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Transit


Montgomery County says it can't build BRT, but there's money for new roads

Earlier this month, Montgomery County leaders released plans to fund transportation over the next two years. There's $300 million for building new roads, but not enough money to keep BRT moving forward or to increase current bus service.


BRT in Crystal City. Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

In 2013, Montgomery County approved a plan for an 81-mile bus rapid transit network. The idea was to alleviate congestion and keep Montgomery economically competitive. The first phase of BRT along Veirs Mill Rd, MD 355, and US 29 would intersect with key master plans like those for White Flint and White Oak while also providing rapid transit along a major east-west connector (Veirs Mill).

By 2040, Montgomery will have 70% more congestion, 40% more jobs and 20% more residents. Better transit, which BRT would achieve, is a way to address this coming challenge.

But recent attempts to actually fund it have met resistance. Many supporters of the system are worried about stalled progress. Now, BRT funding from the state is set to run out, and BRT's future in Montgomery could be in doubt.

Money that could bring BRT to Montgomery is currently set aside for roads

Every two years the County Executive submits a plan for capital improvements in what's called the Capital Improvement Plan. The CIP is a budget that encompasses 6 fiscal years and is amended every two. While council staff notes road funding has been down in recent years, it acknowledges that it still dwarfs that of other jurisdictions in the region.

One road in particular stands out as particularly expensive: Montrose Parkway East. With a price tag close to $140 million, Montrose Parkway East is 20 million dollars more expensive than it was two years ago. The project is in the Pike District, an area the county wants to encourage walkability, but building the road would only invite more people to drive.

Montrose Parkway East is an even more questionable use of public funds, considering the county has transit modeshare goals. Development of White Flint is literally dependent on transit, so why are we building a $140 Million road there?

There's still hope for funding BRT in Montgomery

There are ways to move BRT forward without moving money away from road projects: Council staff has suggested implementing special taxing districts, others have suggested working through existing systems and creating a pilot corridor, while County Executive Ike Leggett proposed creating an independent transit authority to fund it.

But transit advocates can push legislators to stop spending money on road projects, and instead invest that money in things like BRT. It takes a vote of at five council members to approve or modify a proposed improvement plan in the CIP, and six votes to amend a previously approved capital program.

If Montgomery officials are serious about a transit oriented future, they must reallocate funds from projects like Montrose Parkway East and put them toward making BRT a reality.

Montgomery County residents can testify at a public hearing on Feb 11 and contact their lawmakers via the Coalition for Smarter Growth.

Transit


Montgomery will go ahead with BRT, but at what cost?

Despite a big funding setback last week, Montgomery County could start building bus rapid transit after all. But to do so, it may have to do it on the cheap. That could mean making BRT less useful for transit riders.


BRT in Alexandria. Photo by Dan Malouff.

Montgomery County officials have been looking at building rapid transit routes for buses since 2008, and approved plans for a countywide BRT network in 2013. County Executive Ike Leggett had proposed creating a transit authority that could raise taxes to pay for building it, but yanked the idea last week due to opposition from some community members.

Yesterday, he announced that the county would build one or two of its planned BRT routes in a "less costly" fashion. One way to cut costs is by taking out dedicated lanes that give buses a way out of traffic. But doing that would make BRT slower and less reliable, discouraging people from using it.

According to Leggett, the county can afford to pay for one or two BRT corridors from its construction budget, which the County Council approves each spring. There are three corridors transportation officials are looking at, down from ten in the original plan: Route 355 between Bethesda and Rockville, which would cost an estimated $422 million to build; Veirs Mill Road between Rockville and Wheaton, which would cost $285 million, and Route 29 between Silver Spring and Burtonsville, which would cost $200 million.


Where people use transit in Montgomery County. These areas coincide with the three potential BRT corridors being considered. Map by the author using Census data.

The three corridors serve the county's two biggest downtowns, Silver Spring and Bethesda, plus the county seat in Rockville and emerging town centers like Wheaton, White Oak and White Flint. These are places where lots of people already ride transit.

They're also congested streets that are ideal for bus lanes, the key feature of bus rapid transit, which can give riders a fast, reliable alternative to sitting in traffic. But there's limited space to make bus lanes, whether by converting existing lanes or by widening the road. And some neighbors in these areas are loudly against them.


This street might be congested. And that's why it needs bus lanes. Photo by the author.

Not only do dedicated bus lanes make the bus faster, but they reduce labor costs, since bus drivers can do more trips in less time. Like train tracks, bus lanes create the sense of permanence that can attract development to underserved areas like White Oak. Better transit also means lower commute times, which has a huge impact on access to jobs and economic mobility.

Leggett might find that not including bus lanes on all or some of these routes could save money and avoid confronting transit opponents. But there are ways to design them that require less space and reduce impacts on neighborhoods. And as long as buses are stuck in the same traffic as everyone else, people will be less interested in riding them, and county residents will have a hard time seeing the benefits of investing in more transit.

Last week, I suggested that Montgomery County show people how BRT works by doing a temporary trial. It looks like county officials want to go a step further and try building something more permanent, which is great. That's why it's even more important they do it right.

Transit


What if Montgomery County gave BRT a temporary test run?

Last week, Montgomery County pulled its proposal for building bus rapid transit, citing community opposition. How can the county win people over? By getting something on the ground now and doing a trial run.


How can we get streets like Colesville Road better transit sooner rather than later? Photo by the author.

After several years of discussion, the county approved a plan for a network of dedicated bus lanes in 2013 with strong support from residents, business leaders, and transit advocates. Soon after, County Executive Ike Leggett proposed creating an Independent Transit Authority that could build and operate transit in the county and raise taxes on its own to pay for it. Today, the department of transportation runs transit service, using money from the county's budget, which the County Council sets each year.

Leggett's proposal drew an unlikely coalition of opponents, from civic organizations who were against BRT in the first place to groups worried about government spending. Meanwhile, initial designs for BRT on corridors like Georgia Avenue proposed unnecessarily massive road widenings that would have removed dozens of homes and businesses, which naturally angered many residents.

Do county leaders still want BRT?

Now in his third term as county executive, Ike Leggett has alluded to transit as part of his legacy. He's said that the 100,000 jobs slated to come to places like White Flint and White Oak depend on better transit. Bus Rapid Transit lines on Route 355, Route 29, and Veirs Mill Road are among the county's top transportation priorities.

But the county seems to be backing away from BRT. The Georgia Avenue line got shelved. And Leggett already pulled his ITA proposal earlier this year.

Ike Leggett says he wants to do a public outreach campaign for BRT to build support for a transit authority. But it may not be enough to convince skeptical residents. They need to see something tangible.


Metroway in Alexandria. Photo by Dan Malouff.

We could send people to Alexandria to ride the Metroway BRT line. It's already carrying 20% more riders than anticipated. It serves the new neighborhood of Potomac Yard that looks like what Montgomery County wants to create in White Flint or White Oak.

Or we could start bringing BRT in some form to Montgomery County today in trial form, so people can see how it can improve their daily lives.

A trial run?

Bus Rapid Transit consists of several different parts that make buses faster, more reliable, and more comfortable, like a train: machines where you pay before getting on; larger, covered stations; longer distances between stops; and of course, dedicated lanes.

The county's vision for BRT, as in many other places, involves doing all of those things at once. It's more effective, but also more expensive. We're already implementing some of those things now, like limited-stop bus service or off-board fare machines.

The thing that has the biggest impact, but is also the most controversial, are bus lanes. And that's what people need to see in action.


A very basic bus lane on Veirs Mill Road in Wheaton. It's maybe a mile long. Photo from Google Street View.

Local political consultant Adam Pagnucco has suggested that the county build a BRT line on Veirs Mill Road to prove that it works, but it would still take a few years and a lot of money.

In the meantime, we could do a trial: for a few months, simply reserve the curbside lane of a major street for buses, using paint and some police enforcement to keep drivers out. Drivers and transit riders alike could see how it would affect their travels.

The catch is we'd have to do this in a place with high transit use, like Veirs Mill Road, Route 29, and Route 355, the three BRT corridors the county's studying. These streets are congested now, but they're also where most transit riders are, and would get the most benefit from dedicated lanes.

Doing a trial would be hard and require a lot of political will. But it's ultimately easier than convincing the public to make a huge investment on something they haven't seen before. And it allows us to see what works and what doesn't work, so we can make needed tweaks early on.

Most importantly, a trial gives Montgomery County transit riders a better trip now, rather than far in the future. They can't afford to wait, and neither can we.

Transit


Montgomery backtracks on a sprawl-inducing highway

After a decade-long process, it looked like Montgomery County was pushing ahead with a new highway through streams and wetlands at the edge of the county's built-up areas. But last week, county officials announced they don't support the road project after all.


Image from TAME.

In March, the county Department of Transportation issued a report recommending a new limited-access highway, around the edge of developed areas. The road, designated M-83, would approximately parallel I-270 and MD-355 but farther east, connecting the east side of Clarksburg to the current Midcounty Highway, Route 124.

This dismayed advocates who had been asking the county instead to study ways to better connect to Clarksburg with transit and fixes to local roads. Last week, DOT Acting Director Al Roshdieh put out a statement essentially repudiating the DOT's earlier recommendation:

The County Executive does not support building this road, he did not recommend the preferred alternative, nor was it an option that I as MCDOT acting director recommended. Further, there is no funding proposed for the project in the County's capital budget.

The study, "Draft Preferred Alternative/Conceptual Mitigation Report" (PA/CM) was conducted before the Route 355 Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system was in the master plan, and therefore it was not considered as one of the alternatives. If BRT is considered, I believe the results of the PA/CM study and its recommended alternative could be significantly different. I strongly endorse this reassessment.

During my three months as MCDOT Acting Director, I continue to look for ways to promote a broader view of mobility in Montgomery County that is not necessarily wedded to building more roads. Taking a fresh look at various M-83 options, including the Route 355 BRT, is an important step in my vision for this department.

The council pushes M-83 out of limbo

In 1964, before the Clean Water Act had passed, Montgomery planners drew a future highway on maps to the east of MD 355. The road ran through wetlands and stream valleys to complete a "ladder and rung" network of arterial roads that would facilitate development in upcounty Montgomery. Since then, Midcounty Highway, also known as M-83, has been the subject of battles for over 50 years.

In its most recent chapter, the Montgomery County Council asked the county DOT in 2004 to study whether the highway, with its impacts to wetlands and streams, would be legal under modern environmental laws. Last year, DOT officials said they would complete the study in March of 2014, but were then silent about their progress for the rest of the year.

On March 2nd, the council's Transportation and Environment Committee surprised MCDOT leadership by asking about the study. Members suggested that, if it was complete, it should go to federal regulators for a decision one way or the other. It appears that Council transportation staffer Glenn Orlin learned that the study had been finished for some time, and suggested that the committee ask for some resolution on the issue.

"If we're not going to build it, we should take it out of the master plan", he said in the committee session. "My understanding is that the report was done last summer and has not been sent to the feds. However you feel about the project, it's delaying a resolution."

Chair Roger Berliner said, "It's no secret I'm not a big fan of this project. I'm even less a fan of ambiguity and being in limbo." The committee members, while harboring different opinions about the project, all agreed that MCDOT should make the study public and send it to regulators. Berliner and fellow committee member Tom Hucker, along with a majority of council members, now publicly oppose to the project, while Nancy Floreen, the third member of the committee, supports it.

The county suggests a destructive option, then backs away

After getting the prod from the council, the DOT issued its report and recommended Alternative 9A, the original alignment from the 1960s master plan. At $350 million, it is the most expensive of the six alternatives analyzed, a price tag that doesn't include environmental mitigation to compensate for the wetlands, floodplains, and forests it would damage.

In contrast to his agency's position, County Executive Leggett has said he is against the road: shortly after the release of the study, a spokesperson for the County Executive told the Washington Post that Leggett "opposes the road project because of its cost."

Throughout the study, it has been clear that the those in charge were building up arguments towards 9A. But more recently, top leaders who were most focused on building roads have left. Their replacements are already backing away from the controversial project.

WTOP reporter Ari Ashe tweeted recently that MCDOT Acting Director Al Roshdieh told him he was against M-83, and that it was "over." After I mentioned the M-83 report in a list of cautionary notes about whether the DOT was really reforming, DOT spokesperson Esther Bowring called to say that Roshdieh considers the 9A option "dead."

"If we don't do this, we need to do something else"

During the March 2nd committee meeting, Councilmember Floreen said, "If we don't do this, we need to do something else." Many residents in Clarksburg rightly feel that the county made and broke many promises, including to build retail and provide good transportation. Development in Clarksburg was initially supposed to coincide with transit service, but the transit has not materialized.

However, this road is not the answer. It will only make new sprawl development, including up in Frederick and Carroll Counties, even more desirable, leading people to live there and work in Rockville, Bethesda, or DC, be dependent on cars, and clog the roads further for commuting and shopping.

The better solution for all upcounty residents is to build the transit that was promised in the first place. Berliner and many advocates have recommended building the study's Alternative 2, a package of small widenings to congested intersections as well as new sidewalks and bike paths, and Alternative 5, which would widen MD-355—but using the new lanes as dedicated lanes for BRT rather than new car capacity.

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Left: Alternative 9. Right: Alternative 5.

Bowring said that county officials are meeting next week to discuss next steps to reexamine the county's recommendations and start moving toward, or at least seriously studying, the transit options that many residents are pushing for.

To fully put the idea of a new highway to rest, the county would have to remove it from the master plan. The decision to do that would be up to the county council, Berliner said, and the council could ask the planning department to be involved if it wished.

Unless something changes, the Army Corps of Engineers will go ahead and evaluate Alternative 9A. Some may be hoping the corps just tells Montgomery County it can't build the road; that would forestall a local political battle between those who still want a new highway and the majority of the county council that doesn't.

Either way, this 50-year battle is far from over.

Budget


Montgomery's proposed budget takes transit funding and gives it to wealthy homeowners

Yesterday, Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett unveiled his proposed budget, and it has no good news for transit riders. Ride On will get more state aid and hike fares, but it will not run any more buses. Instead, transit revenue will be used to cut real estate taxes.


Photo by Adam Fagen on Flickr.

The cost of running Ride On, as shown in the budget will go up $3.5 million, from $98 million to $101.6 million. Meanwhile, the county will receive $7 million in new revenues, double the cost increase. $5 million in new state aid will come from the gas tax increase passed last year. And fares will rise $2 million, likely a result of matching Metro's fare increase.

Where will this money go? The county's "mass transit tax," a component of the real estate tax, will drop by $5 million. Bus riders, many of whom have low incomes or are renters, will pay more while a tax cut disproportionately benefits the county's wealthiest homeowners.

When Maryland discussed a gas tax increase last year, many groups complained about "raids" on the state's transportation trust fund, including county governments, legislators, conservatives, and the highway lobby. It will be interesting to see how these groups react to this diversion of trust fund money to non-transportation purposes.

Ride On could put the new money it is getting from the state and its riders to good use. The system lacks relief buses, or vehicles on standby, stationed around the county to fill in when other buses break down.

The county counts all late buses equally when it tracks Ride On's performance, but for a rider, there's a vast difference between a replacement bus that comes late and a bus that doesn't come at all. If there's no replacement, the next bus half an hour later might be so full that you can't get on.

Other needed upgrades include restoring the connection to Frederick County buses in Urbana, straightening out the tangle of bus routes around downtown Bethesda, and better weekend service. Funding is also needed for Metrobus's Priority Corridor Initiative, which would improve service on several of the county's highest-ridership routes.

The budget now goes to the County Council for approval. Hopefully, bus riders will find friends there.

Bicycling


Bikeshare comes to Montgomery County

On the heels of its third anniversary, Capital Bikeshare makes a big expansion into Montgomery County. Local officials celebrated the first of 50 new stations that will open here today in Rockville with a large crowd of well-wishers.


Montgomery County opened its first Capital Bikeshare station today in Rockville. All photos by the author unless noted.

"It's no secret that the Washington area has the worst traffic," said County Executive Ike Leggett. "That's why Montgomery County is committed to increasing its transportation options . . . Bikeshare is another cost-effective option that can help reduce the need to drive, especially for short distances."


State delegate Al Carr, County Executive Ike Leggett, and County Councilmember Roger Berliner try out the new Bikeshare bikes.

According to Art Holmes, the county's director of transportation, 14 stations and 218 bikes will open today in Rockville, Shady Grove, Bethesda, Friendship Heights, Silver Spring, and Takoma Park, communities where cycling is most popular. Eventually, there will be 50 stations and 450 bikes. The county seal now appears on the bright red bikes along with the logos of DC, Arlington, and Alexandria, which already have Capital Bikeshare.


Map of where the new stations are in Montgomery County from CaBi's website.

Several local officials attended and spoke at the announcement, including county councilmembers, state delegate, and representatives from the Montgomery County Department of Transportation. Bike advocates, including the Washington Area Bicyclist Association were also there in force. Passers-by stopped to admire the bright red bikes and ask questions about the new service.


Passers-by admire the first of 50 new Bikeshare stations in Montgomery County.

The federally-funded expansion is one of the nation's first bikesharing projects in a suburban area. If it's successful, it could be an example for how to encourage cycling outside of large cities.

But first, county officials need to make area streets safer for bicyclists and pedestrians. Councilmember Valerie Ervin recently told WTOP she wants to fill gaps in the county's trail network and ban right turns on red.

At today's event, Councilmember Hans Riemer said he believes Capital Bikeshare will help Montgomery County attract businesses and younger residents who don't want to drive everywhere. "Every time you see a red bike," he said, "Recognize that we're moving forward."

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