, faster and more importantly more reliable.

“But why won’t bus lanes, good bus maps, next bus indicators and frequent service not work. They are all about making bus travel convenient, faster and more importantly more reliable.”

Is it impossible to do the above without spending billions of dollars? The 14 mile segment of the CCT, that will operate in mixed traffic for part of the route, will cost over $800 million and that is only a small segment of the system.
Just timing the lights would do wonders for the flow of traffic, including buses, in Montgomery County.

Proper bus shelter, a next bus indicator system and bus lanes all add up. It’s the high frequency of buses that will cost the real money.

I would love to know exactly how they get to $800 million. What are they spending it on?

Building new lanes of asphalt is ferociously expensive, so if they’re doing that, as I surmise, that adds up fast.

Wow, this is getting to be a really interesting conversation and I appreciate what everyone has posted, and the opportunity on this blog. This shows what could have happened if public input was really allowed in Montgomery County. If anyone reading this post could read through the Task Force Report and comment, I would appreciate it.

Also worth noting is that the majority of people on the task force, appointed by the County Executive Ike Leggett, are land developers (Mark Winston, the chair, is an RE attorney) or members of the business community, so the direction seems to be to build the system to allow even more development, which to me, would mean, adding more cars to top off the number of cars that would be reduced by the expected number of riders. In the end, the plan seems to be that the county would end up with the same amount of congestion as is predicted now without the system.

You say “more development” as though it’s a bad thing. Given the DC area’s growing population and economy and high rents, and the general shortage of housing in and near thriving urban areas in this country, more development along transit corridors sounds like exactly what’s needed. If you’re concerned about more cars on the road from new developments, work to make sure they are built without any parking.

People need to live somewhere. Just because you already have a home doesn’t mean it’s not still important to keep building homes for new residents (including those who are currently stuck living with their parents, in cramped shared apartments, or priced out of the DC area entirely).

If (as you claim) “the county would end up with the same amount of congestion as is predicted now without the system”, then it sounds like a great investment. The county would get increased population (and therefore a stronger economy, larger tax base, and new residents happier than they would be elsewhere) with no increase in congestion.

“The county would get increased population (and therefore a stronger economy, larger tax base, and new residents happier than they would be elsewhere) with no increase in congestion.”

This sounds like a pretty good deal. I’m with Jarrett Walker’s view that mitigation of congestion is not really what transit does, but it does increase economic activity at a given level of congestion, which is extremely good for the places concerned.

Anon256, no, it is not a bad thing at all. Our concern as residents, is, everytime there is a huge development proposed (e.g., White Flint), the planners make a lot of noise about the need for public transit to support the tens of thousands of new residents and new employeees. Then the pattern is, the development is constructed, however, no new public transit. Meanwhile no money allocated to maintain or improve the existing (we have access buses that spontaneously explode and catch on fire, still in service; our pedestrian street crossings still do not comply with ADA guidelines). What I am saying is public transit is crucial and the county government won’t maintain what we have. We need common sense and a chance for public transit to catch up with the unsustainable development.

I would also say from a common-sense planning perspective, the county decided to remove 1/3 of its buildable land from development, identifying it as an ‘agricultural reserve.’ Yet instead of doing the common-sense thing of scaling down development and managing it, they are full-bore, ignoring the facts of the limits to the buildable land space. That is not planning. In terms of being priced out, the new developments for young urbanistas start at the $700s for a 1-bedroom. That is not affordable. Not planning, either, just cowtowing to developer campaign donors.

$700 for a 1br sounds very affordable to me, much cheaper than anything I can find where I live. As supply expands, prices will fall further.

If you’re concerned about development being built without the associated transit, it seems better to support the transit than oppose the development.

Paula – so, you’re against new dense, walkable, and transit-oriented redevelopment near existing transit assets on the grounds that it will increase traffic – yet you imply that developing MoCo’s ag reserve with more sprawl wouldn’t increase traffic congestion?

That just does not compute.

AlexB, no,I am not against dense, walkable spaces. I am against more empty promises from a county government that can’t even purchase buses that don’t spontaneously combust. ‘Transit-oriented’ is not the same as having actual transit. Here are the facts on the ground, after decades of talking about ‘transit-oriented’ development: sidewalks so narrow that two people cannot walk abreast. Rush hour metro headways of 6-8 minutes (I won’t go into the dangerous accordion cars, broken escalators, etc., as people already know about those). Cryptic bus signs that have odd numbers on them instead of clearly showing where the buses go and what their arrival times are. Buses that spontaneously catch on fire. Neighborhoods that have begged for bus shelters and been told (again for decades) that bus shelters are too expensive. Pedestrian signalization that, 20 years on, still doesn’t meet ADA guidelines. I could go on but won’t. My point: this government makes promises they clearly, based on their track record, won’t keep. They prefer pie-in-the-sky to fixing the small things that actually would get people out of their cars and into public transit.


I don’t think it’s fair of you to characterize the Transit Task Force members as being solely land developers or members of the business community, or that there’s anything wrong with their affiliations, as they’re just trying to make a living the same as you are. Looking at the list of members, I also see representatives from the Sierra Club, the Montgomery County Civic Federation (an umbrella group for civic organizations) and the Latin American Advisory Group (presumably representing some of the lower-income Latino neighborhoods you’re worried about), along with transit advocates and reps from our local, state and federal government. That seems like a broad mix of perspectives; as the planning process continues (and there’s a long way to go), there will be opportunities for public input, as required by law.

I look forward to putting in my two cents about the Transit Task Force’s report as well, and to seeing the county build a first-rate public transit network to serve current and future residents. And I’m glad you support BRT too. At least, I think you do. I can’t really tell.

I don’t think Paula said the Task Force members were SOLELY land developers or members of the business community. She said most are. Looking at the list you linked to there are 7 members from the development and business community and ZERO representing residents who live in the neighborhoods that this is supposed to serve. The rest are govt. employees and special interest groups. Is it any wonder that this group which has no representatives for the residential community, and has shut the public out of the process, is recommending that residents bear the cost for this thing? And we are taking them seriously?

I read the report — where is the supporting information that this will reduce the congestion? I see none but that is how they are selling it to people — shiny new buses (or sporks if you prefer) that will magically make the cars disappear even though the purpose is to allow more density in areas that are already built out and congested.
Put the money into improving what we have already which is in serious need of investment – METRO.

Does anyone on this blog have suggestions for the challenge that scale-it-back stated, I.e., most of the county consists of the suburbs model of 2-lane asphalt roads that curve and end in cul-de-sacs. There are some older neighborhoods that do have an English street grid, but most do not. A lot of people in the county would like to ‘lower their carbon footprint’ by using public transit but they are too far to walk or bike to the metro, so they drive and once they are in their cars it’s hard to get them out (as an aside, the unreliability of metro makes this more difficult). To me the main question is, how do we ferry these willing people to the metro stops? Because don’t forget, BRT or not, the area does have metro (red line). We have to start somewhere. The task force has lots of language about educating people, but as I understand it not even the council members who are proponents of this scheme can be bothered to use metro (which is in walking distance of the county council offices). I am not sure if anyone on the task force uses metro either.

The fact is that any suburban public transit system requires walking “gasp”. That is how you get out of your cul-de-sac. But in a county where I see healthy middle school kids being driven a 1/2 mile to the school bus stop, I don’t see that happening any time soon.

We walk within our subdivisions all the time, but walking to the nearest BRT station would not be a walk in the park. It would be dangerous.

The problem we have in Maryland is that the county was developed one area or one farm at a time with very little thought to connectivity. We have a lot of tangled dead-end roads surrounded by large highly-congested highways, which are full. Retrofitting all the subdivisions into an urban grid pattern would be impossible.

Zach the Virginian, you’re right, there is a lot of traffic going down I-270 to 495 and Virginia. I can’t speak to any of the potential fixes for that. It’s a whole other can of worms.

Constructive suggestions, anyone?

Step one: sidewalks, and lots of them.

This is why the LA area is quite walkable, despite being carved up by giant multilane roads; it has an extensive and pratically complete sidewalk system.

So that’s step one: make it possible to safely walk places.

John D, this entire plan depends on people walking out of their subdivision to the BRT station. In some cases people would like to walk but are too far, let’s say 1.5 miles or more. My question stands, what works? How can transformation happen? If not this is another Maryland boondoggle with only the land developers and whichever contractors get the $1.6Billion to construct winning. According to the task force report, this will be a “game changer” with an entirely different “universe” of people. How? what works? Otherwise this is more of the magical thinking for which the Montgomery County government is famous.

A walkable district ideal is 1/4 mile around a station. 2/3 of a mile is workable for a long walk to a high priority destination.

At 1.5 miles you are look at bikes, recumbent trikes, neighborhood electric vehicles and cars, and the odds of driving to catch a bus to catch a train are low ~ just drive to the train station.

So an essential complement to that system is a system of cycle / electric cart paths. In many cases, the side streets of the development aided by a few car-free cul-de-sac cut-through lanes would be adequate for that.

And then ample cycle lockers and a few cart park-and-charge spaces at the BRT station.

It depends on how much it costs to park and how much of a PITA parking is. If you have a ten minute walk from your parking space to the train station and the parking space is expensive it makes taking the neighborhood jitney to the BRT line to the train station much more attractive.

Regarding the comments about improving the Red line to alleviate traffic on 70 (Lily, 5/28): I thought a lot of that congestion was due to people making the MD-VA commute on the outer loop? People ride down 70 and then take 495 to Tysons Corner. It could be that lots of the cars on 70 park at Shady Grove, but the congestion south of must be leading to the Legion Bridge. Isn’t this the real reason for I-70 congestion, rather than a lack of transit options? (To me, it appears you Marylanders are blessed with many – Metro & Marc on the same corridor) Thoughts?

I always get suspicious when they don’t call something what it is. I have nothing against buses, but calling them RTVs or BRT is just a spin, and I don’t trust spins.

“but calling them RTVs or BRT is just a spin”

high-frequency transit service operating in dedicated lanes isn’t “just a spin” provided the new system will have those features in the end.

It is still a Third-Wolrd-esque solution… Buses are inherently dangerous by design.

Really, you just need to make a comparison:

– buses, unlike trains, have no fixed guideway and it relies almost solely on the human input of the driver

– (urban) buses, unlike cars and trucks, have no seatbelts for passengers, no airbags, no carefully designed surviving cell frame

So urban bases, no matter how you name them, combine the worst possible design choices, are dangerous and should be cracked upon with killing regulations like requiring EVERY road vehicle operating on basis of human input only to have ALL passengers seat in seats fit with airbags etc.

Buses are much safer than the only realistic alternative (cars). Safety guidelines do not call for buses to have the features you mention because in typical crashes (with cars), the bus is so much larger that the passengers are unharmed even without special safety features. In crashes with other buses or with trucks, a bus passenger is still safer than a car passenger because the chances for the car passenger are so low. Also, the driver is a trained professional, so the accident rate is lower. Also, urban buses typically move at relatively low speeds, so the crashes are less severe.

Trains also don’t have the safety features you mention, even though they have been known to crash into each other, crash into other vehicles at crossings, and to derail.

Bus systems have their flaws (high operating cost relative to trains, high pollution relative to electric vehicles, noise, etc.). But if you think safety is the main drawback of buses, you’re nuts.

The main safety drawback of buses is incompetent drivers, such as on the Chinatown lines which were shut down by USDOT recently. Obviously this drawback can be avoided by competent bus operators.

Looking more closely at the plan, I’m concerned that it seems to have been proposed without any consideration of Marchetti’s constant and the limited demand for very long commutes (regardless of mode). Disturbingly, I was unable to find any discussion of specific target travel times in the report (though maybe I am missing something).

The Red Line already takes 30 minutes to get from its outer ends in Montgomery County to downtown DC. Even with the very best busways and signal priority, commutes that involve walking or biking to an RTV station, taking RTV to a metro station, and taking metro into DC would be difficult to achieve in much under an hour each way. The number of people who would or should consider such long commutes is small.

Perhaps the intent of the system is to serve people who both live and work within Montgomery County. However, suburban employment centres are notoriously difficult for transit to serve; they are often surrounded by sprawling free parking lots and can be reached by less congested routes than those leading into the central city, compromising transit’s competitive advantage over cars. And if the travel-time numbers for the Corridor Cities Transitway are anything to go by, even many in-county trips might take more than an hour each way by RTV.

Given limited resources, it seems better to focus on projects that have the potential to provide more manageable total travel times. In Montgomery County, this means the Purple Line and improvements (in both speed and frequency) on the MARC Brunswick Line. Development should be focused along these corridors where fast and efficient transit is most feasible, rather than along long, slow BRT corridors stretching all over the county.

According to the state: “The locally preferred alternative travel time is approximately 49 minutes to travel from end to end.” The CCT would run 8 minutes longer using the plans offered by Johns Hopkins and Adventist Hospital, assuming the regular traffic is moving. That would make the trip at least 57 minutes to go from Clarksburg to the Shady Grove Metro which is 14 miles.

But Marchetti’s constant is not a wall, its a threshold beyond which elasticity wrt transit time is substantially higher.

If people in Montgomery County are already used to experiencing 45min to 1hr commutes, they’ll exhibit that elasticity, so a substantially faster bus to the train station will see a substantial jump on existing bus patronage.

If they are banking on more than a substantial jump on existing bus patronage, they may indeed end up disappointed.

Certainly the plan would provide greatly improved service for people who are already riding the bus, but the discussion of it (including Yonah’s post here) focuses almost entirely on the potential to “revolutionize” transportation patterns and attract “choice riders”. In particular it seems intended to foster lots of transit-oriented development along the routes, but if total commute times are too long, those new developments simply won’t be attractive.

But “too long” is not a dichotomy inside/outside the Marchetti threshold, its relative to common existing commutes in a region. I’m skeptical about a presumption that the typical commute in the outer reaches of the Greater DC area is within the Marchetti threshold.

There ARE job centers in Montgomery County that are already conducive to public transit, like Silver Spring, Bethesda, Rockville (the county seat) and soon White Flint. Not only do they all have Metro stations, but they’re also major bus hubs (Silver Spring is the largest transportation center in the state outside of Baltimore). I believe the majority of MoCo residents also work in the county (I think it’s about 60%), so a BRT network would primarily serve them, as the trips would be far shorter than if someone was, say, going from Clarksburg into DC.

The Corridor Cities Transitway (CCT) is not really a solution to anything. It is the trigger for the development in the Great Seneca Science Corridor, particularly for Johns Hopkins. Hopkins won’t get their full development capacity unless the CCT is built.

The proposed route of the CCT meanders next to or through the properties in the so-called “Science City” so the developers can get the maximum amount of density.

How many first-class transit systems meander? The route of the CCT resembles the tapeworm pictured in the 9th grade biology textbook. A first-class transit system should not resemble a tapeworm.

The job centres in Bethesda, Silver Spring, Rockville and White flint can be most efficiently served by the Purple Line, Brunswick Line and existing Red Line. Doesn’t it make more sense to focus transit investment and future development along those corridors, rather than on much slower and less efficient bus lines stretching out to Burtonsville, Olney and Clarksburg?

The BRT system is about getting people from places like Burtonsville, Olney and Clarksburg to job centers in Bethesda, Silver Spring and Rockville. We can’t afford to run Metro to all of these places, so this is a feasible alternative.

Given the sprawling and car-oriented form of those places at present, current residents are unlikely to ride the system in large numbers, and so it’s not worth the cost for their sake. If the plan is to serve residents of new transit-oriented developments, then Burtonsville, Olney and Clarksburg seem like bad places for such development, since the BRT lines necessary to serve them will be inefficient, slow, and expensive; there is room for development around the existing and planned rail lines. Either way, I see no reason to substantially invest in transit to Burtonsville, Olney and Clarksburg.

So this is the first I’m hearing of Marchetti’s constant, and I gotta say, I would love to have an hour’s commute into Manhattan.

I’m just going to point out that a lot of commuters from the outer boroughs of the city violate Marchetti’s constant, but the theory sounds nice.

5 minutes for walking, 5 minutes for waiting for the bus, 20 minutes on the bus, and 30 minutes on the Red Line. Assuming an average speed of 20-25 mph, that’s a six to eight mile circle around the Red Line stops. If you make the upper threshold an hour and fifteen, then that adds 15 minutes to the potential bus time, making it a ten to fourteen mile circle.

I do agree with you on one thing though – no one will want to take two buses to a train. The people who were forced to do it after service cuts in New York City hate their situation right now.

Its an hour round trip. Inside a half-hour each-way commute, transit time to work is not a big factor in determining commuter use of one or another way to get to work ~ outside a half hour, the commute travel time weighs much more heavily.

That’s why, in a much earlier time, “Only 45 minutes to Broadway, oh what a difference it makes.”

Marchetti’s constant is not a wall, its a threshold, with behavior different on the two sides of the threshold.

I challenge the notion that trains are “permanent” but buses aren’t, unless they have a fixed guideway. Nationwide there were hundreds of miles of fixed, on-street rail lines (streetcars) in the early and the mid-20th Century. And all but a handful have been abandoned, and only a few have been replaced by rapid transit rail.

There are numerous bus routes around the country that were established in the 1920’s and 1930’s, and continue to operate in similar form to this day. They serve major corridors with strong demand. Demand is what keeps a line alive, not a rail in the ground.

It is, nonetheless, an established market perception and so affects the real estate value increment from access to a particular transport system. Perhaps a majority of real estate buyers are not that immersed in the history of transport in the US.

I’m not convinced this perception is particularly common; people don’t really fret that the bus stop on their corner will vanish decades in the future, they assume it has always been there and always will be. The market preference for rail seems to me far more attributable to other factors, including comfort, status, and observed correlation with willingness on the part of government to invest in speed and frequency.

I’d be interested to see any studies that try to separate the impact of these and other factors influencing the market’s preference for rail.

It would be interesting to try to sort the different factors out, yes.

It seems, however, that the factors can’t be overcome, so I’m not sure it’s worth sorting them out.

The only circumstances I’ve found in my examinations where buses are more popular than trains are where
(a) the buses are faster (rare);
(b) the buses are significantly cheaper (common);
(c) the buses are more reliable (very rare).

Or, of course, where the train just doesn’t go to the right place.

Unless buses have a strong advantage on (a), (b), or (c), a train will be more popular, and one should compare bus and train alternatives on that basis.

The lower operating costs of rail rather than buses (when there are large numbers of riders) usually outweigh all these other factors.

Meaning, the greater upfront cost of rail over buses is justified when there are enough riders expected.

The report Yonah links reads mostly like some sort of marketing piece. It contains a lot of gushing and buzzwords about building a “game changer” to attract a “new universe of riders”, and photos and renderings to argue in the abstract just how shiny and rail-like buses can be. There’s very little, however, about technical details or other concrete facts. No discussion of travel times, no indication of where or how close together stops might be located, no density maps or other discussion of where transit demand is and why the routes shown might make sense. Indeed it almost seems as though they were drawing lines on a map entirely arbitrarily. Ridership projections (165k-207k) are mentioned briefly but dismissed as failing to take into account the proposal’s “game changing” nature.

Is there another document somewhere where these details are discussed?

Anon, citizens have just found it there is another set of documents, called ‘binders,’ that have very detailed analyses of each segment of the proposed system. As is usual for Montgomery County, however, the document is secret and few of our elected officials will admit it exists. The Transit Task Force has not put the ‘binders’ on their website and also have acted like it does not exist. Neighbors have gotten a copy and it is being passed around, If anyone on this thread has seen it and can comment, it would be greatly appreciated.

I found out that there are still streetcar lines waiting in the city of Fredrick Mayland waiting to be used for light rail or new streetcars. Such as if you look on google streetview you see a old set of railroad tracks that heads into downtown Fredrick Mayland it is also followed by a set of power poles that go though the city core. If you follow this rail line enters city streets and has large sections of it where you see two sets of metal rails running though the downtown area. What they should do is do everything they can to prevent these old streetcar tracks from being paved over by the greedy car only streets and see if they can bring back streetcars or put light rail on them.

Well, yes and no. Those tracks that you see are actually old Pennsylvania RR tracks, although they were shared by the electric H&F in the last days of the electric rail lines. This line had street running (diesel) freights as recently as 20 years ago. But they have been abandoned for a while, even as a new MARC station opened on the southern end of downtown, there is no rail connection to the north anymore. Much of the old H&F electric ROW is intact, and there have been half-hearted proposals to build a small, heritage type operation using the old Pennsy rails on East St. and some new (old) trackage, but I don’t see it happening anytime soon. Frederick’s priority should be a much more robust MARC service, with off-peak and weekend service, combined with improvements to their already pretty good bus service.

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