Bus Rapid Transit

At the August 31 work session of Gaithersburg’s Mayor and City Council, there were two presentations: an update on the Corridor Cities Transitway (CCT) project, and the findings of a study of the proposed 355 Bus Rapid Transit project that focused on right-of-way and cost issues.

As a quick summary, the CCT would be an upgraded bus system running in new, dedicated lanes from Shady Grove through King Farm, past Crown Farm, through the proposed Johns Hopkins development at Belward Farm, past Kentlands and ending at the Washington Grove MARC station. No auto lanes would be lost, and the dedicated bus lanes would provide a traffic-free (but not stop-light free) route, speeding up movement for commuters along the West side of Gaithersburg and nearby.

The focus of the state’s update on August 31 was on the environmental impact of the project, mainly the need to take away a “de minimus” amount of parkland alongside Great Seneca Highway, putting up retaining walls and providing reforestation. Several acres of forest (not formal parks) would be relocated if the project moves forward with the current plan.

In addition to the discussion about the CCT’s environmental impact, Mayor Ashman noted that he has requested that options be examined for providing two separate routes, one that ends at Belward Farm and the other bypassing Belward to shorten travel times to Kentlands and Metropolitan Grove. The Maryland Transit Administration representatives indicated that a response to this suggestion will be forthcoming in about a week.

The CCT project is approaching the 30% design phase, and is funded through completed design and through acquisition of the necessary rights-of-way. Actual construction funding is not yet approved. A consortium of businesses is supporting the CCT project, along with the Montgomery County government. Some residents have questioned the state’s ridership assumptions.

The 355 BRT project is at an earlier stage. It would run from the DC border all the way to Clarksburg, including about 4 miles in Gaithersburg. The goal is to improve transit and provide opportunities for the City to promote much-needed redevelopment along its aging commercial corridor. The city commissioned a consulting firm to examine some areas that would provide challenges for this project, either because of narrow roadways or because of the cost of acquiring the right-of-way alongside the existing road. The consultants looked at cost, road capacity, and speed of travel for the BRT system.

The options examined ranged from providing two dedicated “guideway” lanes (northbound and southbound), to a single dedicated lane (requiring some waiting time or having some buses run in normal traffic lanes), and even looked at (and quickly rejected) all buses running in traffic. The challenges in particular are at the Father Cuddy Bridge over the CSX Railroad tracks and, north of the bridge, the area passing a cemetery.

After going through the options, the consultants recommend a hybrid approach. The northern segment would have two dedicated BRT lanes and maintain the existing road lanes, while segments farther south would have a single dedicated lane, and the narrower bridge segment would eliminate one of the northbound auto lanes.

In addition to the right-of-way, the consultants looked at potential station locations. The 355 BRT line through Gaithersburg would have seven station stops. The stop locations in the original County documents had some issues, and the consultants proposed relocating several. For example, instead of a station at Montgomery Village Avenue, one of the busiest intersections in the City, the station would move south to Lakeforest Blvd, in the heart of one of the busier shopping areas.

The presentations can be found on the city’s website here. As you can see, the consultants did a thorough job in evaluating the trade-offs, and the result is a system that cuts the cost and minimizes the impact on existing properties. However, the consultants have not looked at how their recommendations effect the ability of the road to move people – ridership was outside of the scope of their study. I wonder if reducing the cost by narrowing the system to a single dedicated lane, and by losing one of the northbound automobile lanes on the bridge, would reduce the number of people that the road could move.

The purpose of the 355 BRT project is to increase the number of people we can move through the corridor and to our commercial centers. If we end up with a system that costs less but does not achieve this goal, then how are we helping our economic development? I’ve asked our Planning Department to see if they can look at this data based on the proposal and to make sure we are going to recommend a plan that does the job it’s supposed to do.