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The Corridor Cities Transitway and the future of the middle suburbs

According to the Gazette, Maryland state planners are optimistic that private sector funding might help pay for the Corridor Cities Transitway. The Transitway is a proposed line north of Shady Grove along the 270 corridor, through some areas planned for high density commercial and residential development. A train line here would encourage human scale, energy efficient, walkable urban growth—if Montgomery County actually builds the line before the development. That's not always what's happened in the past; Montgomery County has a history of approving development, calling it "transit-oriented," and then forgetting about the transit.

In the 1980s and 1990s, county officials approved development at the intersection of Briggs-Chaney Road and US-29, and also most of Olney, based on the hint of potentially, maybe, sort of, possibly, hopefully, you know, one day running a BRT line up Georgia Ave and US-29. They never did, and the "transit-oriented" development has no transit, nor is it so oriented. History could repeat itself with the Corridor Cities Transitway.

However, there are reasons to be optimistic this time around. When the county approved the Briggs-Chaney and Olney developments, Transit-Oriented Development was a new buzzword that was novel to the planners of the time. Both of those previous failures were doomed from the start, as both developments have car-dependent forms. Even if good transit someday connected to those places, they would still need a North Arlington style suburban-to-urban retrofit in order to function as true transit-oriented walkable urban places.

However, the Corridor Cities Transitway area map (PDF) shows promise. There are notable major employers such as the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the Johns Hopkins University Gaithersburg satellite campus, and the U.S. Department of Energy, shopping destinations such as the Rio (a faux "town center"-format mall at the intersection of I-370 and I-270), and existing population centers and local retail centers like Germantown and the Kentlands section of Gaithersburg. While "downtown" Germantown would need a little retrofitting with a walkable grid, Kentlands is a New Urbanist development that is transit-ready.

Frustratingly, some officials are already pushing for Bus Rapid Transit over light rail for the Corridor Cities Transitway. I've written previously about BRT's shortcomings. The arguments for light rail on the Corridor Cities Transitway are similar to those on the Purple Line, and similar reasons: capacity, travel times, long term costs, and ability to induce TOD.

This project is a very different project than the Purple Line. The Purple Line will connect existing major job and population centers in the inner suburbs. It will also greatly increase regional mobility by filling in some gaping holes in our Metro system. In this respect, it is similar to the Silver Line through Tysons Corner, while the Corridor Cities Transitway is more akin to the Silver Line west of Tysons Corner: connect some sparse dots in Favored Quarter suburbia and focus future growth on transit-oriented walkable urban hubs.

Regardless of whether one likes or dislikes the form of car-dependent suburbia, it exists, and many millions of Americans currently live there. Our battle for energy independence and against climate change will partially hinge on whether we can retrofit our middle suburbs in a more transit-oriented manner. For this to happen, we have to build more transit. The Corridor Cities Transitway, built with light rail, will be a good step in the right direction.

Cavan Wilk became interested in the physical layout and economic systems of modern human settlements while working on his Master's in Financial Economics. His writing often focuses on the interactions between a place's form, its economic systems, and the experiences of those who live in them. He lives in downtown Silver Spring. 


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I grew up in Gaithersburg. The CCT runs through what amounts to "home" for me.

And though I absolutely agree with everything Cavan said in this post, I have two points:

1. The CCT route sucks. Here's why. Here's a illustration.

2. I want light rail for the CCT. *But* if any one of Maryland's three big LRT/BRT project gets the shaft and has to make due with BRT, I'd prefer the CCT be the one to have to live with BRT. The Purple line and Baltimore Red line have higher ceilings, and really need to be LRT.

by BeyondDC on Dec 29, 2008 5:40 pm • linkreport

BRT = Bad.

The very thing that advocates like to pump up, the cost and flexibility is exactly why it does bupkus for development planning. BRT can be too easily removed, repurposed to more car traffic (we need the lanes!!), etc... On the other hand, rail is an inflxible long term commitment.

Now, if you are a developer, which are you going to bank on for a multi-year development project? The transit system which can go away by the time you are halfway through the project? Even after the BRT is set up, every single developer coming later has to make the same calculation. More than likely, they hedge their bets and lard up the parking and demand more road expansion, just in case.

This is why, from a development style standpoint the following is true...

Heavy Rail > Light Rail > BRT > Just Normal Buses

The higher up the food chain, the more likely you get transit oriented development.

by John on Dec 29, 2008 6:39 pm • linkreport

BRT is so flexible an idea, it's hard to figure out what's meant.

You can get anything from Boston's silver line or Pittsburgh's busways, with a dedicated tunnel or roadway and some stations, all the way down to the route 79 "Metro Extra" bus, which just has branded vehicles and less frequent stops.

If you're trying to sell the system on ridership and development, you show the maximum BRT options. Then when it's time to compare costs, the less intensive BRT options are priced out. Until BRT supporters are willing to pin down what features will be included, it's hard to be a BRT supporter.

At the end, the vehicles don't carry as many people, cost more to operate and don't last as long.

Hopefully a change of administration will tamp down the "BRT = rail on rubber tires" mentality that is a big part of DOT policy now.

by Michael Perkins on Dec 29, 2008 8:34 pm • linkreport

"a faux "town center"-format mall"

A very apt description. Throughout suburbia, there are these malls that claim to be something different. It is still an isolated destination reached primarily by car and surrounded by parking. They are no different from older malls; all they have done is taken the top off.

Of course, malls used to be built without a roof. Then roofs were added--see, for instance, Prince George's Plaza. When Prince George's Plaza (or whatever it is called now) gets its roof removed again, we'll know we have come full circle.

But, in a hopeful sign, Prince George's Plaza is getting some real transit-oriented development. Sometimes there really is progress.

by Omari on Dec 29, 2008 10:59 pm • linkreport

I'm with BeyondDC's opinion that the current CCT route is a poor choice at best. As currently planned, i would not use it to visit friends near Kentlands due to needing to cross MD 119 on foot, but would be all about using it if it actually stopped in Kentlands.

by dcseain on Dec 30, 2008 9:45 am • linkreport

Washingtonian Center deserves much less scorn than true roof-less malls like Fairfax Corner and Bowie Town Center.

1. Washingtonian isn't the child of a single developer or a single development. Like a normal downtown, it's simply zoned for urban development and has grown parcel-by-parcel over many years.

2. It was the first of its kind. Washingtonian is the grand-daddy of lifestyle centers. They didn't exist in any meaningful way until it proved the concept. Target, which is currently throwing up urban format stores left and right, built its very first one at Washingtonian. It's fair to say that if Washingtonian hadn't been a success, Columbia Heights wouldn't have happened.

Washingtonian definitely has its weaknesses. You have to drive there. It's still basically a pod-like development, even if it's walkable internally. It doesn't have enough integrated residential. These are all legit reasons why it's not and will never be as good as downtown Bethesda... But let's not be too scornful of it. It's *not* fake like so many others, and it *was* a necessary step in our evolution away from enclosed mega malls.

by BeyondDC on Dec 30, 2008 9:48 am • linkreport

I do agree that the routing needs some work. Many other renderings of the route have alternatives at this stage. It's still in planning and nowhere near writing a DEIS.

That is one of the challenges of this project. There's so many destinations separated by all that sprawl that it's hard to balance connecting them with other practical considerations.

by Cavan on Dec 30, 2008 9:52 am • linkreport

Sure Shady Grove needs it. But the CCT has competition...called MARC. Will never happen.

Extend Metro through Old Town Gaithersburg and up to Germantown and Frederick. Connect it to Glenmont.

Heavy rail over light rail anyday.

by Gaithersburg Res on Dec 30, 2008 12:09 pm • linkreport

In a perfect world, I'd like to see light rail -- but as mentioned in a prior comment, the preferred option would be to extend the Red Line further north, an interesting concept would be to branch the Red Line above Silver Spring along the rail line and connect it to itself at Twinbrook, thereby serving the communities in the middle, plus, giving those coming down from the north and west the option of going towards Silver Spring or Bethesda -- now back to the comment at hand, suppose light rail is built out to Germantown, could it support the patronage that may drive down from the north to Germantown and hop on instead of driving further south and getting on at Shady Grove? I know living even further out, if all I have to do is drive as far as Rt. 118, I'll take that option instead of going further south to Shady Grove -- after all, I'll eventually get there anyhow.

by Coneyraven on Dec 30, 2008 4:44 pm • linkreport

The project is being envisioned as rail so that it can handle both the local trips between destinations and through traffic to the Red Line terminus at Shady Grove.

It's sort of killing two birds with one stone. Rail provides the capacity to do that. That's why BRT would be an ill-advised attempt at a solution.

by Cavan on Dec 30, 2008 5:19 pm • linkreport

>Heavy rail over light rail anyday.

I'd rather have the CCT than a 2-3 station extension of the Red line. CCT serves more walkable destinations directly, and anyone who's driving to the park and ride may as well just drive to Shady Grove.

by BeyondDC on Dec 31, 2008 9:48 am • linkreport


Assuming a good CCT alignment.

I'd rather have a 2-3 station Red line extension than a poorly-routed CCT.

by BeyondDC on Dec 31, 2008 9:49 am • linkreport

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