Wes Vernon Commentary
April 2012

Bus Rapid Transit No Viable Substitute For Light Rail

The Montgomery County Council has scrapped its earlier support for building a light rail line along the I-270 Corridor in upper Montgomery County. The council has now opted instead for Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) as the mode for the Corridor Cities Transitway (CCT).

Right the first time

This column believes that is a mistake - an understandable mistake, perhaps, but a mistake nonetheless.

The county's intrepid activist group, Action Committee For Transit (ACT) , is also of that view.

The case

When a light rail transit system is built, it usually includes an infrastructure (tracks, better assured access to exclusive rights of way, electric power, etc.) that denotes a commitment to a service that will be there for decades to come.

That in turn encourages builders, entrepreneurs, residential developers and other investors to make plans to construct and/or set up shop close to the transit line, thus generating more economic benefits. Such a sense of permanency does not apply to bus service which can be yanked overnight.

Buses cheaper? Not really.

The argument has been made that light rail transit (LRT) on the CCT would be more expensive to build than bus rapid transit (BRT). True, but light rail is much cheaper to operate.

Southern California's light-rail line (San Diego-the Mexican border near Tijuana and other spurs) routinely operates four-car trains in rush hour. And those elongated cars are the rough equivalent of six car passenger trains on commuter railroad services. Only one operator is required for the trains, as opposed to four or more operators driving buses of equal capacity.

Moreover, as the late Paul Weyrich succinctly puts it in a statement carried on ACT's website: "People don't want to ride buses."

Amen. Generally, people who don't own automobiles will settle for the bus. People who are not auto-dependent are far more likely to use the train, but generally eschew the bus.

Montgomery County is growing more quickly than the county itself is able to maintain a pace consistent with the burgeoning population's needs. What is required for the future is the capacity to accommodate four-car trains capable of operating on short headways.

Part of an area-wide outlook

The Suburban Maryland Transportation Alliance (SMTA) notes that in the Washington-area's region of 5.5 million people (and growing), "we need to make sure we have a robust, safe and reliable transportation network that meets all of our daily needs." That will be required if the DC metropolitan area is "keep our economy strong and protect our quality of life."

Richard Parsons, a former president of the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce, is now President of SMTA. That group recently held a breakfast meeting in Gaithersburg to review the transportation problems and options for the county. A few days later, Parsons held a similar event in Prince Georges County. The High Green was on hand for the Montgomery confab.

The issues at hand

Here is part of the problem: In northern Montgomery County, there are some very pleasant walkable communities that do not require their residents to haul up to two tons of rubber and steel just to pick up something as portable as a prescription.

This series of stumbles is a sample of the ongoing problems that have plagued the effort to bring streetcars back to Washington. Future population growth argues for an expedited schedule.

Chief among the islands of transportation balance are King Farm and Kentlands. However, they are both surrounded by counterproductive sprawl development that caters exclusively to the automobile asphalt complex (AAC).

As of this writing, King Farm (the residential and commercial development south of Shady Grove Road between Frederick Road and I-270) is to be served by the CCT. As the Rick Kiegel, Maryland MTA's CCT project manager, tells me, "The CCT will run through King Farm in the median of King Farm Boulevard... MTA will be working with the residents over the next several years to design a system that meets the area's transit needs..."

Transit supporters are concerned that Kentlands (for all its internal walkability) will remain dependent on a lightly scheduled Ride-On minibus to connect with the Metro Red Line and other entities in the outside world.

Not necessarily so, says Kiegel of MTA: "A Kentlands alignment is under consideration now," he writes us.

We would add that people living and doing business at King Farm and Kentlands pay extra hefty rates for residential and commercial property that is compatible with an "urban" lifestyle. Because they end up conserving land and reducing congestion, they deserve to be rewarded, not punished. But the opaque building codes are rigged in a Catch-22 fashion that obligates builders to climb through endless bureaucratic and economic red tape to create the walkable neighborhoods. Hence such surroundings are prohibitively expensive for many.

This column would argue for the good old fashioned market forces of "supply and demand." Get rid of arbitrary building codes; give property buyers a choice of where they want to live, shop, and work. Then will we find out whether such a level playing field will encourage walkable transit-friendly (preferably rail transit) communities.

The route (as of now)

Latest indications are that, as envisioned by the county council, the CCT BRT line would provide a 14-mile service from the Shady Grove Metro station to the COMSAT facility just south of Clarksburg. The route would also serve Germantown and Gaithersburg.

Ben Ross, former president and key member of ACT, has problems with the current CCT configuration. The south end of the line (swinging around from Shady Grove Metro through Crown Farm, Quince Orchard Park and then swinging back to Metropolitan Grove) is unnecessarily circuitous and time-consuming.

As he tells us: "We believe that the higher priority should be implementation of the MARC Growth and Expansion Plan (detailed in this space several years ago) which would provide all-day service [on the Brunswick Line]." Comment: Fabulous idea which we have long supported. Now, who will volunteer to persuade CSX to sit behind closed doors for round-the-clock negotiations on the all-day MARC service?)

"Once that is implemented," according to Ross, "the CCT would make a lot of sense (preferably as light rail) as a feeder line serving not only the Kentlands-Shady Grove market and reverse-commute Shady Grove-Science City market, but also trips that transfer to from MARC at Metropolitan Grove."

Ideally, adds Ross, we would like to see a [Metrorail] Red Line extension to Germantown which would make the CCT an even more effective feeder line.

Completion of the CCT is envisioned in large measure as a necessity if the planned Great Science Medical Center is to go forward. A months-long - make that years-long - debate over the issue has centered on which of the two rival modes best would suit the needs of the ambitious project.

Ben Ross says "this [CCT] route [as mapped out by MTA] doesn't (and wasn't intended to) serve trips from Germantown to Shady Grove, and the market from Germantown to new jobs in Science City is too small to justify construction by itself."

Back to bus vs. rail

The state of Maryland says LRT would take a decade longer to complete than would BRT. Besides which, the state is already trying to pry federal money to jump-start construction of the Purple Line LRT (linking Bethesda with Silver Spring, College Park and New Carrollton) as well as a new subway route in Baltimore.

Not to worry?

We are assured that BRT will have many of the advantageous features we associate with light-rail (i.e. some exclusive rights-of-way and fewer traffic signals) will apply to a CCT BRT. Be forewarned that in other cities (Boston and Cleveland, for example) reality fell short of the rosy promises. Once motorists demanded the trains get out of the way of the automobiles (rather than the other way around), all bets were off.

Moreover, without the tracks and electric wires, dismantling the system will be far more tempting for the Automobile-Asphalt Complex.

And again, a la Paul Weyrich: A bus is still a bus.

"Too close to call"

At the SMTA breakfast, I raised all these issues with the panel that was assembled for the occasion.

Montgomery Councilman George Leventhal said that the (unanimous) council vote for BRT was "a close call" for him. He was aware of the points that I proffered, but said it was essential that the county go ahead now and get the CCT up and running. Otherwise, it would not come to fruition quickly enough to keep pace with the growth and contemplated development. In fact, he expressed concern such advantageous development might be lost because of the longer wait.

Marilyn Balcombe, President of the Gaithersburg-Germantown Chamber of Commerce and Chairman of the Corridor Cities Transitway Coalition, added that as much as she would prefer rail, the time factor elicited her reluctant acceptance of BRT.

Leventhal was asked right after the meeting broke up if BRT might be a mere starter for what would eventually be converted to LRT. He indicated if that happened, it would take place at a point that was beyond the foreseeable future.

The time issue

Naturally, that leads to questions as to why it takes so long to build a rail transit line. There are or course, many more regulations, bureaucracy, and anti-rail activism than were evident over 100 years ago when the Boston and New York subways were built.

Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett has said his switch of support from train to bus was motivated in part by his desire to live long enough to see the CCT in place. This local resident informed the gathering that I myself am well north of the "stripling" stage and that if I have the patience to take the time to do this thing right, so too could he.