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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.