ROCKVILLE — The Transportation and Environment Committee of the Montgomery County Council met to discuss Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) route options and funding accessible transportation during their session on July 25.
The committee, which is chaired by Councilmember Tom Hucker, began their session by discussing Resolution 11-19, which makes amendments to the Transportation Services Improvement Fund.
The resolution, according to the county, establishes a distribution of revenue from the Transportation Services Improvement Fund (TSIF) to the owners and operators of taxicabs to offset costs related to operating vehicles that are accessible to people with disabilities.
Montgomery County has a 0.25 cent surcharge added to every ride that is provided by Transportation Network Companies like Uber and Lyft. The revenue is then deposited in the TSIF and is used to provide grants of up to $15,000 per vehicle to make vehicles wheelchair accessible. The county reports that the annual revenue generated from this program ranges between $2 to 2.5 million dollars.
Glenn Orlin, who serves as the deputy director of the Montgomery County Council, explained that Resolution 11-19 would amend previous legislation by giving cab operators their grant money up front to make their vehicle wheelchairs accessible. It also would change the requirements determining how long taxis need to be on the road and would guarantee a minimum fare.
He went on to explain that taxi cabs often lose out to companies like Uber and Lyft on call and rides, especially short rides with fares under $10.
“Many Call-n-Ride trips are very short, and taxi drivers are loath to serve them. Initially the executive recommended a guaranteed minimum fare of $8 per trip but raised it to $10 per trip in response to comments from the industry,” wrote Orlin in the overview to the legislation.
The overview also noted that a guaranteed minimum fare would not affect the consumer. In fact, for rides that are shorter than the $10 minimum fare, funds would come out of the TSIF and go toward the cab operator to make up the remaining amount.
“I think this is entirely within the spirit of the original law, which has been slow to implement, and I am eager to see this happen,” said Hucker.
Councilmember Evan Glass noted that he was in favor of legislation like this because it recognizes people with special needs in a cost-effective way.
The Transportation and Environment Committee unanimously approved the legislation. It will go to the full council for a vote in its next session.
The committee also discussed BRT options for the county and funding for the next phase of implementation.
According to the county, in a Transportation and Environment Committee meeting earlier this year, Hucker recommended accelerating funding for initial engineering and final designs by three years. This would make preliminary engineering in fiscal years (FY) 2020 and 2021, with final designs in FY2021 and FY2022. Montgomery County Department of Transportation (MCDOT) staff recommended that the Transportation and Environment Committee wait to allocate funding until a consensus of a preferred alternative for BRT along MD 355. The committee discussed these alternatives during their meeting as well.
Corey Pitts serves as the BRT project manager within the MCDOT. He briefed the committee on the options available to implement the new bus system.
Pitts explained that the 22-mile stretch of MD 355 can be broken into seven segments between Bethesda and Clarksburg. According to outlines provided by the county, ideally the BRT would be designed so that passengers can get from one location to another with no more than one bus transfer, which would also help guarantee on-time performance, according to the county.
BRT along 355 has five alternatives for local officials to choose from to best fit their area. They include running the buses in mixed traffic, in dedicated lanes, along the median of the road or curbside.
Some of the alternatives, like giving BRT dedicated lanes would require widening portions of the roadway and other infrastructure improvements.
The committee also discussed the expected increases in ridership for the available alternatives.
“The ridership is one factor in making a decision about which type of project you want to move forward with it is not the only factor,” said Chris Conklin who serves as deputy director for policy within MCDOT. “We don’t build a new road hoping that it will be filled.”
Montgomery County Planning Department staff also agreed with Conklin in recommending against using expected ridership as a key factor in picking a route alternative.
Ultimately the Transportation and Environment Committee agreed with no objection to the county executive’s recommendations which included $3 million dollars to fund the next phase of work on MD 355.
According to the county it is still too early to predict when BRT along 355 will open because its implementation is dependent on which alternative officials finally pick.