Shift in CCT route gets boost from state study
Alignment clears the way for Science City' build-out
The upcounty's long-awaited mass transit line will be far more likely to win federal funding if it is shifted more than a mile through the county's largest hub of biotech, state transportation officials say.
The much-anticipated analysis is crucial to County Council deliberations over the Gaithersburg West Master Plan, the controversial blueprint for turning the Life Sciences Center into a 900-acre, 60,000-worker "Science City" over the next few decades.
By boosting daily ridership 15 to 40 percent while increasing cost by 11 to 16 percent, the benefits of dipping the Corridor Cities Transitway through the heart of the Shady Grove Life Sciences Center "significantly" outweigh the drawbacks, Donald Halligan, director of the Maryland Transit Administration's Office of Planning and Capital Programming, wrote in a letter dated Thursday and sent to the County Council.
The current CCT alignment would carry between 24,000 and 30,000 daily riders if built as a "light rail" line, and 21,000 to 27,000 riders if built as a "bus rapid transit" line.
The alternate route would add three stations in the heart of the Life Science Center, adding 1.4 miles and seven minutes to the CCT's 14-mile course from the Shady Grove Metro station to the Comsat building near Clarksburg.
Planners have said that without the CCT, the densities and construction called for in the County Planning Board's version of Gaithersburg West are untenable.
In deciding which mass transit projects to approve for its New Starts program, the Federal Transit Administration focuses largely on the ratio between the project's cost and the number of commuting hours saved. State officials expect the CCT to need at least a "medium" rating for that ratio, below $24.99.
On the current alignment, state projections put the ratio at about $18.50 for bus rapid transit and $32 for light rail. Running the CCT through Science City would improve the bus ratio to $8 or $9 and light rail to $18 or $19, said Rick Kiegel, MTA's project manager for the CCT.
Though it makes the CCT far more likely to win its federal share of the cost, it does not resolve the shortfall in the state's transportation budget, which also has a pair of $1 billion-plus transit projects the Bethesda-to-New Carrollton Purple Line and the Baltimore Red Line on the horizon.
"It's important to note that [the CCT's realignment] makes both BRT and LRT cost-effective; it does not necessarily make one or the other affordable from the state's perspective," Kiegel told County Council members Monday.
The council's Planning, Housing and Economic Development committee wrestled with Gaithersburg West's transportation impacts in a three-hour session Monday. The council had put dozens of questions to county planners, most of which centered on traffic impacts and the reasoning used to arrive at 20 million square feet of commercial space as the right figure.
Critics of Gaithersburg West say that a "Science City" with 20 million square feet of commercial space will overwhelm neighborhoods in Gaithersburg, North Potomac and Rockville with traffic.
With the full amount of construction expected to take 30 years or more, Planning Board Chairman Royce Hanson defended Gaithersburg West as "a very conservative approach."
News of the boost to the CCT paints an incomplete picture of the realignment's broader costs, said Council President Philip M. Andrews, a critic of the planning board's Gaithersburg West.
Even with the board's most optimistic estimate that nearly one-third of the trips in the area will come via mass transit, walking, biking or car pool, Gaithersburg West will pump thousands drivers into an already inadequate road network, Andrews said costing hundreds of millions of dollars to widen roads and build as many as five grade-separated interchanges in and around Science City.
"We have to look at both sides of the ledger," said Andrews (D-Dist. 3) of Gaithersburg. " ... I don't think that light rail can be the tail that wags the dog, or is the Holy Grail here, either. It's not the end goal. The end goal is to build a better community for everybody and to figure out what that balance is."
That balance will not be struck by scaled-back alternatives to Gaithersburg West such as the proposal from Residents for Reasonable Development, a coalition of residents, environmentalists, transit advocates because they don't allow enough commercial space to make the realigned CCT viable, said Nancy Sturgeon, the Planning Board's lead planner for Gaithersburg West.
The committee meets again Thursday. Andrews hopes to settle on Gaithersburg West by year's end.