- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
More than 100 people attended an open house last week on a Maryland Transit Administration study to examine mass transit options linking Waldorf with the Washington Metro system.
The Southern Maryland Rapid Transit Study is the latest survey to look into bringing rapid transit service to the region. Its chief objective is to determine whether a future transit system will come in the form of light rail or bus rapid transit.
Charles County officials have voiced a clear preference for light rail to connect to Metro. Bus rapid transit would operate on dedicated bus lanes at higher speeds than regular buses.
A 2010 study resulted in the selection of an 18.7-mile-long alignment that would stretch from White Plains to the Branch Avenue Metro station in Marlow Heights.
Nearly 6 miles of the alignment rests in Charles County. From White Plains, the route runs parallel to Old Washington Road through Waldorf, before breaking off to the north and following Route 5 through Prince George’s County to the Metro station.
The alignment includes 11 planned stops, five of them in Charles County — at White Plains and near Old Washington Road’s intersections with Smallwood Drive, Leonardtown Road, Acton Lane and Mattawoman-Beantown Road.
MTA is considering minor refinements to the route and expects to conduct technical analysis and further outreach in the fall before concluding the study in fall 2015.
Several people at the open house expressed support for bringing mass transit to the region.
“I think it’s long overdue. I’ve been down here 10 years,” Waldorf resident Eartha Ball said, explaining that she used to take the Route 913 commuter bus to work before it was discontinued. “Better late than never. They said it didn’t have enough ridership, and it was crowded every day.”
Now Ball, who finds the available commuter bus routes inconvenient, drives to the Branch Avenue Metro station.
Ball said she would almost certainly be retired by the time mass transit is actually available to county residents. “You always got to make sure the people that come behind you have something,” she said.
Waldorf resident Mary Brown was among those to endorse bringing light rail to Southern Maryland. An employee of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, which operates Metro service, “I’m all for light rail,” she said.
Brown takes a commuter bus from the park-and-ride lot on Mattawoman-Beantown Road into Suitland but said she used to take a Metro bus that serviced the area because it offered extended hours for those who had to work late in Washington, D.C. Having a transit line that offered similarly late service would be a big plus, she said.
“I think it’s a good idea. It’s much needed,” said White Plains resident Charles Watford. “Something needs to be done. Traffic is horrendous.”
Watford said he takes a commuter bus to downtown Washington, where he hops on the Metro to his workplace in Alexandria, Va. “So my days are long. Starts about 3:15 every morning, and ends around 6 [p.m.],” he said.
Before moving to White Plains, Watford said he lived in Prince George’s County with easy access to Metro. “Trust me, it’s a big difference,” he said. “Mass transit is a big convenience. Traffic congestion is irrelevant when you live near a transit line.”
“I’m excited that they are bringing another mode of transportation down. I wish it would be sooner,” said Waldorf resident Dana Williams.
Williams and her husband moved to the area six months ago from Anne Arundel County. She said she had been reluctant to move to the area after hearing about its traffic congestion but that ultimately her husband wanted to be closer to his family in Virginia.
Williams lamented that the region might be missing out on major economic development opportunities, such as the relocation of the FBI headquarters, because of its lack of mass transit.
“Nothing down here even gets considered because there’s not much to offer,” she said.
But not everyone at the open house was thrilled with the project or its proposed route.
Preston Drummond lives with his elderly mother who used to walk to class at the Waldorf School from his childhood home, which stood approximately at what is today the corner of Berry Road and Festival Way, he said.
Drummond now is his mother’s live-in caregiver at her home on Old Washington Road, just south of its intersection with Smallwood Drive.
The home is steps away from where a new 500-space park-and-ride lot is set to built. Drummond worries about the traffic that will be directed from the new lot onto Old Washington Road, where his daughter and her children also live, a few doors away.
“Can you imagine 500 cars coming out of the park-and-ride during rush hour?” he asked. “I understand change has to come, but Smallwood is the wrong place for a park-and-ride, and it’s the wrong place for a train or bus depot. I’m up in arms about it because no one seems to care about the people on that road.”
The new lot has long been in the works, and Drummond said one of his chief complaints has been that the only public hearing on the project was held a decade ago.
“It makes sense to me. Maybe I’m stupid, but 10 years later the traffic has either increased or decreased,” he said. “I would think you’d want another study.”
Estimates from 2009 place the cost of light rail system at $1.4 billion, as opposed to $1 billion for BRT. Ridership and travel time estimates are similar for both options — 23,750 daily trips by 2030 and 36 minutes for light rail, and 25,330 daily trips by 2030 and 33 minutes for bus rapid transit.
Former Charles County Commissioner Gary V. Hodge, who is working as a consultant on Charles County’s light-rail initiative, said the county prefers light rail because it brings far more economic development potential than bus rapid transit.
Hodge said transportation projects used to be built predominantly with a combination of federal and state funding, but the two-year transportation bill passed by Congress in 2012 is due to expire in September, and gridlock on Capitol Hill has left state and local governments uncertain about what federal funding they can count on when budgeting for infrastructure improvements.
With the federal government potentially missing from the picture, Hodge said the light-rail project may depend on the private sector filling the void in the form of private-public partnerships, an increasingly popular way to fund infrastructure projects.
Bus rapid transit “isn’t going to cut the mustard” in attracting private partners, Hodge said, adding that the permanence of light-rail stations is a key factor in drawing private investment.
But MTA Office of Planning Director Diane H. Ratcliff said that is “not necessarily” the case. “If you build a dedicated runway for your bus rapid transit, it’s not going anywhere,” she said.
Ratcliffe said fewer than 40 people attended the open house held June 10 in Clinton.
“I think this is a heavy commuter area, and I think people here are more aware of commuting concerns,” she said.