Greater Greater Washington

Support grows for BRT in eastern Montgomery, but councilmembers are undecided

Montgomery County is currently deciding what projects to prioritize for its share of state transportation funds. But elected officials are divided over whether to support building new interchanges along Route 29 in East County, or a Bus Rapid Transit line instead.


Route 29 interchange with the ICC. Image from Google Maps.

Tomorrow, the County Council will discuss its transportation priority letter, which requests funding for specific projects from the state. The council's Transportation and Environment committee has recommended taking a progressive shift to prioritize more bicycle, pedestrian, and transit projects.

Led by chair Roger Berliner and at-large councilmember Hans Riemer, the committee prioritized funding to extend the Corridor Cities Transitway to Clarksburg, WMATA's Priority Corridors bus network, and funding to implement bicycle-pedestrian priority areas throughout the county. They also voted to remove three out of four proposed new interchanges on Route 29 in White Oak and Burtonsville.

Several interchanges have been built on the corridor between Silver Spring and Burtonsville in recent years, creating a partially closed-access highway between Route 198 and New Hampshire Avenue that narrows down to a typical, six-lane arterial south of New Hampshire Avenue, where Route 29 approaches downtown Silver Spring.

There have been plans on the books for years to add four additional interchanges north of White Oak, at Fairland and Musgrove roads, Tech Road, Stewart Lane, and Greencastle Road, which has the support of County Executive Ike Leggett. The total price tag? $344 million.

The problem is, the real bottleneck on Route 29 is south of all these intersections in the Four Corners neighborhood, where drivers queue to get on the Beltway. State and county planners know they will never widen Route 29 through Four Corners, meaning new interchanges will only speed more commuters to the bottleneck faster. The interchanges will also make pedestrian connections across the highway more difficult, while increasing the flow and speed of traffic in areas like Four Corners, reducing pedestrian safety.


A family tries to cross Route 29 at Stewart Lane, where an interchange is proposed. Photo by dan reed! on Flickr.

That's why the council committee and the Planning Board both recommended removing additional interchanges from this year's list. Route 29 is one of the 10 corridors in the county's newly-approved BRT network, and Planning Department staff who ran models on the corridor suggested implementing BRT first, and then reviewing whether the interchanges are still needed. They estimate that an 11-mile BRT line between Silver Spring and Burtonsville would cost $351 million, similar to the three interchanges.

While Bus Rapid Transit is not yet ready for construction on Route 29, requesting funds for the three interchanges now would absorb a significant amount of state funds for years to come, making it more difficult to fund needed, high-quality transit in the corridor in the future.

A chart comparing the County Executive's proposals and committee recommendations is on the last page of the council packet. At-large councilmember Nancy Floreen wants to see all four interchanges on 29, while the County Executive wants two: Fairland/Musgrove and Tech. It's unclear where the rest of the Council stands on the issue, especially newly-appointed interim Councilmember Cherri Branson whose district (District 5) includes Route 29.

If you want to see Montgomery County prioritize Bus Rapid Transit and other sustainable transportation projects above decades-old, grade-separated interchanges, click here to send county leaders an email.

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Kelly Blynn is the Coalition for Smarter Growth's Next Generation of Transit Campaign Manager and a member of the pedestrian advocacy organization All Walks DC. She is a former international campaigner at the climate change group 350.org and is now passionate about organizing locally with communities for sustainable and equitable transportation in the Washington region. 

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I live in the Four Corners area, and am quite familiar with the issues there. More traffic coming down the pipe from 29 won't "speed traffic through Four Corners." There will just be more of it, moving slowly.

I would be in favor of (only) the Tech Road interchange, it could be an elongated diamond where northbound vehicles exit, with lights at Industrial Pkwy and Tech Road, before merging back on. I can hardly see how overpasses on those two over 29 would make life worse for pedestrians, and the BRT stop could be on the frontage road between the two cross streets. An interchange was built at Randolph/Cherry Hill a decade or so ago. Do pedestrians there long for the days of running across 29? There is relatively little real estate (unlike farther north at Musgrove) for this interchange to morph into a monster cloverleaf or something else. I think that this would be a reasonable compromise.

by Joe in SS on Feb 24, 2014 11:44 am • linkreport

Making Route 29 a limited access highway north of New Hampshire Avenue would be terrible for the communities south of the interchange in White Oak. I blog about Four Corners, and I can confirm that the intersection is already chocked at rush hour, even with 8 through lanes on Route 29. Route 29 through Four Corners can't and shouldn't be widened.

If there is going to be new development in White Oak, BRT is going to be essential for it to succeed. There's just no more room for more car lanes on Route 29, and like the post says, any grade separation of interchanges north of New Hampshire Avenue would just get more cars to the bottleneck quicker.

Good article Kelly.

by Sean on Feb 24, 2014 11:52 am • linkreport

One thing this article fails to mention is that BRT will most likely only use dedicated lanes north of White Oak, which IMO makes it an unattractive means of getting to downtown SS and points south. If I were the average HoCo commuter, I would take my chances driving knowing that on BRT I will end up in the same mess in Four Corners.

In addition, this is more about the future development of White Oak than the current transportation issues. If there is going to be more jobs, retail, and homes, there needs to be adequate infrastructure. Of the two choices on the table (limited BRT vs. interchanges), I would take my chances with the interchanges as it's a more convenient option for those traveling to White Oak.

by Lane on Feb 24, 2014 1:41 pm • linkreport

Which specific access routes to Rt 29 is the Council considering closing? Such decisions could seriously affect numerous neighborhoods nearby and make traffic near the access routes still open worse off.
Also disturbing is this is the first I've heard of such an proposal, and I've been trying to keep track.

by asffa on Feb 24, 2014 1:50 pm • linkreport

Joe haven't seen pedestrians or bike riders crossing that bridge at all since it was built. Have seen some crossing on the side coming parallel 29 from Tech Rd. direction.

by asffa on Feb 24, 2014 1:56 pm • linkreport

Why haven't charter buses for the new White Oak Science area been proposed? Don't they really just want to get those employees in/out at specific times?

by asffa on Feb 24, 2014 1:59 pm • linkreport

if 2600 people need a bus, and the bus runs around every 3 minutes (BRT proposal), with 60 people each bus, it'd take hours to get them all out. And all those people waiting to get on, seeing buses go by too full
If you have a bunch of charter buses arriving at once, and fill those all up - so much more sensible.

by asffa on Feb 24, 2014 2:03 pm • linkreport

Lane,

I travel in from HoCo, and even the current Z29 with its 15 year old buses and limited schedule is a world better than the thought of driving in and being a part of the problem from Burnt Mills down to Four Corners. If BRT brings more regular service, it can only be an improvement on what is already a pretty nice service.

Asffa,

I'm confused...How would charter buses with one boarding-exiting door handle loading issues, for those numbers you posted, in a matter better than a bus with 2 or 3 boarding-exiting doors?

by A. P. on Feb 24, 2014 3:09 pm • linkreport

A. P.,

Don't expect BRT service to be that regular if it has to integrate with traffic. I agree that it will be an improvement but could be a lot better.

by Lane on Feb 24, 2014 4:21 pm • linkreport

Several interchanges have been built on the corridor between Silver Spring and Burtonsville in recent years, creating a partially closed-access highway between Route 198 and New Hampshire Avenue that narrows down to a typical, six-lane arterial south of New Hampshire Avenue, where Route 29 approaches downtown Silver Spring.

Those interchanges were built in accordance with recommendations from the 1997 Fairland and White Oak Master Plans.

There have been plans on the books for years to add four additional interchanges north of White Oak, at Fairland and Musgrove roads, Tech Road, Stewart Lane, and Greencastle Road, which has the support of County Executive Ike Leggett. The total price tag? $344 million.

This is correct. Those interchanges were put in the master plans not so much to benefit traffic moving north and south, but to allow residents to "cross the Nile" (as U.S. 29 was called during the development of those master plans), on foot, on a bike or in a car - and to put an end to the high-speed crashes that have plagued the at-grade intersections along U.S. 29 (there was a serious one at Fairland Road just the other day that the Burtonsville Volunteer Fire Department had to respond to).

We were under no illusion that the interchanges would in any way solve problems in Four Corners or especially along the Outer Loop of the Capital Beltway.

by C P Zilliacus on Feb 24, 2014 6:50 pm • linkreport

A.P. Buses all load faster if there's more than one door that opens, nobody argues otherwise. But the Science workers will probably all have to start and end their days reasonably together, which means they need to leave/start pretty much on the same times most days.
Charter buses (however many doors they got) could reasonably be hired to arrive all around the time they are needed.
But not BRT. Do the math (not a math major here, so help me out) at about 60 people per bus, 3 minutes (most optimal projections, unlikely to be real regardless of "dedicated lane" etc. projected) wait between each. 2600 people/60 people each = 43.3 buses required. At 3 minutes span between each, that's 130 minutes, over 2 hours, for one direction. And nobody likes waiting for a bus and not being able to get on. They'll all give up and get in their cars.

by asffa on Feb 24, 2014 8:12 pm • linkreport

From the Burtonsville Volunteer Fire Department news feed:

Around 4:00 PM on February 22nd, Company 15 units were alerted to the area of Columbia Pike and Musgrove Road for the reported personal injury collision. Units were updated enroute that the incident would be closer to Columbia Pike and Fairland Road and reports were received of two patients trapped. Units arrived to find a multiple vehicle collision with multiple patients, and two patients trapped in one of the vehicles. RS715 went to work removing two doors to extricate the patients while PE715 and additional EMS units worked to triage and transport the additional patients. Chief 715 had the command.

This is a major reason why the signalized intersections on U.S. 29 north of White Oak need to be replaced with interchanges.

by C P Zilliacus on Feb 24, 2014 9:25 pm • linkreport

At this point they should complete the interchanges. It doesn't make much sense to grade separate half of the intersections and leave the others as is. BRT is important but it isn't happening any time soon regardless of the interchanges, and the MD355 and MD97/Georgia Ave corridors will likely be constructed first.

Creating interchanges does in fact make it much easier to cross US 29. While I also agree about the Four Corners bottleneck, outbound traffic during rush hour won't face this problem and will likely have a much quicker trip to Burtonsville/HoCo.

by King Terrapin on Feb 25, 2014 12:08 pm • linkreport

While I also agree about the Four Corners bottleneck, outbound traffic during rush hour won't face this problem and will likely have a much quicker trip to Burtonsville/HoCo.
***

Sort of. The bottleneck going northbound is actually the light at Trader Joe's. I have petitioned MCDOT & SHA to put a multilevel county garage at TJ's with a grade separated entrance and exit to southbound 29. (Kidding, of course. :))

by Joe in SS on Feb 25, 2014 12:34 pm • linkreport

Below is what was approved unanimously by Council and the Executive today. It still has a lot of road expansion projects, including 2 out of the original 4 interchanges on 29, but represents a shift in priorities towards other modes of travel. The comments from Councilmembers Berliner, Riemer, Leventhal, Elrich, Andrews, Navarro and Branson during today's session represented a real shift and commitment towards supporting residents who want or need options other than driving. Here's the 2014 Montgomery transportation priority list:

Construction Program
1. Full funding of the Purple Line
1.Corridor Cities Transitway Stages 1 & 2
3. Montrose Parkway East – State Contribution
4. Metrobus Priority Corridor network
5. Georgia – Norbeck Interchange - higher than CE list and original committee rec.
6. US 29 Tech Road Interchange - Lower than CE list, T & E did not have this on list in committee rec.
7. US 29 Fairland Road Interchange - Lower than Committee rec and CE list by one due to rise of Georgia/Norbeck
8. Norbeck Road Widening from Georgia to Layhill
9. Viers Mill Road BRT
10. Forest Glen Pedestrian Underpass
11. Woodfield Road Widening Midcounty Highway to Airpark Road
12. Clopper Road Intersection Improvements, I270 to Seneca Creek
13. I270 Newcut Road Interchange
14. Georgia Avenue Safety and Accessibility Improvements in Montgomery Hills
15. Georgia Avenue BRT, Olney to Wheaton

Development & Evaluation (D&E) Program - This is the original T & E Committee rec.
1. US 29 BRT & MD 355: added funds for planning - committee voted to keep equal priority
2. I-495: extend HOV lane south from 270 Spur
3. I-270 Spur: ramps to/from Westlake Dr
4. MD 355/Gude Dr interchange
5. Midcounty Hwy Ext, ICC to Shady Grove Rd
6. Great Seneca/Sam Eig/Muddy Branch interchange
7. New Hampshire Av BRT
8. ICC hiker/biker trail
9. BPPA bike and pedestrian improvements

by Kelly Blynn on Feb 25, 2014 4:00 pm • linkreport

"9. Viers Mill Road BRT"
I sure hope no "repurposed lanes" were what was accepted for Veirs Mill, nor dangerous "reversible lanes". Some plans met with Council approval in October/Nov with inadequate public input taken. Also, despite the millions spent on T&E the studies never actually checked the environmental impact/traffic impact of closing lanes and building stations. Personally, I would have liked to have seen what an extra six million this year for Veirs Mill buses could have done (there are stops without shelters, etc.)
I'm not anti-BRT always, but I am angered by how millions of dollars are expected to disappear with BRT studies, especially that don't look at impact, wherever there's plans of taking 4 lane/2 each direction streets and making them all single lanes with a bus lane and giant expensive "stations" blocking everything around - for an exclusive expensive bus that stops fewer places along said streets. Yuck. Plan them for where there's wide medians/highways.

10. Forest Glen Pedestrian underpass - yes! What about something for Seminary and Georgia. :)

15. Georgia Avenue BRT, Olney to Wheaton - this would be interesting if they connected it with a route 29-Fairland-Georgia Ave through Rt 200 BRT to avoid one that causes a Four Corners bottleneck.

by asffa on Feb 25, 2014 11:01 pm • linkreport

https://twitter.com/shomaristone/status/438851424202792960/photo/1

So the interchange at Tech Road couldn't work any *worse* than this :-/

by Joe in SS on Feb 26, 2014 10:08 pm • linkreport

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