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Primer on Post-Election Purple Line
An image of changes transit advocacy groups support in Maryland, including the extension of the Red Line, a streetcar, and the Purple Line. Photo by BeyondDC.

An image of changes transit advocacy groups support in Maryland, including the extension of the Red Line, a streetcar, and the Purple Line. Photo by BeyondDC.

The Purple Line is a proposed 16-mile light rail line from Bethesda in Montgomery County to New Carrollton in Prince George’s County. The transit corridor would link, from east to west, suburban Maryland communities that include the dense business and job districts of Silver Spring, Bethesda, the university community of College Park and New Carrollton. The Purple Line would run in dedicated or exclusive lanes, providing a direct connection between the Red, Green and Orange Lines of D.C. Metro while linking up with Maryland Area Regional Commuter (MARC) and AMTRAK trains.

The key partners of the project are Maryland Transit Administration (MTA), Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), Montgomery and Prince George’s countries, the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, State Highway Administration and local municipalities. The issue has been highly divisive in the state and in the planning phase for years.

With Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley winning his bid for reelection it seems that the proposed Purple and Red light rail lines for the area will move forward, says Yonah Freeman in his run-down of the midterm elections. The proposed Red Line moves across Baltimore City from east to West. (Not to be confused with the D.C. Metro system’s red line). Republican former Gov. Robert Ehrlich, who ran against O’Malley in this election, champions cheaper bus rapid transit (BRT) line. During his former tenure as Governor from 2002 to 2006 he successfully pushed through the Intercounty Connector at the expense of funding for the Purple Line. A former appointee on his metro transit authority board stated Ehrlich’s approach to mass transit system was to “obfuscate, alter, study and delay” the Purple Line “so as not to face up to the fact that, without a tax increase, the project is underfunded.”

Governor O’Malley has been a consistent champion of light rail, budgeting funding for planning and engineering throughout his first term. MTA has spent about eight years and $40 million planning the new line, all the more reasons that such a project must go forward for the D.C. area. According to Greater Greater Washington, “both projects [the red and purple line] would provide acres and acres of smart-growth formatted economic development opportunities” in both places that need the new investment and areas already undergoing vibrant economic growth.

But even O’Malley’s support of light rail faces barriers, as TheCityFix explained. The light rail is estimated to cost $1.68 billion and a BRT system would run at about $386 million to under $1 billion, with less annual operating costs. Receiving funding from the Federal Transportation Administration will be competitive but essential for the state to move forward with any sort of rail project especially as Maryland faces funding shortfalls of around $1 billion. A World Resources Institute study concluded that BRT would be less risky, more cost-effective and more likely to get funded.

The same study also found that BRT would actually reduce GHG emissions, compared to light rail. “The primary reason being the energy source for light rail, the region covered by the Purple Line system, is heavily coal dependent,” the study’s co-author Greg Fuhs said in a recent radio interview.

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  • Alex Hutchinson

    I couldn’t agree more that doing nothing is the worst future. While the BRT would have significant fewer inital costs than a LRT, is it naive to beleive there is a considerable upside in LRT development in comparison to BRT? Aren’t more riders, developers and the like attracted to light rail trains versus buses? And while bi-articulated buses are certainly not your yellow school buses and they rival the capacity and smoothness of a train, there is still a stigma attached to the bus. Maybe this could even stem from American culture, when one reaches driving age in high school they are much more likely to drive to school than taking the bus.
    It’s worth noting the BRT plans Montgomery County has for the Gaithersburg-Clarksburg Maryland corridor. Huge developments for housing of over 100,000 are in the construction process on the outer edges of Montgomery County. The BRT system will be serving the sprawling neighborhood development whose main employer will be the life science biotech industry in northern Montgomery County. County Councilman Marc Elrich spoke in front of the planning board yesterday and he proves to be a strong advocate for BRT in Montgomery County, outlining plans to create a BRT connecting Howard County with Montgomery County. Elrich commented yesterday that the purple line alone wouldn’t solve traffic problems, and neither would the planned BRT for the Northwest corridor of the county. When these systems connect in synergy is when public transit really becomes a viable option for this region.

  • I like the idea of transit first. Then I like to review alternatives and recommend those that provide the right, cost effective service for a given application. That is the reason the Federal Transit Administration requires alternatives analysis, which well done can inform the community and the decision makers to go for the most convient technology.

    In the case of the Purple Line, the alternatives analysis done by consultants for the Maryland Transit Administration, shows that BRT was the most cost effective alternative, and also that it had less greenhouse gases over LRT. The analysis was done for the lifecycle of the project (not just the capital costs). The analysis, to the best of my knowledge is factual, not based on perceptions and personal preferences, or particular agendas.

    We presented our point of view (based on a review of the alternatives analysis) when the project was publicly discussed. The communtiy and the administrative and elected bodies and officials chose LRT, which became the locally preferred alternative. Now it is time to go forward and get the funding from the state and the federal goverment for that locally preferred alternative, even if it costs more to build and operate. Doing nothing is the worst future.

  • Ben Ross is absolutely right. Ehrlich’s allegiance to a murky bus plan was all about following a road route around the Columbia Country Club rather than supporting rail on a publicly owned rail right-of-way over the opposition of the Club.

    Ehrlich’s longstanding opposition to the rail project is one reason for his poor performance in the Washington suburbs. Here, the Purple Line is not only very popular with the public, but widely supported by the environmental, labor, and business communities and is the stated preference of the Montgomery and Prince George’s County Executives, the Montgomery and Prince George’s County House and Senate delegations to the Maryland General Assembly, and the Montgomery and Prince George’s County Councils. Ehrlich thought he knew better, and it cost him.

    Maryland Delegate Tom Hucker
    Co-Chair, Purple Line Caucus

  • It is not really true that Ehrlich is a “champion of BRT”. Ehrlich is a champion of spending as little money on transit as possible. He couldn’t get away with eliminating transit altogether, so instead he pushes for the cheapest kind. Actually, what Ehrlich wants to build on the Purple Line can’t even really be called BRT. He wants to give surface buses a fancy paint scheme and some queue jumpers and call it a day.

    It is also worth pointing out that despite the nationwide Republican wave this year, Ehrlich lost to O’Malley by MORE in 2010 than he did in 2006. Ehrlich’s opposition to light rail on these lines was almost certainly a major contributing factor.

    On a completely different subject, it has long been a criticism that the planning process does not adequately take into account rider preference for rail, which is demonstratively more comfortable to ride. Thousands and thousands of people living and working along this corridor are open to riding trains but not buses, which the ridership projections barely take in to account.

  • Ben Ross

    The debate between O’Malley and Ehrlich was not about the cost-effectiveness of bus and light rail. It was a debate about whether to build the project at all, with advocacy for bus as a thinly disguised way of killing any transit investment. This became clear at the end of the campaign when Mr. Ehrlich announced that he planned to take $300 million out of the Purple Line and Red Line budgets and use it for roads instead.

    In past moments of candor, Ehrlich admitted the true reason for his position, a desire to keep transit away from the golf course of the very influential Columbia Country Club. The BRT route he advocated makes a detour for this purpose. This was not the BRT route endorsed by Greg Fuhs in past writings.

    Transit advocates who argue for one form of transit against another should be careful about allowing their views to be distorted in ways that undercut advocacy for any form of transit. This is a problem not just in Maryland.

  • Scott,

    Operating costs are MTA statistics that I got from a WRI press release linked to in the post above:

    “MTA estimates that medium investment BRT would require $580 million in capital investment and $17 million in yearly operational costs. In comparison, an equivalent LRT system would cost more than double, requiring $1.2 billion in capital and an annual $25 million for operations. But WRI’s analysis found that MTA’s cost and ridership estimates are likely to be off target”

    Also, to note: BRT buses (the bi-articulated kind) can carry over 200 passengers:

    You raise a really good point though. I’ll do some research – I think there is dispute on which system has lower overall operating costs. Obviously it depends on scale and the infrastructure put in place too.

  • Scott Mercer

    I dispute that a BRT would have a lower annual operating cost than a light rail.

    Common sense tells you that 800 people can be transported by one train or 20 buses.

    That means 20 bus drivers versus one train operator. If bus drivers make 50,000 dollars a year, you are saving close to ONE MILLION DOLLARS PER YEAR on operator salaries alone.

    Buses also last only 10-15 years, (with frequent rebuilding) while train cars can last up to 40 years with rebuilding.

    Light rail may cost more up front but it is much cheaper in the long term.

    (Hell, you could even drive a train with ZERO operators if you want to computer automate the system, but that’s probably politcally untenable and would frighten a lot of low information people.)