Could RTV transform Montgomery's transit?
Montgomery's plans for a "Rapid Transit Vehicle" (RTV) bus system could dramatically transform transit in the county, and could even become a model for the rest of the region and country. But to achieve this, planners will have to avoid shortcuts to get the maximum bang possible from buses.
Choices like giving them dedicated lanes in both directions or only one, investing in the best vehicles possible, reducing parking requirements around stations to encourage more walkable development, and the locations of routes will all govern whether the system truly transforms Montgomery County, as leaders and the task force participants hope.
BRT creep and RTV's success
The Task Force's report emphasizes the most important requirement for success: separated, dedicated transit lanes throughout the system.
Buses would ideally have dedicated lanes in both directions, but this only appears feasible for part of the system. Most of the RTV lines will have a dedicated lane going in the direction of rush hour traffic (south or west in the morning, north or east in the evening). Vehicles running in the opposite direction will have to operate mixed with other traffic.
It is unclear whether such buses running in mixed traffic will receive any signal priority or other preference.
Earlier plans had called reconfiguring the medians of many arterial roads for RTV. While the final report still calls for this on some routes, space and right-of-way issues make it difficult elsewhere. On most other routes, a lane in the off-peak direction will likely be taken away from cars and allocated exclusively to RTV.
For instance, on a 6-lane road with 3 lanes each way, one lane will be devoted to RTV and 3 to cars, all running with rush hour traffic. The remaining 2 lanes would run counter to the rush hour traffic.
While these compromises are not ideal, they are far superior to the existing situation where buses are completely mixed with cars.
Another danger is that other parts of the RTV system could be degraded in order to save money or get the system operational more quickly. Montgomery County already has a pretty good bus system. If the extra features of RTV are diluted too much, then the entire effort will simply duplicate what already exists, and will be a waste. For the system to perform as promised, it cannot be watered down.
Transit advocates should keep apprised of all aspects of RTV planning as it develops, to make sure it retains the benefits of a true BRT system as much as possible.
Although large parts of the business, government, planning, environmental, and transit communities have come together around the RTV idea, Montgomery County does not have a great record with putting transit first. If citizens are promised a "gold standard" system that is comparable to light rail and something less is delivered, it will make future transit projects less likely.
Managing parking and traffic
Another factor that might impact RTV services is its effect on traffic and parking. While RTV is intended to reduce traffic, its success might draw more cars from outside the county, since relatively empty roads often fill up with drivers hoping to take advantage of uncongested lanes. Could a successful RTV system actually induce some traffic in a kind of rebound effect?
One way to avoid this is to limit the number of parking spaces near transit stations. Although the Task Force's report did not address this issue, Dale Tibbitts, Chief of Staff for Marc Elrich (the County Council member who pioneered the RTV system), has clarified that a separate public parking committee will address this issue.
Elrich hopes to lower the amount of parking required for office buildings on transit lines. This will boost ridership on the RTV, save office owners on the costs of providing parking, and reduce the need to use valuable land for parking garages.
The choice of routes will also affect RTV's success. The report proposes maximum protection for Montgomery's agricultural reserve, and includes strong east-west links that were absent in earlier versions of the proposal.
These east-west links would encourage balanced growth, allow for stronger infill development in east county, and possibly spur links to Prince George's County. However, some might be more useful than others.
Instituting an RTV line along the wide and underutilized Intercounty Connector (ICC) would be easy, but it would go through relatively low-density areas and would be one of the least useful connections in the network. It probably makes sense for this line to be included in the plan, but does it belong in Phase 1, as proposed?
By contrast, the Randolph Road and Viers Mill east-west connections would immediately see tremendous usage, so it is very appropriate to include those lines in Phase 1. The University Boulevard route would also be more useful than the ICC, although it is scheduled for Phase 2.
It might also make sense to combine the University Boulevard and Veirs Mill lines into a single route, since they form a single cohesive corridor from Langley Park to Rockville.
Meanwhile, The Wisconsin South and Georgia South routes should also be prioritized and potentially extended into the District.
On the other hand, the Midcounty Highway extension section does not make sense; it would require a new highway in a part of the county already dense with roads. With I-270, Great Seneca Highway, Frederick Road, Clopper Road, and Snouffer School Road already providing a grid of north-south connections between Gaithersburg and Germantown, Midcounty Highway should not be a priority.
While core urban areas are best served by streetcars and light rail, the realities of funding mean we cannot afford to build rail everywhere, especially in more suburban areas. The latest cost estimates for the light rail Purple Line are $120 million per mile, compared to $54 million per mile for the BRT Corridor Cities Transitway, and $10-$20 million per mile for the proposed RTV network.
With Maryland still paying for the ICC and unable to pass a new gas tax, the RTV may be the only viable option.
Effects on Montgomery County and the region
Although BRT is less ideal than a rail system, the RTV network does have the potential to transform Montgomery County and the DC region. It will bring unprecedented transit access to all of the major mixed-use areas of the county. For the first time it will become easier to travel around many parts of Montgomery via transit than via car. That would be a profound change.
But as impressive as the RTV concept may be, there's more to do. The system should be integrated with the entire region, especially Prince George's County. The same things that make RTV a practical choice for Montgomery are also true for all the suburban areas around the Beltway, and even for some corridors in DC. With many local jurisdictions considering BRT or streetcar networks, it would be a shame for them all to end up with different branding and fare structures.
The first phases of the RTV system are projected to start in 2016, with the entire system built within a 9-year time frame. That's extremely rapid. The report emphasizes the need to get the whole system working together quickly, since a major benefit of a network like this is that the lines all complement one another.
If built as proposed, with dedicated busways, in a short timespan, the RTV idea can be a real winner for Montgomery County. If it's expanded to neighboring jurisdictions it can also be a real winner for the region. But if that's to happen, the pratfalls of BRT creep and putting automobile capacity first must be avoided. Montgomery can do it, but it won't be easy.
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