Howard planners considering bus rapid transit

Transportation Planner Chris Eatough of the Howard County Office of Transportation explains how bus rapid transit systems operate in conjunction with traffic during the Public Transportation Board meeting Tuesday night in Ellicott City.
Transportation Planner Chris Eatough of the Howard County Office of Transportation explains how bus rapid transit systems operate in conjunction with traffic during the Public Transportation Board meeting Tuesday night in Ellicott City. (Staff photo by Andrew Michaels)

Bus rapid transit could become a reality on Route 29 in Columbia.

Howard County's Office of Transportation representatives expressed the possibility of future BRT ridership in the county during the Public Transportation Board meeting Tuesday evening in Ellicott City.


According to Transportation Planner Chris Eatough, BRT systems, operating similarly to a rail system, run on dedicated lines at specified times and include technologies, such as signal preemption, to minimize travel time. The vehicles also stop at stations similar to light rail stations, allowing passengers to exit and board quickly, reducing stop times.

"Basically, BRT is an attempt to avoid some of the pitfalls of traditional bus services, like traffic," Eatough said. "[It will] just have a much more efficient service all around."


Eatough said BRT has proven successful across the country, with 30 systems currently operating nationwide and five systems under construction.

"There are also 20 systems that are in the planning and design phase and that's not including us," Eatough said.

Last month, Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman tasked the Public Transportation Board with evaluating the potential for BRT service along Route 29, while the Office of Transportation manages a study.

Funded through the Baltimore Regional Transportation Board, David Cookson, another transportation planner, said the study evaluates the possibilities for BRT in Howard County along Route 1, Route 32 and the CSX right-of-way in Columbia Gateway Business Park, in addition to Route 29.


"At this point, we're still at the beginning," Cookson said. "We've done a little bit of work on the systems and sketch planning and alternative analysis. … We're not very close at all for choosing an alternative."

As the transportation office searches for "more accurate rider statistics," Cookson said the department has explored different corridors for a BRT system but haven't yet finished the study.

"The ridership forecast suggested that Route 29 and the Broken Land Parkway route were viable," Cookson said. "The real pick up in ridership is in Montgomery County."

While there's been a lot of interest in improving transit along Route 29, Cookson said, planners' analysis includes Montgomery County's findings in BRT systems.

"One of the corridors that they're looking at is the Route 29 corridor to move people along because quite a lot of people live adjacent to [Route] 29 in Montgomery County," he said. "So, it's sort of a natural fit to move it a little bit more up into Howard County. … At this point, it's a very technical analysis in terms of what potential ridership could be."

Public Transportation Board Chairman Ron Hartman said bus rapid transit could be an asset to the county, and shared his past experience as a commuter on Route 29.

"The interesting thing is that the bus service is there today and you can ride that bus service without looking at a timetable," Hartman said. "In a way, it's like an informal BRT. I rode that a lot and, frankly, it can get pretty crowded. So, there's a significant amount of ridership and it's grown."

Howard County Planning Board member Bill Santos said he attended the meeting as a resident, believing the county must work toward improving overall transit.

"Bus rapid transit is certainly a great option, but I think that what has happened to Route 29 over the last 20 years makes it problematic," Santos said. "The bridge between Howard County and Montgomery County has two lanes in each direction and it is packed every morning and every evening. You can't get a bus; you can't squeeze a bus on that bridge."

While following Montgomery County's bus rapid transit study over the last two years, Santos said their service will "be a little bit faster than a car but not much" due to limited guide ways along the routes.

"These are challenges that, if we study them enough, maybe we can get this done," he said. "I think in a lot of ways that bus rapid transit on Route 1 would be a better option. ... It seems like the typography favors it better."

Cookson clarified that the BRT system is not related to the ongoing Bridge Columbia project discussions, involving a pedestrian bridge across Route 29 connecting Columbia's Town Center to the Village of Oakland Mills, because bus station locations have yet to be determined.

"We have some generic station placements that give us a way to model how many people are going to be able to get to that station either walking or riding their bikes or, if there's parking provided, driving," he said. "We'll be tweaking the station placement to reality. Going down [Route] 29 is great, but people don't live on [Route] 29, so the buses will have to get off."

Cookson said the Office of Transportation plans to expand and enhance possible corridor studies, including Route 1, through the end of the year.

"Enhanced engagement is ongoing with Montgomery County and the development community to bring a lot more people into the process," Cookson said.

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