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BRT vs. Light Rail: Urban Transit Debate Plays Out
Is this a bus or a train? Hard to tell! Photo by World Resources Institute Staff.

Is this a bus or a train? Hard to tell! Photo by World Resources Institute Staff.

One of the hottest transportation debates in the region these days relates to the proposed Corridor Cities Transitway (CCT). The Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) envisions a 14-mile transit link roughly following I-270 from the Shady Grove Metro station in Gaithersburg  to Clarksburg near Frederick County. MTA is considering both bus rapid transit (BRT) and light rail (LRT) alternatives. The project is  part of a larger effort to reduce congestion and improve travel times in the rapidly growing area to the northwest of the District that extends to Frederick and beyond. That larger effort encompasses various proposed reconfigurations of I-270 and US 15 that could add HOV or general purpose lanes to the two roadways.

The CCT debate is complicated by Gaithersburg West “Science City,” a Johns Hopkins University proposal to build 8 million square feet of life science research and development space that would more than double the county’s current inventory of such facilities. The project would support 60,000 new jobs as it is phased-in in the next 30-40 years. On November 17th, the Montgomery County Council voted 6-3 to support a LRT alternative over BRT for the CCT. Their preference for light rail echoes the growing trend of light rail projects nationwide. They also supported two reversible toll lanes that would be free for buses, carpools and van pools. The vote supported an amended CCT alignment that would route the transitway through Gaithersburg West.

If MTA goes forward with the Montgomery County Council recommendation, the increased cost of the light rail choice could render the project basically unfundable from a federal standpoint. Indeed, the debate between BRT and LRT may be a hollow one. According to the Washington Post, the choice of LRT would double the cost of the project for virtually the same ridership.

Image couresy of the Washington Post's Laris Karklis.

Image couresy of the Washington Post's Laris Karklis.

The Federal Transit Administration has strict cost-effectiveness requirements for transit projects both regionally and nationally. Exchanging the CCT’s more competitive “high” cost-effectiveness rating for a lesser “medium” rating  would severely hinder its chances of success in the fierce competition that is the cumbersome federal New Starts program. Transit advocates would be wise to look at this as more of a debate between BRT and no CCT at all.  According to the Washington Post, the CCT…

“would compete for scarce federal construction money along with two other Maryland projects: a Purple Line between Bethesda and New Carrollton and a Red Line in Baltimore. Council members who supported a less-expensive busway option for the transitway said the state has little chance of winning highly competitive federal money for three relatively expensive light rail lines. “

Metrobus in Mexico CityA brief conversation about BRT vs. light rail for the CCT played out on radio station WAMU yesterday between EMBARQ Director Nancy Kete, and President of the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce Georgette Godwin. Kete pointed to the EMBARQ-led Metrobus system in Mexico City which sports two bus rapid transit lines. That project took just three years to plan and launch and now serves 450,000 passengers per day, nearly half of the number of daily passengers who ride the D.C. Metro and at a fraction of the price of the heavy rail Metro system. Fifteen percent of Mexico City’s BRT ridership are people who have exchanged their cars for the quicker bus service.

Kete goes on to state that those unfamiliar with BRT should think of it “more like a rail system on rubber wheels.” Time savings brought through dedicated lanes and traffic light preemption combined with station platforms (pictured at the top) and other elements that mimic a rail user experience are all important components of any BRT system. Godwin and the business community feel that light rail represents “a permanent commitment” to transit that will trigger economic development and dense urban infill projects in a way that BRT will not.