The blue-and-white vehicle parked at the entrance to the Montgomery County Agricultural Fair might look like your average city bus, but it’s way more than that.
It’s a rapid transit vehicle on its way to Denver and it’s what transit advocates hope is a glimpse at the future of transportation in the county.
“Oh, my goodness, these buses. They’re not, if you will, your father’s bus. They’re not your average bus,” County Councilman Roger Berliner (D-Dist. 1) of Bethesda said Monday. “This is going to be a way for people to get around that they say, ‘Thank you. I don’t want to drive.’”
Outfitted with 57 vibrantly colored seats, a lower deck and multiple boarding points, the two-car vehicle that’s parked outside the fair this week is designed to move more people more quickly than a conventional bus.
Provided by Communities for Transit, a Silver Spring nonprofit that supports rapid transit as a response to the county’s traffic woes, the display aims to make the proposed system tangible for fairgoers.
“We want people to see this because I think it reflects what the future is about,” County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) said Monday when he stopped by the display. “It is not just a hope that we will join the other communities across the country, 20 or so, [that have rapid transit systems]. We will, in fact, join them.”
“We cannot, we cannot — I’m emphasizing this — we cannot provide the prosperity, the movement, to ensure our future so long as we’re in single vehicles in Montgomery County,” Leggett continued. “We have to go to this system.”
Lawmakers promised an ambitious timeline for rolling out rapid transit.
Berliner, chairman of the Transportation Infrastructure Energy and Environment Committee, committed to have at least portions of the system operating in the next four years.
“In the next four years, we are going to make this happen,” he said. “This cannot just be a plan. This just can’t be pretty pictures.”
However, Tom Street, the county’s assistant chief administrative officer, said it could take a few years just to complete conceptual design studies underway for a few of the 10 planned corridors.
The county approved a planned network of 10 rapid transit corridors — in addition to the 15-mile Corridor Cities Transitway — as part of the Countywide Transit Corridors Functional Master Plan. Studies are underway for the Corridor Cities Transitway, Georgia Avenue and Veirs Mill Road, as well as Md. 355 and U.S. 29.
Councilman Marc B. Elrich (D-At large) of Takoma Park, hailed as the “father” of rapid transit in the county, proposed the idea eight years ago.
“We need another way to move people,” he said. Planned growth and development cannot happen under the transportation status quo, as “it is physically impossible,” he said.
“This gives us our best shot at building a system, not just a line, but a system that moves people from where they live to where they work and does it in an economically efficient and responsible way,” Elrich said.
Exactly how much the system will cost and how much of the cost will be borne by the county remain to be seen, Street said.
“Until those conceptual design studies are done that identify the likely treatments, we will not have a cost estimate for the whole system,” Street said.
Future development in areas such as White Oak hinge on expanding transit, said Councilwoman Cherri Branson (D-Dist. 5) of Silver Spring.
“I cannot tell you how important a bus rapid transit system would be for Route 29,” she said. And even though Branson will not be on the council to see rapid transit become a reality, she said she will be “rootin’ from the sidelines.”
For areas such as Gaithersburg, served only by Ride On bus and the MARC commuter train, the two-car vehicle sitting just outside the fair gates is as close as the city has gotten to a transit system, Mayor Sidney Katz remarked. Katz (D) is running for the County Council from District 3.
While the vehicle on display at the fair is a diesel bus with fairly basic amenities, Bill Griffiths, county Fleet Management Services division chief, said the county is leaning toward compressed natural gas vehicles and considering features such as on-board screens that display real-time GPS and arrival times, Wi-Fi and even outlets to charge mobile devices.
However, transit advocates argue that changes to the roads the vehicles will travel — such as off-board fare collection stations, level boarding and dedicated lanes — are more important than features on the bus.
“Bus rapid transit isn’t just a special kind of vehicle,” said David Hauck of Communities for Transit. “What’s important is what system is the bus running in. If you have a dedicated lane, if a trip takes you 20 minutes at noon, it takes you 20 minutes in rush hour.”