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Transit


The shutdown is coming! The shutdown is coming! (On the Red Line)

SafeTrack's biggest shutdown is just about here: for 25 days, from October 29th through November 22nd, Red Line trains won't run between the NoMa-Gallaudet and Fort Totten stations. If you use the Red Line at all, regardless of where in the system, you can expect fewer trains, delays on the ones that come, and lots of crowding.


If you use the Red Line on the parts that are staying open, this might be your life for the next few weeks. Photo by ep_jhu on Flickr.

Be prepared for significant service impacts

This is the tenth of SafeTrack's "surges," which just means it's the tenth area where Metro is doing a deep dive on maintenence work. Trains coming from Grosvenor or Shady Grove will not (!) go all the way to Silver Spring or Glenmont—they'll all turn back around at NoMa. Similarly, trains from Glenmont and Silver Spring will turn around at Fort Totten. Anybody needing to go farther than those two points will need to find a bus, or transfer to the Green/Yellow Lines at Gallery Place or Fort Totten to bridge the gap.

Since NoMa and Fort Totten weren't designed to be terminal stations which might allow trains to turn around quickly, and accounting for the various speed restrictions along the Red Line, trains will only run every six minutes between Shady Grove and NoMa, and every 10 minutes from Glenmont to Fort Totten.


Impact of the SafeTrack Surge 10 shutdown. Image from WMATA.

If you usually rely on Metro to travel in these areas, here are your options

Metro's SafeTrack advisory page lists a number of Metrobus, Ride On, MARC, bike, and carpool routes and options that might be able to help to get around the 25-day shutdown, or provide alternate routes when traffic or a breakdown inevitably snarls your commute during the surge.

Metro's bus shuttles will operate between NoMa, Rhode Island Avenue, Brookland, and Fort Totten stations from system opening to closing. Ride On is offering its own free shuttles between the Silver Spring, Takoma, and Fort Totten stations, and Montgomery County will be giving out some free round-trip MARC tickets through Friday the 28th.

Other buses available for passengers to get around the shutdown are the 80 which connects Fort Totten and Brookland to Union Station, Gallery Place, and Metro Center, the S9 directly from Silver Spring to to Columbia Heights and McPherson Square, and the P9P6 connecting Anacostia to Metro Center up to Rhode Island Avenue.

Last but certainly not least, Montgomery County has an interactive map showing park-and-ride lots, and there are also bike maps for how to traverse the area on bike along with the SafeTrack-specific detour signs

What work will Metro do during the shutdown? It's not saying so we have to guess.

Unfortunately, there's no information posted on Metro's website about what specific work is being performed. Communication about the specific work being done is one of the big sticking points between Metro and passengers, and it has been since SafeTrack started and well before even for Metro employees.

It'd be nice for customers to know what work is being done to repair the tracks so they can see what kind of tangible benefits the present headaches might yield; without that kind of information, it's hard to continue to support the system.

In the absence of a planned work schedule, I can look at previous surges and take my best couple guesses at what Metro will be doing during the 25 days.

  • Likely, there again will be four main sections of work that they will try to get done: track, structures, automatic train control, and traction power.
  • Track work being done between NoMa and Fort Totten will likely again include major rail tie replacements numbering in the hundreds or thousands. Depending on the status of the ballast—the gravel that the rail ties rest on—crews may need to place more under the track, or replace some of what is already there if it's not in good condition.
  • As with the other surges, power cables will be checked and replaced, the intrusion detection warning system will be refurbished where needed, emergency trip station lights will be repaired, and any signals in the area should be converted to LED lights if they aren't already.
But apart from these generic work summaries, there's no real way to know exactly what's scheduled to get done during this surge. Even if there were, though, the agency itself still doesn't have metrics to determine if SafeTrack was a "success."

Hopefully, at very least, the speed restriction near Rhode Island Ave which was put in place to "minimize structural deterioration" is addressed, and trains can resume going normal speeds through the station without fear of concrete falling from the ceiling.

Transit


Montgomery County will build bus rapid transit in four years

After nearly a decade of debate, Montgomery County wants to build a bus rapid transit line in four years, for 20% of the originally estimated cost. While it'll be a better bus service, it may not be so rapid.


Montgomery County could get this, sort of. Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

Last month, the county announced its plan to build a 14-mile BRT line along Route 29 (also known as Colesville Road and Columbia Pike) from the Silver Spring Transit Center to Burtonsville. It's part of a larger, 80-mile system that's been studied since 2008 and was officially approved in 2013. County Executive Ike Leggett wants to have this line up and running by the end of 2019, an ambitious timeline. The county also says they can do it for $67.2 million, compared to the $350 million county planners previously predicted.

How? Most bus rapid transit systems, like the new Metroway in Northern Virginia, have a separate roadway for buses that gets them out of traffic and provides a shorter, more reliable travel time.

On Route 29, the county envisions running buses on the shoulder between Burtonsville and Tech Road, where it's basically a highway. Further south, as Route 29 becomes more of a main street, the county would turn existing travel lanes into HOV-2 lanes for buses and carpools. For about three miles closer to downtown Silver Spring, buses would run in mixed traffic. This setup allows the county to build the line without widening the road anywhere, which saves on land and construction costs.


Map from Montgomery County.

The line would have other features that can reduce travel time and improve the current bus riding experience. Each of the 17 stations would feel more like a train station, with covered waiting areas, real-time travel info, and fare machines so riders can pay before getting on. At some stoplights, buses would get the green light before other vehicles. Buses would come every six minutes during rush hour, and every 10 minutes the rest of the time.

County officials estimate that 17,000 people will use the service each day by 2020 and 23,000 people will ride it each day in 2040. The line, which would be part of the county's Ride On bus system, would replace express Metrobus routes along Route 29, though existing local bus routes would remain.

Montgomery County would cover half the cost of building the line, while the other half would come from the US Department of Transportation's TIGER grant program for small-scale transportation projects. In addition, the grant would include money for sidewalks, bike lanes, covered bike parking at stations, and 10 bikesharing stations along the corridor. The county will find out if it's won the grant money this fall.

The project could give Montgomery County somewhat better transit now

This plan could bring better bus service to East County, which has been waiting for rapid transit since it was first proposed in 1981. The Metrobus Z-line along Route 29 is one of the region's busiest, with over 11,000 boardings each day, but riders face delays and long waits.

East County lacks the investment that more affluent parts of the county enjoy, and so residents must travel long distances for jobs, shopping, or other amenities. Residents suffer from poor access to economic opportunities: according to the county's grant application, 30% of the area's 47,000 households are "very low income." County officials hope that better transit could support big plans to redevelop White Oak and Burtonsville.

While not having dedicated transit lanes makes this project easy to build, it also makes it hard to provide a fast, reliable transit trip. Enforcing the HOV lanes will be hard, especially south of New Hampshire Avenue where the blocks are short and drivers are constantly turning onto Route 29 from side streets. And without dedicated lanes in congested Four Corners, buses will simply get stuck in traffic with everyone else, discouraging people from riding them.

The route also includes two spurs along Lockwood Drive and Briggs Chaney Road, each of which serves large concentrations of apartments where many transit riders live, but would force buses on huge, time-consuming detours. One possibility is that some buses could go straight up Route 29 while others take the scenic route. But that's basically how the existing bus service on the corridor already works.

This could make the case for rapid transit

This might be a temporary solution. The county and state of Maryland will continue planning a "real" bus rapid transit line that might have its own transitway, but that could take several years.

In the meantime, the county needs to build support for better transit. BRT has broad support across the county, but many residents are still skeptical. Supporters and opponents alike have been confused and frustrated by the lack of information on the county's progress in recent months.

By getting something on the ground now, Montgomery County can show everyone how BRT really works sooner, rather than later. Despite the shorter timeframe, it's important to make sure this service actually improves transit, and that residents actually know what's going on.

Transit


Here's why the DC region has so many bus systems

There are more than 20 separate bus agencies in the Washington area. Why not run them all as part of WMATA? Some run outside WMATA's geography, but the bigger reason is money: It costs less to run a local bus than a WMATA bus, translating to better service for less money on local lines.


Photos by the author.

With a few exceptions, essentially every county-level local government in the Washington region runs its own bus system, on top of WMATA's Metrobus. DC has Circulator, Montgomery County has Ride-On, Alexandria has DASH, etc ad nauseam. There are more than 20 in the region, not even including myriad private commuter buses, destination-specific shuttles, and app-based startups.

Our region is a smorgasbord of overlaying transit networks, with little in common except, thankfully, the Smartrip card.

Why?

Three reasons, but mostly it's all about money

Some of the non-WMATA bus systems can't be part of Metro simply because buses go to places that aren't part of the WMATA geography. Since Prince William County is outside WMATA's service area, Prince William County needs its own system. Thus, OmniRide is born. Hypothetically WMATA could expand its boundaries, but at some point 20 or 40 or 60 miles out from DC, that stops making sense.

Another reason for the transit hodgepodge is control. Locals obviously have more direct control over local systems. That's an incentive to manage buses close to home.

But the biggest reason is money. Specifically, operating costs.

To calculate how much it costs to operate a bus line, transit agencies use a formula called "cost per revenue hour." That means, simply, how much it costs to keep a bus in service and carrying passengers for one hour. It includes the cost of the driver's salary, fuel for the bus, and other back-end administrative costs.

Here are the costs per hour for some of the DC-region's bus systems, according to VDOT:

  • WMATA Metrobus: $142/hour
  • Fairfax County Connector: $104/hour
  • OmniRide: $133/hour
  • Arlington County ART: $72/hour
Not only is WMATA the highest, it's much higher than other local buses like Fairfax Connector and ART. OmniRide is nearly as high because long-distance commuter buses are generally more expensive to operate than local lines, but even it's less than Metrobus.

This means the local systems can either run the same quality service as WMATA for less cost, or they can run more buses more often for the same cost.

At the extreme end of the scale, Arlington can run 2 ART buses for every 1 Metrobus, and spend the same amount of money.

In those terms, it's no wonder counties are increasingly pumping more money into local buses. Where the difference is extreme, like in Arlington, officials are channeling the vast majority of growth into local buses instead of WMATA ones, and even converting Metrobus lines to local lines.

Why is Metrobus so expensive to run?

Partly, Metrobus is expensive because longer bus lines are more expensive to run than shorter ones, so locals can siphon off the short intra-jurisdiction lines for themselves and leave the longer multi-jurisdiction ones to WMATA.

Another reason is labor. WMATA has a strong union, which drives up wages. The local systems have unions too, but they're smaller and balkanized, and thus have less leverage.

Finally, a major part of the difference is simply accounting. WMATA's operating figures include back-end administrative costs like the WMATA police force, plus capital costs like new Metro bus yards, whereas local services don't count those costs as part of transit operating.

Montgomery County has a police department of course, and bus planners, and its own bus yards, but they're funded separately and thus not included in Ride-On's operating costs.

So part of the difference is real and part is imaginary. It doesn't actually cost twice as much to run a Metrobus as an ART bus. But for local transit officials trying to put out the best service they can under constant budget constraints, all the differences matter.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Transit


The Silver Spring Transit Center is finally open

After years of delay and budget overruns, the Silver Spring Transit Center finally opened yesterday.


Photo by Dan Malouff.

The three-story complex, located next to the Silver Spring Metro station, brings together Metro, MARC commuter rail, local and intercity buses, and a kiss-and-ride. The future Purple Line will also stop there. First proposed in 1996, construction started in 2008.

The transit center was supposed to open in 2012 before officials found serious structural defects. A report found that the county, the designers, and the builders were all at fault, and WMATA refused to take over the building. The county brought in a new structural engineer to organize repairs, which began last fall. Right now, Montgomery County and WMATA are suing the builder and designer.


Photo by Dan Malouff.

But now, the transit center is up and running after a low-key opening Sunday morning. The first bus, a Metrobus 70 headed to Archives, pulled out at 4:08 am. Later in the morning, the Action Committee for Transit announced the winner of its contest to guess the transit center's opening date: Garth Burleyson of Colesville, who'd picked October 26.


Goofing off in the transit center before it opens. Photo by the author.

Fences surrounding the transit center finally came down Saturday afternoon. When I stopped by Saturday night, curious onlookers were wandering around the empty structure, snapping funny photos and taking in the building for the first time.


Looking from the transit center into downtown Silver Spring. Photo by Dan Malouff.

The views of the Metro station and downtown Silver Spring are pretty dramatic.


Photo by the author.

The first two floors have stops for Metrobus and Ride On, and intercity buses, while a third floor has a taxi stand, bike parking, and a kiss-and-ride. Signs point to where riders can catch each bus, while digital displays give real-time arrival info.


Riders catch the Z8 on the street one last time.

For bus riders, the transit center will require some getting used to. For seven years, buses stopped along nearby streets. Stops for dozens of routes will move into the transit center.

Now that the Transit Center is done, one big question is what will happen to the space around it. Plans to build apartments, offices, and hotels next to the complex fell through last year, and the county's suing Foulger Pratt, the developer who sought to build them.

This is one of the most valuable development sites not just in Silver Spring, but the region, situated next to one of its biggest transit hubs. With the core of downtown Silver Spring three blocks away, there's a big opportunity to capture all of the people walking there from the Metro. Hopefully, this won't sit empty for long.

Check out my photos and Dan Malouff's photos from opening day.

Transit


Metro's bus system faces its own financial crunch

Metro's rail service isn't the only arm of the organization that's having financial problems. Its bus arm, Metrobus, is struggling too. Increased competition from other bus services and slower travel speeds are the big reasons why.


Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

This information comes from a recent post on PlanItMetro, the WMATA's planning blog.

Riders have more options

While Metrobus is the region's most common for taking the bus, there are a number of localized services as well. These "local operators" are mostly county-run systems that fill Metrobus' "gaps" by different providing routes and service times. Examples include Ride On in Montgomery or Fairfax Connector in Fairfax.

These systems' growth is a challenge for Metrobus, which is adding service routes of its own but not as rapidly. With local routes providing more and more options for commuters, it's not surprising that they're becoming a more popular way to travel.

Metrobus has seen its share of passenger trips fall nearly 10% over the past 15 years, and competing services are undoubtedly a factor in that drop.


Graphic by PlanItMetro. Click for a larger version.

Metrobus service is slower

Local buses also often get riders to their destination faster than Metrobus—2.5 miles faster on average, to be exact. Metrobus' slower operating speeds have two consequences. First, they throws off schedules, requiring more buses to continue operating on the same timetable.

The second consequence is largely rooted in perception. When riders can notice a differece in speed from one service to another, they're likely to favor the one that gets them there quicker in the future. In this case, the faster trips are the ones on localized buses.


Graphic by PlanItMetro. Click for larger version.

It's no secret that WMATA is having a tough time lately. Metrobus has had fewer close calls with danger than Metro does, but there are certainly signs of trouble that warrant being addressed.

Transit


Meet Ride-On Plus, the every-10-minute bus that may run on Route 355

Montgomery County is hoping a federal grant will jump-start its proposed BRT network with a new bus line on the county's biggest main street, Route 355. If the grant comes through, the new "Ride-On Plus" won't be full BRT, but will rather be a limited-stop route akin to WMATA's MetroExtra.


Ride-On Plus route map. Image from Montgomery County.

Last month, Montgomery County submitted a grant request to the federal government for approximately $20 million to add a new bus line along busy Route 355. The line would run from Lakeforest Mall in Gaithersburg south to downtown Bethesda, making stops at key locations along the way in Gaithersburg, Rockville, and North Bethesda.

Buses would come every ten minutes at peak times, and would only make a total of nine stops over the course of the 11-mile route. By stopping so infrequently, buses would travel the route significantly faster than existing Ride-On buses.

Although Ride-On Plus will not qualify as bus rapid transit—it won't have dedicated lanes—it will include some BRT-like upgrades: Traffic signals will stay green a few seconds longer if a bus is about to pass, and bus stops will have premium features like real-time arrival screens.

The grant is a long shot

Unfortunately, Ride-On Plus may never happen. County officials hope a federal TIGER grant will cover $18.5 million out of the project's total $23 million price tag. But TIGER grants are extremely hard to come by; the federal TIGER budget is $500 million nationwide, and there are usually tens of billions of dollars in requests. Most grant requests never get money.

But if this grant comes through, Ride-On Plus could provide a nice first-step towards an eventual bona fide BRT line, helping to build ridership and make the case that there's a market for better transit in Montgomery County.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Events


Events roundup: Georgetown and Fairfax

How can communities change while preserving what's important? Learn about these challenges in historic Georgetown and developing Route 1 in Fairfax. Also, learn about transportation financing, water and equity, and Ride On service at upcoming events around the region.


Photo by terratrekking on Flickr.

Change in Georgetown: Moving historic neighbor­hoods into the future can be difficult. Georgetown is trying to do that with its "Georgetown 2028" plan. On Tuesday, November 4, Georgetown BID transportation director Will Handsfield will discuss how the area can continue to develop a thriving commercial district and preserve its historic flair. That's at the National Building Museum, 401 F Street, NW from 12:30 to 1:30 pm.

Growth and stormwater: The Coalition for Smarter Growth's next tour takes you to Route 1 in Fairfax, where growth will affect the local watersheds. Experts will talk about how Fairfax can add housing, stores, and jobs while preserving water quality. You need to RSVP for the tour, which is 10 am to noon this Saturday, November 1.

Public-private transportation: Curious about how the nation will finance transportation infrastructure? Tonight, Tuesday, October 28, the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) is hosting David Connolly and Ward McCarragher, both from the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, to discuss a new report about how public-private partnerships can fund transportation. A wine and cheese reception will begin at 5 pm and the presentation will be 5:30-6:30 at 1666 K Street, NW, 11th floor. Please RSVP.

Ride On more: Montgomery County is planning to increase service on six routes, and will discuss the changes at a public forum Wednesday, October 29, starting at 6:30 at the Silver Spring Civic Building, One Veterans Place.

Social equity and water: Georgetown's Urban and Regional Planning program's weekly lecture series is talking about "big investments in big cities." On Monday, November 3 at 5:30 pm, George Hawkins, the general manager of DC Water, will discuss how infrastructure also affects social equity. The talk is at Georgetown's SCS building at 640 Massachusetts Ave, NW. RSVP here.

Do you know of an upcoming event that may be interesting, relevant, or important to Greater Greater Washington readers? Send it to us at events@ggwash.org.

Transit


Montgomery County added 100,000 residents since 2002, but driving didn't increase

Montgomery County has 100,000 more residents than 10 years ago, but the amount of driving in the county has actually stayed the same, says a new study on how people get around. Meanwhile, more people are walking and biking inside the Beltway, and bus ridership is growing well outside it.


Montgomery County's population has grown, but the amount of driving miles hasn't.
Graph from the Planning Department.

Drivers traveled about 7.3 million miles on state roads in the county in 2012. It's a slight decrease from 2011, but about the same as in 2002, when the county had just over 900,000 residents, compared to 1.005 million residents today. It's in line with both regional and national trends, and suggests that people didn't stop driving simply because of the Great Recession.

The results come from the Mobility Assessment Report, which the Planning Department conducts every few years to identify Montgomery County's biggest transportation needs. County planners measured pedestrian, bicycle, and car traffic throughout the area, in addition to looking at transit ridership.

Silver Spring has more foot traffic, Bethesda has more cyclists

Planners counted the number of pedestrians at 171 locations and the number of cyclists at 25 locations across the county, and plan to do more detailed studies in the future. Not surprisingly, the most walkers and bikers can be found in the county's urban centers, including Silver Spring, Bethesda, and Wheaton, as well as White Flint.


9,500 people use the intersection of Georgia and Colesville each day. All photos by the author unless noted.

The county's busiest pedestrian intersection is Georgia Avenue and Colesville Road in downtown Silver Spring, with 9,500 pedestrians each day. (By comparison, the intersection of 7th and H streets NW in the District sees 29,764 pedestrians daily.) All of the county's busiest intersections for cyclists were in Bethesda; number 1 is Woodmont Avenue and Montgomery Lane, with 163 bikes during the morning and evening rush hours.

More bus riders in the Upcounty

Montgomery's busiest Metro stations are inside the Beltway, including Silver Spring, Bethesda, and Friendship Heights, as well as Shady Grove, a major park-and-ride station. The most-used Metrobus routes are also closer in, like the C2/C4, which serves Langley Park, Wheaton, and Twinbrook and serves over 11,000 people each day, and the J line, which serves Bethesda and Silver Spring.

Surprisingly, the county's busiest Ride On routes are now in the Upcounty: the 55, which runs along Route 355 between Rockville and Germantown, and the 59, which serves Rockville, Gaithersburg, and Montgomery Village. These routes all carry between 3,000 and 4,000 riders each day; the 55 is one of the county's most frequent bus routes, running every 10 minutes during most of the day.


A Ride On bus in Germantown.

That said, transit use in the county has fluctuated in recent years. After decreasing during the recession, daily Metrorail ridership has remained stable since 2009 and fell slightly from 28,504 riders between July 2012 and July 2013 to 27,360 during the following year. About 57,000 people rode Metrobus each day over the past year, a decrease of 6,000 from the previous year.

Most transit riders in the county take Ride On, which carried 88,370 people between July 2012 and July 2013. While it's a slight increase from the year before, it's still 7,000 fewer riders than in 2008, when the county made significant service cuts that were never restored.

More people are using the ICC, but fewer than expected

Meanwhile, more people are using the Intercounty Connector, the highway between Gaithersburg and Laurel north of the Beltway that opened in 2012 and will finish construction this year. An average of 30,000 vehicles used the toll road each weekday in 2012, while traffic rates have increased about 3% each month.

But traffic on the ICC is still much lower than state officials' estimates, raising the question if it was worth the $2.4 billion cost. It does appear to have taken cars off of parallel roads, like Route 108, Route 198, and Norbeck Road, where traffic has fallen by up to 16.9% since the highway opened.

Some roads are always busy

Planners noted several roads that have consistently high congestion, like Rockville Pike, Georgia Avenue, Veirs Mill Road, and Colesville Road. It's no coincidence that these are four of the corridors where both the county and the State of Maryland are studying the potential for Bus Rapid Transit.

There isn't a lot of room to widen these roads or build more interchanges, meaning we have to find new ways to add capacity. Trends suggest that Montgomery County residents are driving less and using transit more, at least when it's frequent and reliable. And as the county continues to grow, we'll have to provide more alternatives to driving if we want to offer a way out of traffic.

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.

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