Rockville ponders BRT on Veirs Mill Road

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ROCKVILLE -- City Council members voiced support for adding Bus Rapid Transit to Veirs Mill Road Monday but they couldn't decide whether to formally endorse any particular alternative or a broader set of options.

Council members divided over whether they should tell Montgomery County and state transportation officials their preferred alternative among the four options for adding more mass transit options between Wheaton and Montgomery College's campus in Rockville.

They opted instead to mull it over for a week and vote Oct. 17.

Joana Conklin, the rapid transit system development manager for the Montgomery County Department of Transportation, cautioned that the City Council risks losing influence with decision-makers from the county and state if they don't state a preference before transportation officials present options to the County Planning Board Nov. 3.

"It just helps to inform their opinion on their decision about which alternative" Rockville prefers, said Conklin. "It's kind of a chicken and an egg. Everyone is trying to understand what everyone else is thinking."

Montgomery County transportation officials are set to offer their next presentation about BRT along Veirs Mill Road Dec. 1 to the County Council Committee on Transportation, Infrastructure and Environment.

Committee members include committee chairman Roger Berliner (D-1), Council President Nancy Floreen (D-At large) and Council member Tom Hucker (D-5).

The options before the City Council include not building (Alternative 1), adding more commuter buses with special lanes at intersections to avoid traffic (Alternative 2), build curbside lanes dedicated to BRT buses (Alternative 3) or build median lanes for BRT buses (Alternative 5b).

The BRT options both come with price tags exceeding $100 million: the projected cost for Alternative 3 is $148 million and $289 million for Alternative 5b.

The BRT prices includes the purchase price of 60-foot-long articulated buses, or buses with a divider in the middle allowing extra passengers, at the cost of $1 million each.

At a cost of $35 million, Alternative 2 simply expands express bus services in existing lanes. It includes purchasing more 40-foot-long buses at the cost of $600,000 each and adding short "queue jump" lanes near intersections so the buses can skip backed-up traffic and have priority when lights change from red to green.

"It would not be considered BRT but express bus service," said Karen Kahl, the transportation director for  the civil engineering firm RK&K.

The proposed queue jumps in Rockville would be placed at the intersections of MD-28/First Street, Edmonston Drive and Twinbrook Parkway.

The operating costs for Alternative 2 would be $3 million and $5 million for each of the two BRT alternatives.

Alternative 5b would include full bus stations while Alternative 3 would include bus stops along the side of the road.

The Montgomery College, Rockville Metro, First Street, Broadwood Drive and Twinbrook Parkway intersections would all have stations, though an alternative option includes replacing the Broadwood and Twinbrook stations with ones at Edmonston and Atlantic Avenue.

"We are in the process of evaluating the alternatives," said Kahl

Which government agencies would be paying for the buses is still to be determined, according to Conklin.

All of the build options include more than 1,000 extra transit riders daily, with the number of extra riders increasing with the price tag.

Alternative 2 brings 1,100 projected extra riders. That number more than doubles to 2,700 projected extra riders in Alternative 3 and 3,000 in Alternative 5b.

Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton and Council member Mark Pierzchala voiced support for different BRT options.

Newton said the City Council should think big and consider the most expensive option, Alternative 5b.

That option has the highest price tag and the fastest average travel times among the two BRT options, according to Kahl

"Why don't we want to be great?" said Newton.

Instead of "nickel-and-dime around the edges," the second-term mayor said the council could instead "go all-in" in support for BRT.

"It's a balancing act and I understand that," she said.

Pierzchala said he didn't think Alternative 5b was necessarily a better option or value than Alternative 3. He cited the inability for commuting drivers to turn left across the median BRT lanes as potentially problematic.

"I don't see Alternative 3 as a lesser alternative than 5b," said Pierzchala.

Council members Julie Palakovich Carr and Virginia Onley questioned whether it was a good idea to offer their take to the County Council and County Executive before county officials weigh in with their own option.

Palakovich Carr said BRT "could be a good incentive" to spur economic redevelopment by Atlantic Avenue and described the whole process is "an opportunity for the city to be a good partner" with the County Council and County Executive.

She questioned the cost of Alternative 5b but added none of the options are "disastrous."

Council member Beryl Feinberg did not state a preference for one specific alternative but she questioned where fueling stations and bus storage facilities would be located.

In the short term, Kahl said there would be a "combined facility for BRT" at an existing location along Shady Grove Road.

However, in the longer term, "we're going to have to figure something out," she added.

Feinberg pointed out there will be an "additional capital cost" not included as part of the presentation before the City Council.

Newton said there is "very little land left" for a new bus depot, adding she thinks "that impacts people's desire in supporting something."



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