Opinion: Columnists

Bus snobs try to torpedo cheaper bus rapid transit

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Among the Washington area's many mass transit enthusiasts, there is a large subset of "bus snobs." These are people who are all for spending billions of other people's tax dollars on hideously expensive and underused rail lines, but balk at achieving the same ends using much cheaper bus rapid transit.

This should be the heyday of BRT. The nation's 100-year supply of natural gas will make buses much cheaper and probably cleaner to operate than rail lines, which depend on coal-fired electricity. Modern design, with plush seating, Wi-Fi, doors that open on both sides and transponders that can control traffic signals, makes them more flexible than rail or trolley lines and more comfortable than Metro.

But many local officials are willing to pay twice as much for transit systems that do far less. For example, D.C. residents already have a network of Metro and Connector buses to take them where they need to go. Along with taxis, Zipcars and the Capital Bikeshare program, the city could close any remaining gaps in its transportation system by adding more bus routes and/or dedicated bus lanes where needed.

But Mayor Vincent Gray would rather have the District go into debt to the Chinese so he can build a $1.5 billion streetcar line that the city cannot afford, according to a memorandum of understanding the Gray administration signed earlier this month with the government-run Bank of China. Meanwhile, D.C. is spending $11.8 million to remove the trolley tracks left behind on O and P streets the last time streetcars were running. The only explanation for this apparent madness is that like many of his peers, Gray is a bus snob.

Bus snobs can also be found in transit-friendly Arlington County, which plans to tear up Columbia Pike to install a streetcar line, even though it is already the busiest local bus corridor in Virginia, with buses appearing every three minutes during peak commuting times. Additional buses would increase transit capacity on Columbia Pike without taking away a critical lane from cars, which most Arlington commuters still use to get to work.

But Arlington officials would rather spend $300 million or more -- double what was originally projected -- on 5 miles worth of streetcars -- $60 million per mile. Neighboring Alexandria is likewise trying to get the Federal Transit Administration to help pay for a streetcar between Crystal City and Potomac Yard.

Over in Montgomery County, a BRT system was first suggested in 2006 by County Councilman Marc Elrich, D-at large. A Transit Task Force recently recommended a 160-mile bus network extending mass transit to the county's four highest development priority areas, which are expected to absorb most of Montgomery's future growth. The whole thing costs $1.8 billion, or $11 million per mile covered.

The BRT proposal includes a 15-mile Corridor Cities Transitway along state-owned rights of way between the underdeveloped Shady Grove Metro station and Clarksburg. The setup is designed to accommodate a future hiker/biker trail, and it's 57 percent cheaper than a comparable light rail line.

An analysis by the Maryland Transit Administration concluded that BRT is twice as cost-effective as any light rail alternative. And because it can be built at least a decade earlier, "the total person-year jobs created by BRT ... is 54 percent higher."

Nevertheless, Councilman Elrich's dogged determination has been met with resistance from the bus snobs in the county's Planning Department. They have gone so far as to claim that because BRT can be built so much more quickly than rail, taxpayers would pay for empty buses for years before development warrants the expense. Imagine that -- transit proponents arguing that transit doesn't spur development!

The real reason Montgomery bus snobs and their counterparts in D.C. and Virginia object to BRT so vehemently is that they know once taxpayers clearly understand the cost-benefit equation, they'll never go back to streetcars or light rail.

Barbara F. Hollingsworth is The Examiner's local opinion editor.

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Barbara Hollingsworth

Local Opinion Editor
The Washington Examiner