A Shoulder to Lean On
Could Allowing Public Transit Buses to Use I-270’s Shoulders as Bypass Lanes Ease Traffic Congestion and Commuter Woes?
By Gina Gallucci-White
Photographs by Troy Dean
As the sun creeps up over the horizon, many Frederick County roads are already filled with commuters. While work hours for most people don’t begin until 8 or even 9 o’clock, the workday begins extra early around here, especially if being on time is essential. As the vehicles converge onto the U.S. 15/I-270 corridor, speedometers, however, are barely moving. Traffic routinely is at a standstill during rush hours.
Tim Davis, Frederick’s transportation planner, estimates that more than half of the city’s residents commute down I-270 each day, traveling to Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, and Loudoun County, Virginia, to work. But how many combined hours and days of life are wasted sitting on the road? What if there was a way to regain some of these lost hours of travel time?
Those thoughts were echoed last December when Frederick city Alderwoman Carol Krimm was en route to a Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments Transportation Board meeting with Davis. As the two made their way down I-270, they began to kick around the idea. “Why haven’t we discussed using the shoulders?” Krimm remembers asking. “I said, ‘Why don’t we talk about it?’”
While attending the transportation meeting, Krimm found an ally in Arlington County, Virginia’s Christopher Zimmerman, a member of the transportation board. He described his experience with a Bus-Bypass Shoulder (BBS) during a visit he made to downtown Minneapolis. When an appointment ran late and Zimmerman needed to get to the airport quickly, locals told him to get on a bus. “He said, ‘Are you nuts? It’s rush hour.’” Krimm recalls.
Taking their advice, Zimmerman discovered firsthand how a BBS worked. As traffic stood at a standstill, the bus moved to an unoccupied lane and sped past. “It got him to the airport lickety split,” Krimm says. “He was so impressed by it.”
And so was Krimm when Zimmerman provided her a copy of the 91-page Transit Cooperative Research Program report on bus use of shoulders. “I started reading it,” she says. “Every question you could think of was answered.” Krimm took the idea of a Bus-Bypass Shoulder to local groups, including the Frederick Area Committee for Transportation (FACT) and the Frederick County Transportation Services Advisory Council (TSAC).
Bringing the Buses to I-270′s Shoulders
Local and regional officials have begun mustering support for a plan that would permit public transit commuter buses to drive on the existing shoulders of I-270 during the workweek’s highest periods of traffic volume — a type of HOV (high-occupancy vehicle) lane for buses. The concept known as “Bus- Bypass Shoulder” (BBS) or “Bus On Shoulder System” (BOSS) has been in use in Seattle, Washington, D.C.; Miami, Florida; Atlanta, Georgia; Columbus, Ohio; Canada and European cities for more than 10 years.
“It would relieve congestion as a temporary solution to traffic problems around Frederick,” says Frederick County Commissioner Kirby Delauter. “The shoulders are rarely used and could be implemented just in peak usage times like 6 to 10 a.m. and 2 to 6 p.m.”
The proposal targets the 11-mile southbound lane running from the Monocacy River Bridge to the beginning of the three-lane southbound section north of the Md. 121 Interchange. Northbound traffic would have a 9-mile ride beginning at the Md. 121 Interchange to the north of the Md. 80 Interchange.
The bypass option would allow bus passengers to avoid the bottlenecks during their commute. “It’s a real win for folks who take advantage of Transit,” says Ronald Burns, Frederick County traffic engineer. Depending on the time of day, he estimates the time savings could be up to a half hour in length.
In addition, a shoulder lane can help move traffic along better, says Frederick County Commissioner C. Paul Smith. The shoulder lane added several years ago to southbound U.S. 15 beginning at the Rosemont Avenue exit and leading into the Patrick Street exit “was a gigantic improvement” for increased traffic flow, he notes.
The proposal was one of several Fiscal Year 2013 county projects that were suggested as priorities to help relieve congestion and improve traffic safety. Frederick officials presented the proposal to the Maryland Consolidated Transportation Program for consideration, and the priorities list was submitted at the end of April. They hope a feasibility assessment can be performed to determine if the BBS would be possible.
Thinking Traffic Safety
Traffic safety was one of the most common concerns noted in the Transit Cooperative Research Program report. Would there be conflicts at the on- and off-ramps? Could motorists no longer pull off the road onto the shoulder? When attempting to avoid a collision or debris, would the shoulders now be off limits to motorists?
Those issues can be minimized, according to the report, by using the lanes only during peak hours when traffic is slow, conducting additional bus driver training and placing signage along the lanes.
“Safety has to be paramount,” Krimm says.
Frederick County Division of Fire and Rescue Services Director Thomas W. Owens has not seen specifics regarding the proposal but, in general, is not overly concerned with the concept of using the shoulder lanes for commuter bus traffic during peak periods. Before taking his current position in February 2010, Owens served as fire chief for Fairfax, Virginia, for eight years, where the use of shoulder lanes has been a common practice on I-66 for many years.
While the shoulder lanes in his former jurisdiction were not exclusive to bus use, the shoulder essentially added a fourth lane to the interstate during peak use times. “Even with all vehicle use in Fairfax, fire and rescue experienced no significant issues than when providing service to other lanes of traffic,” Owens says.
“The key to the successful use of shoulder lanes lies in the signage and lane control systems put in place as well as making sure there are still designated emergency pull-off areas provided in specific areas,” he says.
Cost and Infrastructure Assessments
Each transportation planning project starts out with an equation: Does the benefit outweigh the cost?
Many Frederick residents would probably like to have a Metro Red Line stop in Frederick, but the cost of construction would be too much, says Davis. He notes that bus routes offer flexibility for changes or additions when compared to rail transit.
Currently, the shoulders cannot handle the size and load of the buses, Burns says, noting the shoulder’s dimensions of 4 feet on the inside and 10 feet on the outside. He estimates the upgrades to the current shoulders could cost several hundred million dollars. Additional Park and Rides would be needed, along with more buses and increased awareness of the Transit option to residents. “It’s not going to be cheap,” he says.
But Krimm argues, “In comparison to building new lanes, it would be lower.”
Traffic congestion is much more than a commuter problem; it can also be an impediment to conducting business, says Richard “Ric” Adams, President and CEO of the Frederick County Chamber of Commerce. The group advocates the importance of transportation improvements and stresses the need to elected officials for making the upgrades a priority.
“Addressing traffic congestion on I-270 will help Frederick’s employers and employees connect better with the D.C. Metro region,” he says. “New businesses will appreciate that they can move their goods and services around the area with ease.”
Morning commuters who stood waiting for the Maryland Transit Administration’s (MTA) 991 bus to take them to the Shady Grove Metro station say they would welcome any plan that improves their daily ride. Many recall times when highway congestion forced the 55 passengers on the bus to sit in traffic along with everyone else, and many agreed that using the shoulder as a bypass would be a real boon to their travel time as well as make that form of public transportation more attractive to potential riders.
Commissioner Delauter has not heard from constituents regarding the proposal, but “being in the business of building roads, it just makes sense for a temporary solution,” he says.
Krimm, on the other hand, has had several constituents approach her recently, voicing their support for a BBS. They tell her about missing sports activities and time with their families because they are struck in traffic on I-270.
“People are still waiting for public officials and transportation planners to ease congestion,” she says. “This is a way that would not be as cost prohibitive. … It works in other places. Why can’t it work here?”
What the Commuters Are Saying
Larry Jones Frederick – Bus commuter for 9 months (just relocated from Chicago)
“I work for the government, which encourages us to take public transportation by providing lists of the services and compensation. The buses are comfortable, clean, and the drivers are respectful. I enjoy letting someone else drive while I catch up on the news and sports on my iPhone — or sleep.”
Pat MacConnell Frederick – Bus commuter for less than 6 months
“My employer, Marriott, is very supportive of the transit services. So far it’s been good; there’s only been one absent bus, and since I commute by myself, it saves me a lot on gas — plus I usually spend my time reading.”
Deborah Jennings Emmitsburg – Bus commuter for 4 ½ years
“I thought about driving but traffic starts backing up on U.S. 15. I like the bus, although I have been left behind because it was too full. Buses also get stuck in traffic, but at least I’m not driving. I think the shoulder bypass lane would be good for buses.”
Dave Fulton Frederick – Bus commuter for 7 years
“I’ve tried driving and the MARC train, and the bus is really the least expensive and most convenient transportation. I’d say the results have been mixed. There have been some breakdowns and not enough buses. I’ve been left behind a couple of times and had to take the next bus. They’ve become stricter about not letting you ride while standing when the bus is full, too.”