Two days ago, the Montgomery County Council unanimously approved a transit corridors master plan that includes provisions for studying a 98-mile bus rapid transit (BRT) system.
First, the good news: The plan also takes the first substantive steps toward increasing MARC commuter rail capacity on the Brunswick Line. That is a positive development, and one I strongly support.
But the aforementioned BRT system is a terrible idea, and would be a complete waste of taxpayer money. Despite some misgivings among a minority of councilmembers, all 9 of them now own BRT by voting for the plan.
I think Councilmember Marc Elrich has greatly rebounded from his out-of-character first term in office. At the time, I criticized many of his actions, such as voting for sector plans that were oversized, fail to provide the infrastructure necessary to support them, and increase urban sprawl in suburban and rural areas. But in his second term, the original Marc Elrich has reemerged. He has not only been an outspoken critic of the sector plans in this term, but more importantly, has actually voted against them.
So I give Councilmember Elrich full credit for that and other issues where, in my opinion, he has been correct. But I simply disagree with his support of BRT. Ultimately, the impact of BRT on land use - allowing dense, urban-style development in Aspen Hill, Olney, Wildwood and other definitively low-density, suburban areas - would be contrary to his stated positions on land use.
I think Councilmember Elrich is partially correct in his statement that "there is no real way forward in this county without transit." Expanding and enhancing Metrobus, Ride On, MARC and Metro will be critical in having a functioning transportation system. Light rail lines would be important additions.
But leaving out one mode altogether - highways - will continue the economic damage the county is already suffering from its failure to complete its master plan freeways.
And that's the biggest point the Washington Post obscured once again in its coverage of Tuesday's BRT vote.
Reporter Bill Turque states that the county has "little room left for big new roads." Councilmember Roger Berliner refers to county roads as "a scarce public resource."
Those statements are flatly not true.
Reasonable people can argue the merits of BRT. But there is absolutely, positively no way anyone can argue we don't have room for new roads. Rights-of-way exist today for the planned Rockville Freeway, Outer Beltway/new Potomac River crossing, M-83 Midcounty Highway Extended, and the Northern Parkway. They can be clearly defined on maps, and the land is primarily being preserved as parkland. These master plan roads were recognized as critical for the growth planned during the 1960s and 70s. All of that growth happened. And more. But the county never built the roads to support it! Et, voila, now we are all stuck in traffic.
There is also the indisputable fact that I-495, I-270 and state highways like Georgia Avenue have existing space to be widened, such as by extending the Virginia express lanes into Maryland. We have a lot of options. But our elected officials are refusing to take advantage of them. All of these things cost money, too, and a Transit-only! approach is not only radical, but destructive to the quality of life and economic development in Montgomery County.
Reducing road capacity by 33% to give BRT dedicated lanes will only worsen the gridlock.
The Post cited again the surreal argument that BRT would carry 600 more people an hour than car traffic. Not only is the math for that questionable, but that assumes big-time BRT ridership. Currently, Metro offers a rapid transit service along the MD 355 corridor now targeted for a BRT line. But 85% of commuters continue to find driving the option that meets their needs best. Why would they change to a BRT that is even slower than Metro? An empty bus cannot carry 600 more people than cars per hour.
And once again, the Post gives a lowball figure for the total cost of BRT, "1-2 billion dollars." It's actually around $5 billion, and none of these numbers take into account the Strathmore/Silver Spring Transit Center-style mishaps that could occur.
Why do council members (who themselves commute by automobile) continue to assert that they know better than their constituents when it comes to commuting in Montgomery County? And why can't the Post Co. give us the full story, and the facts on BRT?
Post/Council BRT Fact Check rating:
"Pants on Fire"