Greater Greater Washington

Hopkins lobbies for a slower, cheaper transitway

The Corridor Cities Transitway once promised a rapid transit ride north of Shady Grove, but Johns Hopkins University and other Montgomery County developers want to delete the "rapid." That's because development in the area is tied to the transitway. The cheaper the transitway can get, the sooner their plans can move forward.


Photo by express000 on Flickr.

Six weeks ago, following intense lobbying by real estate interests, the Montgomery County Council voted to build the Corridor Cities Transitway, a proposed transit line extending north of Shady Grove as "bus rapid transit" rather than light rail.

The decision rested on an analysis that assumed that a BRT line, like light rail, "would operate entirely on exclusive guideway; two curbed travel lanes separated from general purpose traffic, pedestrians and bicycles."

But the developers were already preparing to renege on this promise.

Even before the vote, they had hired transportation consultants to study how to build the transitway on the cheap. Within days of the council vote, the developers pulled the plan out of their back pockets and began lobbying county and state officials for it.

The public has not been allowed to see the developers' plan. But reports are that it would delete overpasses from the transitway. Buses would get their own lanes only where the price is low. At intersectionsthe places where congestion is worstthe "rapid" buses would have to travel in regular traffic lanes.

Why would anyone want to spend tens of millions of dollars to build bus lanes where they won't do much good? The reason is that sprawl development in "Science City," on the west side of Gaithersburg, can't move forward until the CCT, or at least some version of the CCT, gets built. Johns Hopkins is the biggest landowner in the area.

Under a Master Plan approved in 2010, there can be no more development in Science City until certain requirements are fulfilled. The key hurdle is a requirement to "fully fund construction of the CCT from the Shady Grove Metro station to Metropolitan Grove within the first six years of the county's CIP or the state CIP." A transitway with overpasses left out wouldn't seem to be "fully funded," but Hopkins and its allies may have enough political pull to convince the county that it is.

Sometime in the future, after the dumbed-down transitway is built, the missing bridges could show up. But there's little chance of that happening if Hopkins can get a go-ahead for its real estate schemes. The developers are the main force pushing this transitway forward, and they are sure to lose interest once they have their approvals.

Meanwhile, the county Bus Rapid Transit task force has found itself in a pickle. Unless it abandons its commitment to "gold standard" BRT, it has discovered, it must choose between taking lanes away from cars and road widenings that would involve wholesale demolition of homes and churches. If Hopkins gets away with its bait-and-switch on the Corridor Cities Transitway, we can expect bus projects to suffer the same fate in the rest of the county.

Ben Ross was president of the Action Committee for Transit for 15 years. His new book about the politics of urbanism and transit, Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism, is published by Oxford University Press. 

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This is why I never advocate for a BRT even though they are a really good solution for mass transit. In the Washington area it seems that proposing a BRT is a gateway to a regular bus route. When people ask me why I would advocate for light rail or street cars (like H Street's) I answer them that it most certainly guarantees dedicate lanes. If you ask for a BRT then all you get is another bus route. This is unfortunate, because if we did build one like the successful ones I've seen then it would be extremely beneficial. I am also an advocate of giving buses dedicated lanes during rush hour too, but again that'll get killed, if not in council, then by cars and taxis that would ignore the rules.

by dc denizen on Mar 6, 2012 12:51 pm • linkreport

The 395 HOV lanes, derided though they may be, provide a transit trip to the distric thats not far below an all rail trip, and is generally better than a short local bus ride to a rail trip.

What this region lacks is a BRT facility that is superior to that however. Maryland may not be the place for it. The Crystal City transitway is on its way, and while its exclusive for its entire length, I think it stands a great chance of being very successful. There simply isn't the funding for rail everywhere that we need dedicated transit facilities.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Mar 6, 2012 1:34 pm • linkreport

Agreed with the above - BRT is great when done right, but it will never be done right as long as buses are seen as second-class to the car.

It's why I'm a bit more friendly to HOV lanes than BRT in general, even though BRT is technically quite superior: it gives carpools a chance to use their extra seats and the dedicated lanes drivers feel they have a right to.

by OctaviusIII on Mar 6, 2012 1:56 pm • linkreport

I would like to know how to pay for a full BRT expressway without an significant increase in taxes, something thats not really popular in Maryland at the moment. It seems all I read is constant complaint/whining against the science corridor developers in particularly against JHU. If there is a solution for raising the sizable amount of capitol needed to build a full BRT system then I would love to read about that, rather then hearing more complaining. Until then the cheaper the BRT system can be built the better, because that means the faster it will actually get funding and become a reality. This would allow all those evil developers to build the counties tax base and generate new jobs with their projects, which I know sounds terrible.

by Sam on Mar 6, 2012 2:19 pm • linkreport

I've often thought that one good way to implement BRT on the cheap, while still tamping down the critics of "stealing a lane from cars," would be to have the buses operate in semi-dedicated lanes. At non-peek times, the lanes could be bus-only, and at peek times, the lanes could be designated HOV-3 or HOV-4 and used by carpoolers. I haven't seen/heard of any BRT systems that operate this way, though.

by Bradley Heard on Mar 6, 2012 2:49 pm • linkreport

The principal elements of this story are one that seem to come up again and again; perhaps the 'B' in 'BRT' really stands for 'bait-and-switch.' First, someone talks about trains, then we're promised something that's 'just like a train,' but in the end all we get are a handful of repainted buses that are anything but rapid.

by thm on Mar 6, 2012 2:56 pm • linkreport

In addition to full funding of the CCT in the CIP from Shady Grove to Metropolitan Grove, Stage 2 also requires an 18% non-auto-driver mode share. I wonder what it is now.

by Miriam on Mar 6, 2012 3:19 pm • linkreport

This is not surprising at all, once I heard of the 'BRT' decision, I knew that they would cut every corner possible. I bet they build no new dedicated lanes, even in King Farm where the space is already set aside. And new bridges and overpasses? Fuggetaboutit. There may be a very few short spots where existing lanes are converted to 'Bus Only' lanes, but there will be no enforcement, so cars will use them anyway. Oh, and I bet nothing at all will be done north of 124. So you'll get some regular (okay, maybe some articulated) buses running in traffic which will disappoint everyone. Then the anti-rail types will say, "Look, this is a huge failure, it's a good thing we didn't spend the money for light rail".

by kinverson on Mar 6, 2012 3:22 pm • linkreport

out of curiosity, where are there bus only (not HOV) lanes in the region now? I can only think of 7th street in District.

Crystal City Transitway is supposed to done before 2014 - anything else new thats equally as far along? Not K Street transitway, right?

by AWalkerInTheCity on Mar 6, 2012 3:35 pm • linkreport

BRT always ends up being bargained down to just a new highway with a few bus lanes, destined to be converted to car lanes for the privileged driving class.

This is why I oppose BRT and wish they had done light rail instead.

by Alec on Mar 6, 2012 4:30 pm • linkreport

@Alec

How do you propose paying for that light rail?

by sam on Mar 6, 2012 4:50 pm • linkreport

@Sam

Light rail and BRT can be paid for in the same way you are being paid for: by the developers.

by Adam L on Mar 6, 2012 6:45 pm • linkreport

@thm: So you've ridden the REX bus to and from Huntington Station too?

by Transport. on Mar 6, 2012 7:18 pm • linkreport

Incidentally, light rail can easily be just as bad. Good examples - VTA in San Jose: they chose light rail over heavy rail because they could save money by having tighter turns. Of course, that reduces train speed to 2 mph in some places. So light rail rides take forever.

The MAX in Portland has the same issue downtown.

And San Francisco MUNI runs incredibly slow light rail trains both because they share lanes above ground, and because they all funnel into the same tunnel below ground.

by Mark on Mar 7, 2012 2:12 am • linkreport

The buses can control the traffic signals. There is no reason not to do this here.

by Eli Rabett on Mar 7, 2012 4:00 am • linkreport

@ Adam L

Increased taxes on developers/businesses? Thats been working out so well for suburban maryland so far. Thats why Maryland is so far ahead of Northern Virginia when it comes to commercial development and jobs. (Sarcasm)

by Sam on Mar 7, 2012 7:28 am • linkreport

Well, those geniuses at Hopkins also lobbied for the Intercounty Connector and to weaken Maryland's stormwater regulations, so I guess we begin to know what to expect from JHU all too often.

by Greg Smith on Mar 7, 2012 9:35 am • linkreport

What is the current status in Connecticut with the New Britain-Hartford BRT, Busway? Was allegedly to be in operation 2009.

by Jerome Rosenfeld on Mar 8, 2012 9:40 am • linkreport

@Jerome Rosenfeld:
I would suggest that you review the project website:
http://www.ctrapidtransit.com/Busway_Home.htm

You can find helpful facts and maps there. Construction is to start soon, and the New Britain - Hartford Busway is to open in 2014.

by Matt Johnson on Mar 8, 2012 10:16 am • linkreport

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