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The Maryland Transit Administration plans to hold public outreach meetings in the spring to gauge whether Charles County residents prefer to address local transit needs with a light rail or bus rapid transit system.

The state announced in July that $5 million was allocated for a study examining transit options linking Waldorf and the Branch Avenue Metro station in Marlow Heights.

The county has designated a light rail system as its chief transportation priority and the linchpin of its Waldorf redevelopment plan, but the state has not eliminated bus rapid transit as a potential alternative.

“One of the main goals of this next step is going to be to pick a mode,” MTA Office of Planning Director Diane Ratcliff told the county commissioners during their weekly meeting Tuesday. “I know Charles County is very supportive of light rail. Bus rapid transit at this point is still on the table as a discussion.”

Ratcliff credited cooperation between Charles and Prince George’s counties with helping move the project along.

“Charles County has taken great steps to keep this project and the corridor moving ahead. Prince George’s County has been a fabulous partner in this project,” she said. “I don’t think I’ve seen closer cooperation between two counties on a corridor. So many things stop at a county line. This one has not whatsoever.”

The proposed 18.7-mile alignment the transit system would follow begins in White Plains at DeMarr Road and runs parallel to the county’s CSX rail line east of U.S. 301 before cutting north and following Route 5 to the Metro station. Two-thirds of the alignment sits in Prince George’s.

The alignment was chosen following a 2010 study, which estimated a light rail system would cost $1.4 billion, whereas bus rapid transit would cost $1 billion.

Both counties have modified their planning documents to encourage transit-oriented development around each of the 11 proposed transit stations — five in Charles, six in Prince George’s — as recommended by the 2010 study, said Jackie Seneschal, project manager, a consultant with Parsons Brinckerhoff, a multinational engineering and design firm.

“In all cases, they have promoted high-density, walkable, mixed-use transit-oriented development centers, so in one sense, from the perspective of this study, it’s been a success,” she said. “We have the necessary policy background in the master plans of both jurisdictions.”

MTA is scheduled to complete the alternatives analysis by fall 2015 and hold its first public outreach meetings around May or June, Seneschal said. The study will examine the constructability, capital and operating costs, ridership potential, environmental impacts, community support and economic development potential of both transit systems.

“This is so exciting and, for us as a board, we’ve been talking about this since the day we got into office, so to really see this coming to this point is just wonderful,” commissioners’ President Candice Quinn Kelly (D) said.

Seneschal said a bus rapid transit system would more closely resemble a light rail line than the commuter buses local residents are familiar with. Like light rail, a bus rapid transit train would run along a fixed guideway. It would pre-empt traffic signals, and its cars would have doors on both sides and ride low to allow for level boarding, she said.

“It has many of the same characteristics as light rail, but it doesn’t run on a rail,” she said.

A bus rapid transit system also would feature full stations.

“They actually look like transit stations. It’s not just a sign on the side of the road,” Seneschal said.

The greatest engineering challenge on the Charles County side of the alignment will be crossing Mattawoman Creek in northern Waldorf near where U.S. 301 and Route 5 merge, Seneschal said.

Commissioner Bobby Rucci (D) asked for the difference between a transit system crossing the Mattawoman and a highway such as the dormant cross-county connector project.

“It’s a smaller floodplain, and it’s a smaller crossing in this particular location,” said Jason Groth, chief of resource and infrastructure management at the Charles County Department of Planning and Growth Management.

Because the CSX line already crosses the Mattawoman, “you probably wouldn’t have to deal with as much of the [environmental] issues,” commissioners’ Vice President Reuben B. Collins II (D) said.

“I just brought it up because every time you mention [the cross-county connector], you can’t do nothing with it,” Rucci said.

“Not to diminish the importance of the Mattawoman Creek in the Brandywine area, [but] it’s not in the same environmentally sensitive area as it is closer to its terminus at the Potomac,” Commissioner Ken Robinson (D) said.

“Hey, it all goes to the same place,” Rucci said.

“It does, and that’s why I’m saying not to diminish it, but it is in an area that already has crossings, and it would be less of an impact in that area than elsewhere in the county,” Robinson said.

Rucci also asked how long the project would take to complete “if everything goes perfect.”

Groth said the project could be finished within 12 to 15 years “if all the funding stars align.”

“Our biggest limitation right now is money,” he said.

“I know 10, 20, those kinds of years sound like a long time to our citizens who are sitting in traffic, but in the world of this kind of project and development in general, this is good news,” Kelly said.

jnewman@somdnews.com