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ACT scores Montgomery County candidates on transit and smart growth

Where do candidates in Montgomery County and statewide in Maryland stand on the Purple Line, pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly road designs, Bus Rapid Transit, M-83 and adding housing? A new scorecard by the Action Committee for Transit helps shed light on these issues.


Scorecard for countywide offices.

Maryland voters will be choosing nominees in a primary on June 24th. ACT asked candidates for Montgomery County Council and County Executive, state delegate from Montgomery County, and governor about these issues. ACT then rated the candidates based on their voting records, questionnaire answers, records in office (especially important for candidates who have held executive offices), and public statements.


Scorecard for County Council district races.


Scorecard for candidates for governor.

Here is more detail about the questions ACT asked, and why.

1. Do you support funding and advancing the Purple Line to groundbreaking as described in the Locally Preferred Alternative and the Environmental Impact Statement without qualification?

In the quarter-century and more that activists have worked for the Purple Line, plenty of politicians and citizens have claimed to support the Purple Line. However, that support has sometimes come with qualifications that would make the Purple Line either prohibitively expensive to build or ineffective.

There are those who support the Purple Line only if it were built as a heavy rail line or only if it were bus rapid transit. Some public officials have claimed to be for the Purple Line but then pushed for alternative routes that were impractical or wildly expensive. Others have said they supported the project but then added qualifications that neatly dovetailed with the arguments opponents were making against it.

The Locally Preferred Alternative Governor Martin O'Malley and the County Council selected for the Purple Line includes an at-grade light rail line with a trail alongside it on the Georgetown Branch right of way between Bethesda and Silver Spring.

Although the Purple Line is widely considered a done deal, the fact remains that any public works project this large can falter. The Purple Line has uniquely well-funded and well-connected opponents. As activists, our job is to consistently advocate for the Purple Line until the trains are running and the trail is full of bikers and hikers. ACT only gave candidates pluses if they supported the Purple Line without any qualification.

2. Would you support more transit, pedestrian, and bicycle-friendly road design in our school zones and urban centers even if it slows drivers down?

Many officials claim they want safer and more convenient roads for pedestrians and cyclists, but advocates have consistently found that support vanishes if any design changes would lower speed limits or otherwise inconvenience car traffic. It's easy to support pedestrian and bicycle friendly road design; it is very hard to support it when it requires slowing drivers down. Sadly, this is true even of school zones.

For this question, ACT gave pluses only if candidates were willing to support complete streets policies even when a change might slow down some drivers.

3. Do you support changing existing traffic lanes to dedicated bus lanes for BRT?

The basic idea of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) is that the most efficient use of road space is for those vehicles that carry many passengers. When lanes are reserved for exclusive use by buses, a road can carry more people faster. Stranding buses in the same congested traffic as cars takes the "rapid" out of Bus Rapid Transit; effective BRT requires dedicated lanes for buses.

Unfortunately, if implemented improperly, this gives highway builders an opportunity to further widen roads for extra bus lanes. In Montgomery County, the temptation exists for politicians to support dedicated bus lanes in the upcounty by widening roads, while opposing any bus lanes in the downcounty. That would mollify those who can't imagine taking lanes away from cars. It is easy for a candidate to support generic BRT; it is harder for a candidate to support changing some existing car lanes to bus-only lanes.

The BRT plan approved by the County Council last fall does not rule out widening roads to create dedicated bus lanes, and includes several chances for residents to delay or stop repurposing car lanes to bus only lanes. Advocates must continue to pressure the County Council to make sure Montgomery County gets the rapid Bus Rapid Transit system it needs.

ACT specifically asked candidates if they support changing existing traffic lanes to dedicated bus lanes, and only gave candidates a plus if they supported that.

4. Will you support stopping all spending on the M83 highway?

M83 is an environmentally destructive highway that would run from Montgomery Village to Clarksburg and cost the county at least $350 million to build. It was put in the master plans over 50 years ago, before major modern environmental laws existed.

To be sure candidates opposed it, we asked if they would support stopping all spending on M83. The question covered money from both the capital budget and operating budget, as well as any money to study it further.

The questionnaire answers are the first time all at-large county council Democratic candidates stated their opposition to any further spending on the M83 highway, marking an important turning point in the fight against the "zombie" highway.

5. How would you increase the housing supply in our urban centers?

For transit to work, it has to be where people can use it: near their homes. And if more people live near transit, then more people can use it. Therefore ACT has consistently supported development in urban areas like downtown Silver Spring and Bethesda.

In areas like these, politicians who support this sort of development frequently take a lot of criticism from people who don't want any new development whatsoever, and who feel it threatens the character of single-family neighborhoods.

Two recent projects, the Chelsea Heights townhouse development in Silver Spring and the Chevy Chase Lake plan, have typified this debate in the downcounty. ACT considered candidates' statements on those two development projects when rating them on this issue.

Many candidates chose to interpret this question as one about affordable housing programs, which misses the point. The intense market demand for transit-accessible housing means that less affluent residents will inevitably get squeezed out unless we greatly increase the supply. To ensure that housing near Metro does not become a luxury good, we must promote construction of transit-accessible residences at all price levels, including high-end and middle-income housing as well as subsidized housing.

6. Would you support a 2nd road crossing of the Potomac?

At the moment, there are no plans for a second highway crossing over the Potomac which would make an "Outer Beltway." However, some Virginia advocacy groups regularly bring the idea up at Council of Governments meetings, and there are Marylanders who are very interested. The highway lobby in both states is very supportive.

A second road bridge would invite more highway-building at the expense of funds for transit. Although the issue is currently dormant, it might become active in the future and so the ACT board wanted to know what politicians would say about it. It also seemed to be a good opportunity to find out candidates' general attitudes towards highway building and sprawl development.

7. Do you support including the 3rd track needed to allow all-day MARC service?

Right now MARC only runs a few times a day between Martinsburg, Frederick and DC. MARC runs on CSX tracks, and CSX uses those tracks for its own trains, limiting MARC service. For MARC to run more frequently, it needs a third track.


Scorecard for state senator and delegate.

"Why did my candidate get a minus when their questionnaire answers are perfectly correct?"

Some candidates answered "yes", and then followed that with an answer that made it clear they didn't get it. For example, an imaginary candidate who responded to the M83 question by saying "Yes, there should be no further spending on M83. The money should go to a highway that runs from my house to I-270," would receive a minus because they do support building more highways in our county. For the record, no candidate said any such thing.

Candidates who served in executive offices, such as the County Executive, were evaluated on their records in office as well as their public statements, voting records and questionnaire answers.

There have been a considerable number of candidate forums and other opportunities to hear candidates speak. ACT board members have attended as many as possible, not just because we are political junkies in need of help, but because we wanted to see if candidates were consistent in their positions.

We found that some candidates were inconsistent in addition to just not being clear. If a candidate's statements at a public event conflicted with the answer he or she gave on the questionnaire, that factored into the rating. The questions were deliberately written using very specific language to see who would go beyond generalities and commit to a position that might be unpopular.

Candidates running unopposed in primaries were not rated. However, their answers to the questionnaires, along with those of all the other candidates, are posted in full on the ACT website.

Events


Events roundup: Family fun and transit

We just had a beautiful weekend, and another looks to be around the corner. Enjoy the weather with some family-friendly fun, and during the next few weeks, weigh in on transit all around the region.


Photo by tackyjulie on Flickr.

Streetsblog & Greater Greater Washington playdate: On Saturday, May 31, join fellow GGW and Streetsblog readers and their kids for a family playdate at the National Gallery of Art's Sculpture Garden from 11-2 You can RSVP here.

Tour de Fat: One of the region's biggest bicycle festivals is also this Saturday, May 31, at Yards Park. It features live music, local vendors, beer and more. The festival is from 10 am to 5 pm, so there's plenty of time to stop by the playdate and the Tour de Fat.

After the jump: Ride around Greenbelt, transit in Montgomery County, transit in DC, transit in Alexandria, and walking at Pentagon City and H Street!

Greenbelt Roosevelt Ride: The Greenbelt Museum is organizing its second annual Roosevelt Ride on Sunday, June 1 at 11 am. See Old Greenbelt, the New Deal-era planned community, on the free bike ride and enjoy a picnic lunch afterward. More information here.

Montgomery transit candidate forum: Candidates for the Montgomery County Council will discuss their views on the future of transit at a transportation forum on Thursday, May 29 from 7-9 pm at the Silver Spring Civic Building (One Veterans Place). WAMU's Martin Di Caro will moderate the conversation. Come hear the candidates' ideas just in time for the June 24th primary.

Streetcar planning: DDOT is holding its final round of open house meetings for its study of a future north-south DC streetcar. You can see DDOT's analysis of possible streetcar routes and weigh in. All three meetings last from 3:30-8:30 pm, with overview presentations at 4 and 7 pm. The full schedule is below:

  • Central meeting: Monday, June 9, at the Banneker Rec Center, 2500 Georgia Ave NW.
  • South meeting: Tuesday, June 10, at the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, 2nd floor community room, 1100 4th St SW.
  • North meeting: Thursday, June 12, at the Emery Rec Center, 2nd floor community room, 5701 Georgia Ave NW.
Benning Road transit: The Federal Highway Administration and DDOT are starting an environmental study for transportation along Benning Road over the bridge and east to the Minnesota Avenue and Benning Road Metro stations. The first meeting, a public scoping meeting, is tonight, Wednesday, May 28 from 6-7:30 pm at the Department of Employment Services Building, 4058 Minnesota Ave. For more information, go here.

King Street multimodal transit study: The Alexandria Waterfront Commission is analyzing the effects of converting the 100 block of King Street to a pedestrian plaza, where the public can meet, eat, and shop. Planning for driving, biking, walking, and other forms of transit is a key part of the process. On Thursday, May 29, come hear about the plan for the area and provide your feedback at a public meeting at Alexandria City Hall (301 King Street), Room 1101.

CSG walking tours: The Coalition for Smarter Growth is leading two more Saturday walking tours in the coming weeks. Come hear about the past and future of Pentagon City, on May 31, and H Street NE, on June 7, while enjoying some spring sunshine.

  • Saturday, May 31: come hear about how recent development projects are transforming Pentagon City into a community that is more than a mall.
  • Saturday, June 7: explore H Street NE and learn about one of DC's most rapidly changing neighborhoods. Plus, get the scoop on the latest addition to the community: the DC Streetcar.
All of the CSG walking tours run from 10-noon. These events fill up quickly, so RSVP to secure a spot!

Do you know an event that should be on the Greater Greater Washington calendar? Send an email to events@ggwash.org with the details and a link to a page about the event on the web.

Development


Single-family homes are the minority in Montgomery County

People often think of Montgomery County as a place where you go to buy a big house with a yard, and in many areas that's still the case. But most households live in townhomes or apartments, and that share will only increase in the future.


Montgomery's housing stock is getting more diverse. Photo by the author.

There are nearly 376,000 homes in Montgomery County according to the 2008-2012 American Community Survey. Less than half, or 48.5% are single-family detached homes. One out of three homes are apartments or condominiums, while another 18.2% are "single-family attached" homes such as twins and townhouses.

But different kinds of homes are clustered in different parts of the county. Single-family homes predominate on the more affluent west side and inside the Beltway. Townhouses are more common in newer neighborhoods far outside the Beltway, while apartments cluster along the Red Line and in farther-out areas.

Single-family homes spread out around the county

Not surprisingly, single-family homes predominate on Montgomery County's rural fringe, and in suburban areas. In several neighborhoods, particularly west of Rock Creek Park and in the far northern part of the county, single-family homes are the only type of housing, such as Parkwood in Kensington, Rollingwood in Chevy Chase, and the Town of Chevy Chase itself. 99.5% of all homes in Bethesda's Bradley Manor, recently named the nation's second-wealthiest neighborhood, are detached houses.


Areas with a concentration of single-family homes. All images by the author.

Single-family homes are also very common in older neighborhoods inside the Beltway, which were built early in the 20th century when the county first began suburbanizing. Today, they sit in close-in, highly coveted locations, very close to Metro stations and major job centers. Meanwhile, farther-out areas have a much more diverse mix of housing.

Townhouses are far beyond the Beltway

If you're looking for a townhouse, you may have to look far beyond the Beltway. The county's largest concentrations of attached homes are in parts of Germantown and Montgomery Village, where townhouses comprise over 70% of all homes. Other areas include Westlake, next to Montgomery Mall in Bethesda; Dalewood Drive, across from Wheaton High School, and Westfarm in White Oak.


Areas with a concentration of townhomes. All images by the author.

Why is this? The county's 1958 zoning code and subsequent 1964 General Plan established specific "urban" areas where townhomes and apartments would go. Meanwhile, older, close-in neighborhoods began fighting the construction of anything that weren't big, expensive single-family homes. So townhouses got built farther out, where land was cheap and the zoning allowed them.

Apartments hug the Red Line & sprawl outward

Multi-family homes in Montgomery County tend to fall into one of two camps. You'll find clusters of them around Red Line stations, especially in Silver Spring, Bethesda, and White Flint. These are usually high-rise and mid-rise buildings, and they're often more expensive. The rest are mainly cheaper garden apartments outside the Beltway in areas like Briggs Chaney, Aspen Hill, and parts of Gaithersburg.


Areas with a concentration of multi-family homes. All images by the author.

Notably, areas with the highest concentrations of apartments also have a lot of young people, a high rate of transit use, and a low rate of car ownership. But those living in apartment clusters farther out don't have the same access to shops, jobs, and transit as those in areas like Bethesda or Silver Spring. Creating more town centers in other parts of the county, like at White Oak, will allow those residents to have more access to economic opportunities.

Multi-family homes are the county's future

Single-family homes are still the most common housing type in Montgomery County, and more will continue to be built. But they'll make up a decreasing share of the county's housing stock. Between rising housing costs, increasing traffic, and a diversifying population that's also getting older, there's a growing demand for different housing choices.


Single-family homes like this one in Olney are still being built, but not as many as there were.

As of this April, there were 36,038 approved but unbuilt homes in the development pipeline, most of which will be built in town centers like Silver Spring or Bethesda or in Clarksburg, the county's one last greenfield area. Just 8,644, or 24% will be single-family detached homes or townhomes. And that doesn't include homes that are allowed under zoning but haven't been approved.

This is a big shift for Montgomery County. While the county has sought to concentrate growth near downtowns and transit lines since the 1960's, many residents and community leaders still think of it as an exclusively suburban place. But in the coming years, the definition between city and suburb will continue to blur.

Development


A pro-sprawl movement surfaces in Montgomery County

Do urban living arrangements have no place in Montgomery County? Should the county favor automobile travel to the over other forms of transportation? An influential group of local activists say so.


Wrong for Montgomery County? Photo by dan reed on Flickr.

At a zoning hearing three years ago, former councilmember Rose Crenca declared, "When did we vote to change SUBURBAN to URBAN? For those who prefer an urban environment, please leave." She added that if there is a need for more housing than current zoning allows, it should be built in the county's agricultural reserve.

At the time, most listeners shrugged off those words as a relic of a disappearing past. But now a group of activists, centered in Chevy Chase but extending countywide, has emerged with a similar program. A close reading of the manifesto of the "Citizens Coalition for Responsible Growth," issued with the aim of influencing this year's election, shows that the group shares Crenca's desire to prevent the urban centers from emerging alongside the county's single-family subdivisions.

The group, whose leadership is so far anonymous, comprises residents who opposed the county's recent zoning updates. Those of changes made it easier to rent out part of a house as an apartment and reduced minimum parking requirements for new buildings near Metro.

The manifesto decries such measures, characterizing them as "using land use and development policies to spur behavioral and social changes, without regard to choices and investments already made by those in the County."

Wouldn't tenants, who perhaps have no investment in a Montgomery County house due to lack of funds, benefit from being able to rent an apartment in one? Their voice counts for little. "Our government," the manifesto argues, "has a responsibility to effectively support the interests of homeowners."

On high-speed roadways as in neighborhoods, change is suspect. Bicycle improvements are fine, but not if they come "at the expense of vehicular travel and parking lanes." After all, "very few Montgomery County residents bike to work." By this logic, you wouldn't build a bridge if too few people were swimming across the river.

Almost everyone recognizes, of course, that new buildings can't be stopped entirely. They can come, the coalition says, only when wider roads accompany them. The group would strictly tie development approvals to a measurement called "level of service," which California recently repudiated. This pseudoscientific concept measures how fast cars move rather than how quickly people get to their destinations, making road widenings the solution to almost any transportation problem.

In contrast, the coalition does not want to consider transit as a way to get people to and from new development. "Bus rapid transit, light rail, and other large-scale transit systems," it writes, "must not be used as mechanisms to allow increased development" in areas where traffic moves slowly.

The Citizens Coalition cannot be faulted for lacking vision. It dreams of a 1950s suburb, made up of strip malls and subdivisions. But half a century ago Montgomery County realized that such a future was undesirable and unworkable. The county chose a very different visiona diverse community where livable downtowns, quiet single-family neighborhoods, and farmland coexist. That broader vision has been only very partially achieved. Only by embracing change, and not rejecting it, can we do better.

Events


Events roundup: What do you want to tell the Park Service?

Do you have feedback for the National Park Service? For Arlington about transit or cycletracks? For Alexandria about a street in Del Rey Ray? Weigh in this week, plus a history lesson about the waterfront and walking tours all over the region.


Photo by Park Ranger on Flickr.

Town hall with NPS: Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton is convening a town hall meeting with leaders of the National Park Service in our region to talk about how they are managing many of DC's parks, large and small.

David Alpert will participate on the panel, along with NPS National Capital Region Director Steve Whitesell, Richard Bradley from the Downtown BID, and Greg Odell of Events DC. The discussion is Wednesday, May 21, 6:30-8:30 in Room 412 of the Wilson Building, 1350 Pennsylvania Avenue NW.

What topics should David bring up? Post your qualms, frustrations, plaudits, and questions in the comments.

Arlington Transit forum: Give Arlington's government your input on transit service at a public meeting from 7-9 pm tonight, Monday, May 19 at the Arlington Mill Community Center, 909 South Dinwiddie Street. If you can't make it, you can take an online survey to give your feedback.

Monroe Avenue, a complete street: Alexandria wants to redesign Monroe Avenue in Del Ray to calm traffic and better accommodate bicyclists. Officials will present options and hear from residents on Tuesday, May 20 (tomorrow), 6-8 pm at Commonwealth Academy on Leslie Avenue.

South Eads Street cycletrack: What should bike lanes, cycletracks, or other infrastructure look like on South Eads Street in Arlington? The county will be building a pilot cycletrack on a part of South Eads, and wants your feedback on the long-term plans for the road. Speak up on Wednesday, May 21 from 7-8:30 at the Aurora Hills Community Center, 735 18th Street South, or take the online survey.

History of the DC waterfront: Ever wonder about the early days of the DC Waterfront? The DC Library is hosting a book talk with author John R. Wennersten on his new book, The Historic Waterfront of Washington, DC. He will discuss the history of the area and the current issues facing the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers. The talk is Wednesday, May 21 at 6:30 pm in the Black Studies Center at the MLK Memorial Library (901 G Street NW).

Search for the W&OD in Alexandria: Join the VeloCity Bike Co-op for a community bike ride in search of the remnants of the Washington and Old Dominion railroad in Alexandria. Hear about some area history and envision future uses for the space. The ride will begin at the VeloCity Co-op (2111 Mount Vernon Ave in Alexandria) at 10 am on Saturday, May 24.

MoCo candidates on transportation: Maryland is having a primary election on June 24, and in many races the primary will be the deciding contest. A group of smart growth, transit, bicycling, and other organizations are sponsoring a forum for candidates for Montgomery County Council.

WAMU's Martin Di Caro will moderate the forum, and you can submit questions online ahead of time. The candidates will face off on Thursday, May 29 from 7-9 pm at the Silver Spring Civic Building, One Veterans Place in downtown Silver Spring.

CSG walking tours: The Coalition for Smarter Growth is leading two more Saturday walking tours in the coming weeks. Come hear about the past and future of Pentagon City, on May 31, and H Street NE, on June 7, while enjoying some spring sunshine.

  • Saturday, May 31: come hear about how recent development projects are transforming Pentagon City into a community that is more than a mall.
  • Saturday, June 7: explore H Street NE and learn about one of DC's most rapidly changing neighborhoods. Plus, get the scoop on the latest addition to the community: the DC Streetcar.
All of the CSG walking tours run from 10-noon. These events fill up quickly, so RSVP to secure a spot!

Do you know an event that should be on the Greater Greater Washington calendar? Contact events@ggwash.org with the details and a link to a page on the web which has more information.

Roads


Berliner presses for a transit alternative to Montgomery sprawl highway

Montgomery councilmember Roger Berliner (District 1) took an important step toward defeating plans for the costly and damaging Midcounty Highway and replacing it with transit.


Berliner discusses M-83 at the Council's budget hearing.

Berliner, who chairs the council's Committee on Transportation, Infrastructure, Energy and the Environment, sent a letter to County Executive Ike Leggett asking him to direct the Montgomery County Department of Transportation (MCDOT), to study a robust transit alternative to the highway project, dubbed M-83.

MCDOT is nearing the end of an 11-year environmental review of M-83 and its alternatives, and hopes to receive a federal environmental permit later this year. In all that time, the agency has avoided considering a transit alternative, despite repeated requests from the community.

When Montgomery County Council's transportation committee discussed M-83 during their budget review last month, the committee voted to allocate no future planning funding beyond the highway project's current environmental review. Berliner made his opinion clear to MCDOT officials then:

It's been part of my own goal with respect to our county's approach to transportation to move into a transit first orientation. From my perspective, I want some assurance that we've looked at every transit option in this corridor prior to our getting a recommendation with respect to this project.
He joins four other councilmembers, Phil Andrews (District 3), Marc Elrich (at large), George Leventhal (at large), and Hans Riemer (at large) who have called for a transit alternative.

Berliner's letter urges MCDOT to consider all viable transit options, including combinations of the Corridor Cities Transitway, express bus service on I-270, two-way service on the inner portions of the Brunswick MARC line, Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) on MD-355, and completion of the Clarksburg Town Center to reduce local trip demand.

One of the options in MCDOT's road study, Alternative 5, would have added a service lane along MD-355 for cars. Berliner urges MCDOT to study the possibility of transforming that concept into a transitway for BRT. 355 BRT to Clarksburg would provide a straight, rapid transit option for Clarksburg, Germantown, and Gaithersburg commuters to Shady Grove, Rockville, and points south.

Comparative travel times from other BRT systems suggest a 25 minute ride from Clarksburg to Shady Grove Metro, including wait times, which is comparable or better than driving, depending on traffic.


BRT plan for 355 to Clarksburg. Map from Communities for Transit.

According to MCDOT head Art Holmes, the County Executive "is not in favor of moving M-83 forward into construction," but Leggett hasn't yet made clear to the public or his agency what he plans to do instead to improve transportation for gridlocked upcounty communities.

The question remains whether Leggett will stand up to his own agency, which has a reputation for favoring roads over transit, and demand they take a serious look at transit alternatives.

Government


DC's daytime population is over a million

According to a US Census report, the District of Columbia's daytime population, including commuters, swells to over 1,000,000. The difference between DC's day and night populations is second greatest in the US.


Downtown DC.

The report dates from 2010 so the numbers are surely a bit different today. With DC's (then) nighttime residential population of 584,400, its 1,046,036 daytime population represents a 79% increase. Among US counties, only New York County (Manhattan) has a larger percentage increase.

Arlington looks much the same. Its 26% increase in daytime population is 13th largest nationally. That's higher than San Francisco on the list.

At the other end of the spectrum, two DC suburbs top the list of places with decreased daytime population. Dale City and Centreville in Northern Virginia both drop by over 40%, making them America's ultimate bedroom communities.

Montgomery County's Germantown is Maryland's top entrant on that list; it clocks in at #20, with a decrease of 31%.

Part of the explanation for this is simply where boundaries are drawn. For example, even though Houston has a large downtown with many commuters, it doesn't appear on the increased daytime population list because the City of Houston annexed so many of its suburbs that more of its commuters still technically live within the city limits. Likewise, Houston's Harris County is gigantic and more or less envelopes the entire metropolis, so there's little difference at the county level either.

Geographically smaller jurisdictions in large metropolitan areas are disproportionately more likely to show up in this data. So it's not a great comparison of commuting patterns across different metropolitan regions. But it's nonetheless interesting to know.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Transit


A bridge closure suggests how bus lanes could affect traffic

Skeptics of Montgomery County's proposal to put bus lanes on major roads fear it could make traffic worse. But a road closure on Route 29 to repair recent storm damage might offer a glimpse of our possible future.


Image from SHA.

Two weeks ago, a torrential rainstorm flooded Route 29, also known as Columbia Pike, on a bridge where it crosses Northwest Branch in Silver Spring. This isn't the first time the bridge has flooded, and soon after, Maryland State Highway Administration closed the heavily damaged right lanes from Southwood Avenue to Lockwood Drive. Last Monday, it began making repairs, which will last until the end of May.

Montgomery County's Bus Rapid Transit plan envisions a line on Route 29 between Burtonsville and Silver Spring, which is already one of the region's busiest transit corridors, with 40 buses an hour during rush hour. Along most of the corridor, buses would have their own lanes, though we don't know if they would be on the curb or in the median, or if there would be a a reversible lane or lanes in both directions.

In any case, creating bus lanes would mean closing a lane to cars, which some residents in nearby Four Corners are vehemently opposed to. Thanks to last month's storm, we now get to see what closing a lane on Route 29 to general traffic might be like.

I've driven and taken the bus through the affected area a few times, including in evening rush hour. And there is some congestion, especially where drivers have to merge from three lanes to two. But the real test is what happens after people adjust to the new traffic pattern.


Traffic on Route 29 after a flood in 2010. Photo by the author.

Studies have shown that taking away street space, often predicted to cause traffic mayhem, can actually reduce congestion as people find alternate ways to get there. Since the closure began, I've experimented with different routes. I've taken the bus at times of day when I would normally drive because there would be less traffic. Meanwhile, the sidewalks are still open, and I've noticed more people walking or biking to and from Trader Joe's across the bridge.

That may not seem like a big deal, but it only takes a 5% reduction in traffic to cause a 10 to 30% increase in traffic speed, meaning only a few people have to change their behavior in order for everyone to have a faster trip. It also explains why major highway closures around the country, like Carmageddon in Los Angeles, didn't cause the traffic they were anticipated to.

Of course, this isn't a perfect trial. The buses still have to share the remaining two lanes of traffic with everyone else. Unlike other, larger highway closures, there isn't a campaign directing drivers to other routes or beefed-up transit service. And unlike a road washout, a bus lane will give drivers another travel alternative to choose from instead of simply taking away street space.

But if Route 29 travelers can handle losing a lane for a few weeks, when the bridge is repaired, we might be able to do another trial with an actual bus lane.

Development


Residents skeptical of BRT and mixed-use development grill Montgomery council candidates

In the coming years, eastern Montgomery County could see some big changes, from faster, more reliable bus service to a new research and technology hub. Last night, candidates for County Council talked about these issues with some very skeptical Four Corners residents.


University Blvd approaching Route 29. Photo from Google Maps.

The Four Corners area, part of Council District 5, is slated for Bus Rapid Transit lines on Route 29 and University Boulevard. The White Oak Science Gateway plan would add research and technology office space along with with homes and shopping.

I live-tweeted the forum, along with Joe Fox and Jessie Slater. Here's a Storify. Update: If you don't see the content in the box below from the home page or another list of articles, try going to the individual post page.

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