Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Advisory Board supports Rapid Transit concept, requests full consideration of community concerns

The following is text of a June 18, 2013 letter from the Western Montgomery County Citizens Advisory Board to the County Executive and County Council regarding Rapid Transit proposals. 

Dear County Executive Leggett and Council President Navarro:

Over the past few years, the Western Montgomery County Citizens Advisory Board (WMCCAB) has had several opportunities to learn about and study the proposed countywide transit system, often known as Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) or Rapid Transit.  On several occasions we have heard from County leaders on the issue, including Assistant Chief Administrative Officer Tom Street, Transit Task Force chair Mark Winston, and, most recently, Larry Cole, who is the lead for the Countywide Transit Corridors Functional Master Plan.  We have also received feedback from the community, including residents of Chevy Chase West and representatives of the Coalition for Smarter Growth.

The WMCCAB supports the broad vision of using Rapid Transit along key transit corridors to hold steady or improve current levels of congestion.  The early Rapid Transit plans were broad and ambitious and should be commended for their long-term vision.  The Planning Board’s current exercise, selecting and phasing specific transit corridors by identifying the necessary right-of-way and recommending station locations, is an important one.  See Countywide Transit Corridors Functional Master Plan at 12 (April 2013).  But we also understand that the current plan will not address many of the specific details of BRT that will be necessary for the system to be accepted by the broader community and to thrive and succeed.  Much of that work will be done in future planning documents and will require years of study and attention.
Two of the corridors being considered by the Planning Board are within the WMCCAB’s area: MD 355 South and the North Bethesda Transitway.  We understand that these two corridors, along with MD 355 North, are considered the likely first corridors where Rapid Transit will be implemented.    Rapid Transit along the North Bethesda Transitway is particularly important because, unlike Wisconsin Avenue, its current mass transit options are limited to standard buses.  Its connection to White Flint, which will see substantial growth over the next 30 years, also commends it as a key corridor for transit.

WMCCAB believes that the phased approach, providing proof of concept along specific corridors and then adding more, is a sound one.  It is also important that the Rapid Transit system actually built lives up to its promise.  Studies have shown that the more rail-like a Rapid Transit system is, the better the ridership.  See, e.g., U.S. Department of Transportation, Bus Rapid Transit Ridership Analysis (June 2005) available at http://www.nbrti.org/docs/pdf/WestStart_BRT_Ridership_Analysis_Final.pdf (describing the effect of sleek, rail-inspired design on ridership).  The important elements include not just vehicle design, but level platform boarding, easy to use fares paid before boarding, and prioritized or exclusive use of a right of way.

The ambitious, long-term plans for Rapid Transit are important and a focus on the broader goals for the plan is understandable at this stage.  Still, it is important that the County continue to listen to the concerns of specific communities and do everything possible to address the issues those communities raise. 

In our region, residents of Chevy Chase West have been particularly vocal about their concerns over safety and access issues.  Among the concerns is that because ingress and egress to Chevy Chase West is limited to Wisconsin Avenue, removing existing lanes could make turning out of the neighborhood for northbound travel on Wisconsin Avenue impossible. 

Similarly, residents of Friendship Heights have expressed concern that Wisconsin Avenue is already heavily congested and that adding dedicated Rapid Transit lanes would create an unremediable vehicular bottleneck along a route that cannot sustain, or be widened to, accommodate more.  As residents have explained, the Friendship Heights area is a transportation hub with a bus terminal, Metrorail station and taxi stand all in close proximity.  To situate a RT station across from the bus terminal could compete with the existing Red Line trains, Metrobuses and Ride-On buses, while further blocking vehicular traffic and compromising pedestrian and bicycle safety. 
The concerns of these communities must be addressed and we appreciate that the Planning Board staff has been engaging with concerned residents on these issues.
Rapid Transit corridors are an exciting, long-term plan for our County.  Rapid Transit will require many years of work, substantial funding, and the cooperation of the community for it to succeed.  We thank you for your attention to this letter and look forward to continuing to engage with you on this issue.


Marc Korman, Chair, Western Montgomery County Citizens Advisory Board