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Montgomery RTV has promise, but needs lanes and money

Last Wednesday, residents who studied bus rapid transit in Montgomery County talked about their findings at a forum in Silver Spring hosted by the Coalition for Smarter Growth. They stressed how important transit is to the county's future, but to succeed, the system will need dedicated lanes and realiable funding.

Bus rapid transit in Los Angeles. Photo by LACMTA on Flickr.

Composed of residents, community leaders and major landowners, the Transit Task Force was set up by County Executive Ike Leggett to give recommendations on how to build a countywide transit system dubbed RTV, for "Rapid Transit Vehicle."

In May, they released this report, concluding that a 16-line, 148-mile network of rapid bus routes would reduce congestion and provide new development opportunities. It builds on previous studies by planning consultants Parsons Brinckerhoff and an earlier proposal by County Councilmember Marc Elrich.

Bus at Shirlington Station, Arlington
RTV stations will be more substantial, with features similar to those at Shirlington Station in Arlington. Photo by the author.

Not your typical bus

Unlike traditional bus service, RTV stations would be distinctive and covered, with real-time information for when the next one was coming and off-board fare collection. Stops would be between a half-mile and a mile apart, while buses would run frequently throughout the day. The buses themselves would be sleek, attractive and level with the station platform, allowing riders with limited mobility to get on and off more easily.

Meanwhile, Metrobus and the county's Ride On bus service would be restructured. New "feeder buses" would collect riders in neighborhoods and deliver them to rapid transit stations, reducing the need for park-and-ride lots.

When finished, the RTV system could receive between 165,000 and 207,000 riders each day, though the task force was realistic about changing transportation habits. "We don't expect to get half the people out of their cars, but even if a small percentage do, it'll make a big difference," said Tina Slater, task force member and president of the Action Committee for Transit.

Francine Waters, representing Lerner Enterprises on the task force, talked about the development potential of RTV. Lines would connect research and development centers like the Great Seneca Science Corridor with the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda and the Food and Drug Administration in White Oak, creating a "science and health triangle."

Lerner is one of several developers is remaking White Flint as a new urban center. They hope to transform Rockville Pike into a grand boulevard, complete with special, protected lanes for buses. RTV is about "[providing] different levels of mobility," she said, making it easier for people to get around with or without a car.

Street Space For 60 People: Car, Bus, Bicycle
Buses can carry the same number of people in far less space than cars. Image by carltonreid on Flickr.

Need for dedicated lanes

However, it's unclear whether the rest of the system will look like Rockville Pike. The Task Force chose not to look at where dedicated lanes would go, saying it required "block by block" solutions that were best considered during a future design phase. "The construction may be the simplest part," said Winston. "The sorting out of these issues will be extremely complicated."

Adding new lanes for transit could be prohibitively expensive, but county officials are reluctant to give existing lanes to buses. Parsons Brinckerhoff's study assumed that much of the system wouldn't have dedicated lanes at all.

"Some places you won't be able to take anything away," said Dan Wilhelm, task force representative from the Montgomery County Civic Federation.

As GGW's Dan Malouff wrote last month, that could be the undoing of Montgomery County's transit plans. A transit lane can carry more people than a normal car lane. According to Wilhelm, 3 car lanes can carry about 4,000 people per hour. Replace one of them with a dedicated bus lane, and capacity can increase to 10,000 people, depending on how frequent the buses are. With 3 car lanes and a bus lane, a street can carry as many as 18,000 people per hour.

This is especially relevant to the county's downtowns, like Bethesda and Silver Spring, where there's a lot of congestion that can slow buses down but no room to widen streets. Taking away lanes from cars in these areas will be politically unpopular, but giving them to buses is the only way to ensure that the rapid transit system is fast and reliable. Otherwise, riders will be reluctant to use the system, making it less effective while traffic gets worse.

Twins and Bus Stop
Residents and businesses within a half-mile of RTV routes could see higher property taxes.

Questions about funding scheme

The task force estimates that the RTV system could cost $1.8 billion to build and $1.1 million each year to operate. They've proposed dividing it into 3 phases to be built over 20 years. Funding would likely come from a combination of state and local sources.

The county could borrow money to build the system and and use the proceeds from a special taxing district along with some state funds to pay it off over time, in an arrangement similar to the 30/10 initiative being used by Los Angeles to pay for a massive transit expansion.

"This will last a long time and can be paid for over a long time," said Winston.

Some audience members were skeptical about that arrangement, which would tax residents and businesses within a half-mile of the proposed routes. Jim Zepp, Silver Spring resident and member of the Montgomery County Civic Federation, asked whether the system benefitted long-distance commuters from Frederick and Howard counties at the expense of those who lived next to a RTV line. "It's not Smart Growth," he said.

Winston suggested residents shouldn't "take a narrow view" of who will benefit from the service. "Even if I don't live near the service, I still benefit in a variety of direct and indirect ways," he said.

The task force warned that not improving the county's transportation system wasn't an option. Montgomery County already loses money to congestion, Wilhelm noted, due to wasted fuel and higher labor costs, which result in a higher cost for doing business here. Meanwhile, the county is losing jobs while surrounding areas continue to add them. There's room for over 160,000 new jobs in Montgomery County under current plans, but even without them, turnover from retirements and an influx of new workers means traffic will still be an issue.

"Burying our heads in the sand about creating additional transportation assets is not the solution," said Winston. "We need to do this even if we don't create all these new jobs, and especially if we do."

Next up, the Planning Department will take a look at the rapid transit proposal and make further refinements. County planners have already made changes to the system outlined by the Task Force, removing lines that were unlikely to get a lot of riders while extending others that might be more popular. According to planner Larry Cole, they may have a report of their own by October.

Dan Reed is an urban planner at Nelson\Nygaard. He writes his own blog, Just Up the Pike, and serves as the Land Use Chair for the Action Committee for Transit. He lives in downtown Silver Spring. All opinions are his own. 


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"We don't expect to get half the people out of their cars, but even if a small percentage do, it'll make a big difference," said Tina Slater.....

Just getting say 10% out of cars and onto RTV will make a big difference for everyone. Notice how much more freely traffic is flowing in August? It only takes a modest reduction in the total number of vehicles to change a street from congested to free flowing.

by Wayne Phyillaier on Aug 13, 2012 2:06 pm • linkreport

The argument public transit advocates don't seem to make enough is that these networks will provide the armature for future growth rather than make everyone ditch their cars. The move away from car dependancy will be a long and slow evolution, but in the mean time we should be advancing these proposals as fast as we can.

by Thayer-D on Aug 14, 2012 7:13 am • linkreport


Thank you. That really is the best argument. Future TOD that will reduce infrastructure costs via density.

Trying to convince someone that lives in a Cul-d-sac in Germantown that they are going to use transit to get to visit a friend in a sprawl neighborhood in Gaithersburg just will not be well received. A bus trip between points like that would take 1.5+ hours vs a 15 min drive in a car. That argument will always lose.

But, when people learn about TOD on transit lines, and think about how they just need to travel from one TOD to another, and that most friends, shopping, services, & such are likely going to be on that line, then transit will get a warmer reception.

by Cyclone on Aug 14, 2012 10:05 am • linkreport

A warmer reception from some, and screaming about "social engineering" from others.

Transit advocates are CONSTANTLY making the argument that building transit means being able to build more densely and absorb future growth in a cheaper way. In fact, I think it is the #1 argument transit advocates make. You hardly ever hear the argument that new transit is going to magically turn all your trips into transit trips. The argument is that people can take trips during peak hours (work trips) which gets cars of the road when we need them gone most.

And what response do we get for these efforts? Seems hardly warm and cuddly to me:
A. We don't want more density!
B. All this density is just going to mean more traffic!
C. The government wants to force everyone to live in a tiny box apartment!
D. They're going to put up skyscrapers in our bucolic SFH neighborhood!

by MLD on Aug 14, 2012 10:20 am • linkreport

Here’s the problem with part of this

"Metrobus and the county's Ride On bus service would be restructured. New "feeder buses" would collect riders in neighborhoods and deliver them to rapid transit stations, reducing the need for park-and-ride lots."

We did this when the Metrorail was built and it pissed people off big time. Everytime a station has opened except for a small few such as Noma, Morgan Blvd & Benning Rd routes have been cut, or changed to the point where there is no purpose to them.

This was the point of the cheap fares in Anacostia because they cut every bus routes to end at Anacostia after it opened. It had there fares double and sometimes triple.

With the RTV would they be priced the same as regular Metrobus and RideOn routes or have express pricing; with the express pricing some may choose to not use it.

by kk on Aug 15, 2012 6:51 pm • linkreport

If something like this could be used - along with a 3rd rail on surface lines - to help create express service to Shady Grove, it would be a big help.

by Capt. Hilts on Aug 16, 2012 11:19 am • linkreport

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