Smaller stations, fewer dedicated lanes for Gaithersburg BRT
As designs for the Corridor Cities Transitway BRT line solidify, officials are revising plans to try and cut costs and ease approvals. Among the changes: Smaller stations, fewer dedicated lanes, and fewer grade-separated street crossings.
>Original two-bus station design (left) and smaller one-bus design (right). All images from Maryland.
According to initial designs, all transitway stations would have been 150 feet long, large enough to comfortably accommodate two articulated buses in each direction.
The revised plans reduce six of the transitway’s ten stations down to 65 feet long, and the other four stations down to 125 feet.
The 125-foot stations will still be able to squeeze in two buses at a time. The 65-foot stations will only fit a single bus. All stations will be designed so they can expand to 125 feet later if necessary.
With buses scheduled to come every six minutes at peak times, single-bus stations could cause delays if buses begin to bunch together.
Dedicated lanes at the Belward property
The Corridor Cities Transitway will be, for the most part, true BRT. It will have a dedicated running way for most of its length. But now officials are proposing that it run in mixed traffic for a 1.1 mile detour around the Belward property, aka the last farm in Gaithersburg.
Original alignment through the Belward property (left) and proposed mixed-traffic realignment around it (right).
This change isn’t to save money, nor is it to avoid upsetting car drivers. It has to do with the historic farmhouse in the middle of the property.
Under federal rules concerning historic preservation, the state cannot build the transitway through the farm unless the property is disturbed by development first. But Montgomery County’s master plan does not allow for development on the farm until after the transitway is up and running. It’s a chicken and egg problem.
Thus Maryland’s new plan: Buses will detour around Belward farm on existing roads, in mixed traffic.
It’s not clear whether the detour plan is supposed to be temporary or permanent. It could be the state will operate the detour at first, long enough to allow development at Belward, and then retrofit in the dedicated transitway once development is underway.
Or it could be the state will never correct this problem, and buses will run in mixed-traffic around Belward long after buildings have replaced the farm. Time will tell.
At-grade street crossing
Another major cost-saving change is coming where the transitway crosses MD Route 28, Key West Avenue.
Transitway crossing of Key West Avenue.
Initial plans called for an underpass below Key West Avenue. Buses never would have had to stop for a red light. New plans show a surface crossing, meaning buses will have to contend with traffic signals.
And although the state webpage does clearly say that an at-grade crossing will have minimal “effects on general traffic flow through the intersection,” it doesn’t say anything about how this change will affect transit travel time.
Questions about cost
Montgomery County official Glenn Orlin recently revealed that costs for the transitway are climbing.
The most recent state cost estimate, from 2012, was for $545 million. Officially that’s still the estimate. But Orlin says a new estimate is forthcoming and will be “in the $700-800 million range.” If true, that’s a troubling increase, and could explain some of the state’s moves to reduce costs.
On the other hand, Orlin also indicated the new estimate is in year-of-construction dollars, while the old estimate was in 2012 dollars. If so, inflation could account for the lion’s share of the difference. Until the actual estimate comes out, it’s impossible to know.
It may not matter anyway, as the transitway remains unfunded, and prospects for funding under Maryland Governor Hogan appear slim.
Arlington’s Crystal City streetcar may have been canceled, but work is continuing on the dedicated transitway that would have carried it. Only buses will use this now, but the infrastructure is rising from the ground.
Bus rapid transit will come to Richmond in 2018. The long-planned Broad Street BRT project won a federal TIGER grant this week to cover half its cost, allowing the project to move forward into final design and construction.
Rendering of Broad Street BRT. Image from the Greater Richmond Transit Company.
Broad Street is Richmond’s most successful transit corridor, and main bus spine. It runs through or near most of Richmond’s densest urban neighborhoods and most important central city hubs. It’s the natural place for rapid transit.
DDOT isn’t yet willing to install a bus lane on 16th Street, but the agency is moving forward on a host of other improvements, and will study a bus lane next year.
The 16th Street bus line is bursting at the seams. It carries more than half of rush hour trips on 16th Street. But the buses are slow, and they’re so full that riders in the city’s close-in neighborhoods often can’t board.
Advocates have been pressuring for bus improvements on 16th Street since 2010. ANC Commissioner (and District Council candidate) Kishan Putta has championed the cause. Now, DDOT has adopted a 5-point plan to fix 16th Street.
Here are the 5 points:
Already complete: Signal optimization pilot program: In July 2014, DDOT retimed 44 of the traffic signals along 16th Street to improve their efficiency. After a few weeks of results, it appears to have sped up traffic (including buses). DDOT will continue to evaluate the results the rest of this summer.
August 2014: More articulated buses: Metro will reshuffle its bus fleet, to provide more long “accordion” buses on 16th Street. WMATA will move the articulated buses currently running on the Y series in Maryland to the 70 line in DC, then move the articulated buses currently on the 70 line to 16th Street. The Y series will have shorter buses, but they’ll come more often.
Fall 2014: Longer rush hour operations: DDOT is considering extending the hours of rush hour parking restrictions on 16th Street, to keep more travel lanes open up to an hour longer in each direction. That will keep two lanes open to moving traffic, including buses.
Mid 2015: Transit signal priority & full optimization: By mid 2015, DDOT will expand its signal optimization pilot program to the entire corridor, and install new software that instructs traffic signals to hold a green light a few seconds longer if a bus is about to pass through an intersection. That will speed up buses along the route, so they’re less likely to have to stop at red lights.
2015-2016: Bus lane study: Beginning in 2015, DDOT will begin a comprehensive study of transit improvements along 16th Street, including the potential for bus lanes and other long-term construction projects. The study will take about a year to complete, meaning 2016 is the earliest DDOT could install bus lanes.
None of these 5 points are new. DDOT has been working on them all for some time. But it’s good to have them listed all in one place.
Build protected transit lanes using cycletrack bollards
Simple plastic bollards and slight changes to lanes are enough to turn a regular bike lane into a cycletrack. Could the same trick work for bus lanes?
Bollard-protected bus lane in Washington state. Image from Zachary Ziegler on Vine.
DC’s 7th Street and 9th Street curbside bus lanes are famously dysfunctional. Cars use them at will, and pretty much always have. But it doesn’t have to be so.
The same tricks that work to protect bike lanes can also work to protect transit lanes. Plastic bollards, also known as flexposts, send a strong message to car drivers to stay out. The Virginia Department of Transportation even uses them on highways.
Flexposts on a Dulles Toll Road bus lane (left) and the Beltway (right). Beltway photo from Google.
Generally speaking, the same complications would exist for bus lanes as exist for cycletracks. Adding bollards takes up a couple of extra feet, parking for cars has to move a lane away from the curb, and you have to find a way to accommodate cars turning at intersections. But mixing zones and other clever solutions have solved those problems for cycletracks, and could work for bus lanes too.
And flexposts aren’t the only cycletrack lesson we can apply to bus lanes. Red paint helps transit lanes the same way green paint helps bike lanes.
Green means bike, red means transit. Bus lane photo from NYDOT.
No matter how many special treatments like bollards or red paint an agency applies, median transitways will still function better than curbside transit lanes. Median transitways eliminate the right turn problem altogether (left turns are less common), and puts the transit lanes out of the way of parked cars, or cars pulling over to pick up or drop off passengers.
But median transitways take up more road space, because the medians have to be wide enough for stations. They simply can’t fit on all streets. Where that’s the case, tricks like these can help curbside transit lanes work better than the 7th Street bus lane.
On the map, the red lines show existing bus lanes as of 1976. Blue and black lines show proposals that never materialized. The network reached throughout DC, Northern Virginia, and into Maryland.
Unfortunately, all the bus lanes were converted to other purposes after the Metrorail system was built.
It’s no coincidence or surprise that some of the old bus lanes were on the same streets where they’re now proposed again, like 16th Street and H and I Streets downtown. Those are natural transit corridors, with great need for quality service.