A report released Thursday by a regional coalition of business and smart growth organizations commends Montgomery County for its Flash bus service and free fares for Ride On service, while urging improvements for bus service across the region.
The report was published by the MetroNow Coalition, which has eight members in the Washington, D.C., area.
The report says bus networks and transportation agencies in Montgomery County and the rest of the D.C. region should offer more frequent bus service, prioritize roadways for buses whenever possible and reduce fares for low-income riders, among several recommendations.
John Hillegass, manager of regional mobility and infrastructure for the Greater Washington Partnership, and Laura Miller Brooks, a senior transportation and infrastructure associate for the Federal City Council, contributed to the report.
They said in an interview that Montgomery County is a leader in many respects in regard to regional bus service.
“Montgomery County has been kind of on the leading edge of a lot of these strategies across the region … [such as] launching their Flash bus service. They’re also doing great things to test out different kind of mobile detection systems to make it safer for pedestrians, so buses don’t accidentally hit [them],” Hillegass said.
The county’s Flash bus service began operating in October 2020 as a bus rapid transit line along U.S. 29. More lines are under development in two segments — on Md. 355 from Clarksburg to Bethesda and on Md. 586 from Wheaton to Rockville.
Hillegass and Brooks said they look forward to seeing results of the county’s Ride On Reimagined Study, which is looking at the overall bus network and whether routes need to be changed to better serve riders.
Officials can either offer more bus routes at fewer times or offer fewer bus routes in busier corridors and areas, but with more service, they said.
Chris Conklin, director of the county’s Department of Transportation, said he appreciated that MetroNow’s report commended the county’s Flash bus service and the free Ride On trips.
He said County Executive Marc Elrich’s capital budget, released this week, calls for expanded Flash service routes and improving the overall bus network.
“Transit is a big part of our future and a big part of achieving our climate action goals,” Conklin said. “And making it more accessible and reliable, and to meet more of the trip purposes that our people have, is an important part of this.”
Bus operator shortages due to the coronavirus and pandemic have resulted in more limited Ride On service, beginning this week. Brooks said elected officials need to consider whether to pay those drivers more, to potentially allow more routes and service on those routes.
She said government entities need to rethink their view of bus drivers, given their inherent value in getting people where they need to be for work, health appointments, errands or other needs.
“Driving a bus is such a difficult job,” Brooks said. “And we have undervalued it, I think from a societal perspective. … The very first thing we have to do is really elevate that, that we don’t take bus drivers for granted. … That job is so much more than knowing the routes and driving around.”
The study also notes that as of 2018 — the most recent data available — 47% of riders on Ride On buses were low-income, meaning they make $30,000 or less annually. Some Montgomery County Council members used that argument when voting to extend free Ride On service through early July.
Hillegass and Brooks said the free fares discussion and debate is only one part of looking at improving the entire regional bus system, including in Montgomery County. But they added that free fares can help low-income residents pay for other needs, like rent or groceries.
Overall, fighting over a few million dollars in the operating budget of a transportation system when discussing free fares can miss the broader picture of trying to make a regional bus system more reliable and effective, Brooks said.
“Pushing for the most impactful versions of everything we need should kind of be the baseline … and I think Montgomery County is really leading the region in being willing to have that conversation,” Brooks said.
Steve Bohnel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org