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Chevy Chase Residents Let Anti-Bus Rapid Transit Feelings Be Known

by Aaron Kraut | May 29, 2013 at 9:25 am | 575 views | 10 Comments

Larry Cole, the County Planning Department's lead Bus Rapid Transit planner, at a meeting on Tuesday in Chevy Chase

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.”

Residents from Chevy Chase West and surrounding neighborhoods meet about a proposed Bus Rapid Transit system on Wisconsin AvenueConfusion 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.

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  • Leigh Byrnes

    If the public is so against BRT, they should either ditch the project or hold a meeting when they can answer their questions more adequately.

  • rorojo

    “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.”

    *eyes roll*

  • Plum

    What is interesting is that you have a presumably well educated group here in Chevy Chase- Bethesda who is only hearing about BRT now– a year after public outreach was supposed to have occurred. I imagine many people are still unaware of BRT and impacts on their roads and homes. No wonder the one public hearing seemed packed with developers and their interest groups, not actual residents of Montgomery County.

    • Dan Reed

      Plum, I live in Montgomery County and I testified in support of BRT, along with many of my friends and neighbors from different parts of the county, and so far as I know none of them are developers. What’s surprising to me is that the “presumably well-educated group” of people in Chevy Chase West supported BRT for the Purple Line 5 years ago. If it was good enough then, why isn’t it good enough now? Were they not afraid of children in Silver Spring and New Carrollton getting mowed down by buses?

      • Ted

        I believe BRT instead of the purple line refers to east-west transport, something the area needs and needs badly. BRT for Wisconsin makes sense only from a purely abstract point of view. Until the planners can get satisfactory answers for multiple practical questions, there isn’t much point in proceeding.

  • ChevyChseMD

    The plan for devoting two lanes of congested Wisconsin Avenue was announced in March – two months ago. Mr. Cole had no answers for the community. Has anyone driven through Bethesda on Wisconsin Avenue lately? Try taking two of the six lanes away. Oh, and all the parking. Oh, and probably some private property. For a plan with made-up ridership numbers and predicted on made-up population growth numbers.

    • Bethesda

      @ ChevyChaseMD:

      You’re not proposing any realistic alternative for dealing with congestion and growth. You know this country can’t function with just obstructionism. So, I wonder what you think the County should do to make this situation better. Do you really think that Wisconsin Avenue can keep going unchanged and traffic will resolve itself? That won’t happen. More people will drive on Wisconsin Avenue no matter what, unless people can’t afford gas anymore. Even if MoCo tries to stop all growth everywhere it will probably fail – and growth will happen. Providing a transit option that is faster than driving will get some cars off the road and will make it possible to build more smart growth along this corridor in the future. Another option would be to widen Wisconsin Avenue and Jenifer Street to allow more cars to pass. Then growth will be spread all over the county and more people will have to come driving down Wisconsin Avenue. Do you think widening the road would be better than a BRT? Widening would lower property values lead to more traffic, probably increase speed and almost certainly contribute to more collisions because people will change lanes more. A wider road certainly won’t make this area more livable. SOMETHING has to be done because doing nothing will just make matters worse. BRT is a step in the right direction.

  • Jonathan

    I worry that neighborhood residents are smacking into trees instead of acknowledging the forest (that’s how that phrase goes, right?). Major growth in regional job centers is inevitable–Chevy Chase can be an active participant in shepherding their neighborhood in smart growth for the next quarter-century, or they can dig their heels in and risk losing influence over the future. When concerns include how much longer it will take to turn into a particular intersection (an argument heard at the Planning Board hearing) I see how disbelief in induced traffic runs rampant. Short term discomfort and inconvenience is also inevitable. But allowing a public taking for transit now is better than losing significantly more for cars later, resigning to permanently worsening congestion or more generally losing control over regional economic development.

    Phrases like “This neighborhood, this community is different,” and “We
    need a separate public hearing for this and we need it separately from
    everybody else” smack of nimbyism, delay-tactics and short-term, object-oriented thinking. Not to mention antithetical to the spirit of Montgomery County that I’ve grown up believing in. Ironing out all of the “nuts and bolts” is not an appropriate use of Master Planning (there are other stages of the process for that). If neighbors are truly concerned about their neighborhoods I urge them to think seriously about the next 25 or even 50 years, to understand that they are connected to the rest of the county and the region (whether they like it or not) and to think about themselves and their neighborhood as part of system. If you focus too much energy on avoiding the tree, you risk waking up one day to find the forest is gone.

    • MoCoResident

      But you don’t live here anymore.

      • Jonathan

        Ha, you’re not rid of me quite yet. Besides, you can take the boy out of moco but…

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