Some said it would be too dangerous for students walking to nearby schools. Some said to improve Metrorail first. One person said Montgomery County should be more concerned with putting people on bikes.
Whatever the reason, many of the roughly 50 Chevy Chase residents at a meeting on Tuesday about the Planning Department’s Bus Rapid Transit proposal had already come to a conclusion: They really don’t want the thing near their neighborhood.
During a two-hour meeting with Larry Cole, the Planning Department’s lead planner of the Master Plan for the transit system, homeowners from the west side of Wisconsin Avenue’s “Green Mile” didn’t hold back.
Cole’s plan, which will soon go before the Planning Board for deliberation before heading to the County Council later this summer, calls for a Bus Rapid Transit corridor along Wisconsin Avenue with existing curb lanes dedicated exclusively to buses between Bradley Boulevard and the District line.
Members of the Chevy Chase West Neighborhood Association and some from surrounding communities say they are worried about traffic interruptions, safety problems and details of how buses will work in specific places, details that Cole repeatedly said won’t be worked out during the Master Plan stage of planning.
That drew groans and muttering from the crowd.
“We would say you’re doing it backwards,” one resident told Cole. “If you can’t address the nuts-and-bolts it seems [wrong] to address a Master Plan.”
Confusion over the Master Plan process and the separate roles of the Planning Department, County Council and the County’s Department of Transportation has caused a fair bit of anxiety in Chevy Chase West.
Marie Park, who testified against the BRT system south of Bradley Boulevard in front of the Planning Board, helped organize the meeting “in order to get more information,” from Cole before the Planning Board’s public commenting period ends on Thursday.
Park advised the group of a petition she’s circulating to make the Planning Board extend the commenting period until June 7 so more opponents from Chevy Chase West can make their opinions known.
Cindy Gibson, chief of staff for Councilmember Roger Berliner (D-Bethesda-Chevy Chase), explained that councilmembers typically don’t meddle in the Planning Board’s deliberations on Master Plans by weighing in before those Plans are sent to the County Council. Gibson said she expects a County Council public hearing on BRT in September before a number of Committee worksessions and a full Council vote.
The Plan contains no timeline for starting the project, which at 79 miles and with 10 corridors across Montgomery County could fall in the $5 billion range. It is up to the county executive and the staff of the county’s Department of Transportation to engineer the actual corridors, come back to the Planning Department with designs and budget the necessary capital funding. The County Council would have to approve those recommendations.
Councilmember Marc Elrich (D-At large) proposed the idea of a BRT system more than six years ago. Berliner has publicly called BRT a “game changer,” though the opposition to dedicated bus lanes in the “Green Mile” section of Chevy Chase is a more specific issue that has sprouted in the last few months. In 2008, the Chevy Chase West Neighborhood Association testified in support of BRT, at least instead of the Purple Line light rail.
It is unknown how the full Council will come down on the project, or even what form it will receive the Master Plan in after the Planning Board makes its recommendations. There’s also the issue of a new Council term around the corner.
Cole says population growth by 2040 makes the MD 355 Bus Rapid Transit corridor necessary to alleviate traffic congestion that will only get worse. But it will take a big shift in thinking to get residents out of their cars and onto buses, even if those buses would ostensibly provide enough convenience for people to ditch their cars along Wisconsin Avenue.
One resident at the meeting on Tuesday said the projected daily ridership of between 44,000 and 49,000 riders for a southbound MD 355 system and between 22,000 and 34,000 riders for a northbound MD 355 system was “pie-in-the-sky thinking.”
Others were more concerned about how the system would work on the most basic level near their communities.
When would buses switch lanes? How would that effect school bus travel? What about areas of Wisconsin Avenue in front of medical buildings, where one resident claimed it can take seniors 10 to 15 minutes to get in and out of cars stalled in the curb lane?
“We’re such a unique area. We are already in a very congested area and we depend on our roads for biking, for walking, for driving, for buses,” another resident said. “Why would you then want to take a road like this and make it much more complicated? You think that you are simplifying it. But you are going to be complicating it and you don’t already have solutions.”
“I never said this isn’t complicated,” Cole said. “What we’re trying to do is to move more people in the same amount of space, because if we don’t, you’ll have more demand in that same amount of space.”
Right-of-way was another issue. Cole explained that Phase 1 of his Master Plan proposal suggests the county could lay down new lane striping and create a curb lane Bus Rapid Transit lane today with no purchase of private property. But Phase 2 of the Plan does include the possibility of moving those dedicated lanes to the median, which could mean widening the road. There’s also the issue of adding bike lanes that don’t exist there today.
“This neighborhood, this community is different,” one resident said. “We need a separate public hearing for this and we need it separately from everybody else.”
Cole, Gibson and Ken Hartman, who runs the county government’s office in Bethesda, all encouraged the residents to make their concerns part of the public record by emailing their remarks in.
Many remained unconvinced.
“That’s not your best sales pitch,” one man told Cole.