A standing-room-only crowd of more than 100 people at the July 29 meeting of the Olney Town Center Advisory Committee expressed its passion surrounding the bus rapid transit system proposed for Olney.
Most of those — including many who have lived in Olney for decades — opposed the system, saying it is neither warranted nor wanted.
And some say that whatever shape the project eventually takes will go a long way toward determining Olney’s future.
“Transit attracts denser, more urban development,” said John Webster, president of the Greater Olney Civic Assocation. “Is that the direction we want to head in for Olney? Or do we want to maintain the low-density suburban lifestyle we’ve become accustomed to over the past three or four decades?”
The Maryland State Highway Administration and the Maryland Transit Administration have funded a $5 million study of a bus rapid transit system on Georgia Avenue, or Md. 97, from the Wheaton Metro station to MedStar Montgomery Medical Center in Olney.
The system is similar to a light-rail system with dedicated rights of way, station stops and frequent service that’s faster than conventional buses.
Among the five alternatives under consideration, creating two dedicated median lanes for the buses would impact the corridor the most and could result in the loss of Olney businesses.
Bus rapid transit is being eyed elsewhere in the county, including on Md. 355 and Md. 29, but Georgia Avenue and Veirs Mill Road are being studied first, as the system is included in the master plans for those corridors.
Going back to 1998, the master plan for the area has included some type of busway on Georgia Avenue leading north into Olney.
Even those familiar with the concept say they have found the process and dissemination of information surrounding the project disturbing. In May, the highway agency hosted a public workshop, at which the five alternatives were presented.
Gary Erenrich of the county’s transportation department apologized, saying last week that officials hadn’t been ready to release the information they presented at the May workshop.
He said the next task is to form a citizens advisory committee this fall, which will help the county and state determine which alternatives to study further. There likely will be several committees, representing the various segments of Georgia Avenue.
“We are committed to get the public involved and to plan for the best system meeting everyone’s needs,” Erenrich said.
He acknowledged that no formal ridership forecasting has been conducted and there are no answers on how to pay for the system. The project is not funded beyond the current planning phase.
Without knowing the demand and the community’s needs and wants for such a system, spending $5 million to develop the design alternatives was a “wasted exercise,” Webster said.
County Councilman Marc B. Elrich (D-At large) of Takoma Park, said cost estimates range from $6 million to $40 million per mile. State or federal money might be available.
Elrich also discussed creating special taxing districts to fund the project. Residents shouldn’t pay for it, he said, as they already are paying in a myriad of different ways, and they would not see the benefit of potentially higher property values “until they sell their houses or die.”
Sen. Karen S. Montgomery (D-Dist. 14) of Brookeville chastised the county and state representatives working on the project for “how not to introduce a transportation project,” citing “the endless rumors and dribble-drabble that have gone on for the past four months.”
“I just think this whole thing has been horribly handled,” she said.
Jim Smith, chairman of the Olney Town Center Advisory Committee, said his committee would wait until the Greater Olney Civic Association takes a formal position on the project at its Sept. 9 meeting to decide if it needs to weigh in.
“I’m anxious to see Options 3, 4 and 5 taken off the table, and it doesn’t sound like [the state highway agency] is prepared to take them off yet,” he said. “None of the three are reasonable options for the Olney Town Center, so the sooner they exit the discussion, the better.”
Smith was referring to the options that would add outside lanes for buses; a one-lane, reversible rapid bus in the median; or the two dedicated median bus lanes.
The first two of the five options call for either doing nothing or upgrading current services.
Webster said that despite hoping for more definitiveness and crisp answers, he left last week’s meeting with a lot of unknowns.
“There is an implicit contract between taxpayers and government,” he said. “We willingly pay taxes expecting government spending to be responsible in the best interest of serving the community. That didn’t happen in this case.”