The Montgomery County Planning Board on Thursday put its stamp of approval on a proposal to dedicate two lanes of Md. 355 — stretching from Friendship Heights up to the Rockville Metro — for buses only.
The proposed rapid transit bus lanes are part of the comprehensive Countywide Transit Corridors Functional Master Plan that is meant to improve transportation options, be more environmentally friendly, and support local businesses, according to county planners.
The board approved the planning staff’s draft and set a public hearing date of May 16.
Comments from the public were read during Thursday’s meeting. While there were some complaints from Chevy Chase residents that a dedicated bus lane might hurt the neighborhood and duplicate the Metro’s Red Line, staffers said the majority of letters supported the idea of improving public transportation.
Larry Cole, the lead planner, told the board that hopping on a bus is often easier than investing the time to take the Metro, which entails going down the stairs and going through the gates. A bus also makes more frequent and local stops.
Planning staffers called the writing and rewriting of the draft a very long process. Chair Françoise Carrier called the new plan “balanced” and said she was happy with it.
The problem with Montgomery County’s roads is clear, according to the planning department. The Washington, D.C., region has some of the worst traffic in the nation.
In 2012, D.C. garnered the dubious distinction of being the country’s most congested city, according to the Texas A&M Transportation Institute’s Annual Urban Mobility Report, which reported that D.C. commuters faced an average of 67 hours of delays each year. The average for drivers in the next 15 largest cities was 52 hours.
And by all estimates, Montgomery County, which just reached its 1 million population mark, is only going to get more crowded.
“Growth is expected to continue in Montgomery County, largely through redevelopment, so options for building new roads or expanding existing ones are limited,” the planning staff wrote in the draft. “Population and employment are forecast to grow significantly, while lane-miles of roadway will not.”
If lanes cannot be grown, they can be repurposed, the staff suggested, and the 104-page document is filled with suggestions on how to do so.
Parts of Georgia Avenue, New Hampshire Avenue, Randolph Road, University Boulevard, U.S. 29 and Veirs Mill Road would lose car lanes to rapid transit bus lanes, too.
In some areas, the buses would share the road with cars. In other sections, only buses would be allowed during peak hours, and in some cases, lanes would be completely off-limits to cars.
The Md. 355 changes would take place in two phases and by the end of the second phase, the entire stretch of Md. 355, between Church Street in Rockville, just south of the Metro, to Friendship Heights, would have what planners are calling a “two-lane median busway.” That means one lane, on either side of the roadway median, would be dedicated to bus service and a two-foot-wide buffer would separate the bus lanes from general traffic, according to the plan.
The county already has tweaked roadways in several places to maximize traffic patterns, staff said. Examples are the HOV lanes I-270, the managed lanes on Georgia Avenue in Montgomery Hills that switch from northbound to southbound and vice versa depending on the time of day, and the off-peak parking on Wisconsin Avenue in Bethesda, which aims to both promote local business during the day and keep traffic moving during rush hour.
Altogether, the plan proposes 10 new “transit corridors” with “specified rights-of-way and treatments.” The Master Plan of Highways, which was approved and adopted in 1931, has not been comprehensively updated since 1955.