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WRI to Purple Line Planners: Give BRT a Chance
Rails or wheels? The Purple Line will run from Bethesda to New Carollton. Map by the Maryland Transit Administration.

Rails or wheels? The Purple Line will run from Bethesda to New Carollton. Map by the Maryland Transit Administration.

After more than 20 years of debate, Maryland planners are getting closer to making a decision on the Purple Line, a proposed 16-mile east-west transit corridor running parallel to the (infamously congested) Capital Beltway surrounding Washington, D.C.

The hot debate involves two main options: 1) light rail transit, featuring electric streetcars, or 2) bus rapid transit, in which high-capacity vehicles operate in designated lanes to bypass traffic. Elected officials are expected to make a decision by March or April, after reviewing public comments made in response to the Maryland Transit Administration‘s draft environmental impact statement.

The World Resources Institute recommends bus rapid transit.

Why? Because it is the only option that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions, plus it costs less and is less risky than right rail, even though it offers comparable services, according to a recent analysis. (To learn more details, read the full report.)

WRI’s recommendation, formally submitted to the MTA on Wednesday, stands out among a sea of voices in the D.C. area advocating for light rail.

For example, yesterday, the Montgomery County Planning Board became the first county agency to endorse a light rail system. Editors at The Washington Post and The Gazette also made their case for why rail is better than wheels. And local advocacy groups like Purple Line Now! also support the rail option. (For a full list of planning and advocacy organizations that support light rail, check out the Purple Line Now! website).

But experts at WRI insist that BRT is the better choice.

“The effort to create any kind of sustainable transit solution in the D.C. area is commendable, but it should be done the right way,” said Greg Fuhs, lead author of WRI’s Purple Line analysis, in a press release. “We aren’t opposed to light rail in general, but we just don’t think it’s the best option for this particular project.”


The idea of the Purple Line (or some version of it) has been around since the mid-1980s, when planners envisioned a trolley route that would connect Bethesda to Silver Spring. The project, which has since been re-vamped to run from Bethesda all the way to New Carrollton, is designed to ease congestion and improve mass transit ridership between major business districts in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, which are generally not well-served by the north-south routes of the commuter rail lines and Metro system.

“It’s important because it’s the only opportunity we have to improve east-west travel inside the beltway,” says Michael Madden, the MTA’s project manager for the Purple Line. “It’s the piece that’s always been missing.”

Madden, who spoke to TheCityFix by phone, says he’s “very confident” that the project will finally be realized, after decades of delays.

In the end, it will be up to elected officials, namely, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, to make the final decision.


So just what are the common arguments for light rail? And why should people consider BRT?

“Light rail can carry more passengers.”
Sure, but not by a whole lot. According to ridership estimates from the MTA, high-investment LRT can carry only about 16 percent more passengers per week than high-investment BRT (not a huge difference in the grand scheme of things.) And those BRT numbers are likely underestimated, WRI says, “since there has been no systematic data reporting on average passenger loading of BRT systems in the United States.” Plus, consider successful projects from other cities: Mexico City’s Metrobus serves 315,000 passengers per day, which is nearly half of the number of passengers who ride Washington D.C.’s entire Metro system.

“Light rail is faster.”
Actually, transit times are comparable to bus rapid transit. The estimated travel time from Bethesda to New Carollton is 59 minutes for high-investment BRT and 50 minutes for a high-investment light rail, according to the MTA.

From Montgomery County Council member Nancy Floreen, via The Washington Post: “Bus rapid transit is viewed as a second-class system.”
Misinformation and misunderstanding perpetuates the opinion that buses are inferior to trains. But BRT is not your conventional bus system. First, there’s the bus-only lanes (bye bye traffic!) Then, there’s the pre-paid ticketing, so no more awkward fumbling for pocket change. Add on the multiple doorway entries, frequent pick-ups from permanent bus stations with elevated platforms, and high-tech information displays, and you’ve got yourself a convenient, first-class public transit system.

From an e-mail by Cindy Snow of the Action Committee for Transit: “Light rail runs on electricity, so light rail will do better at reducing our emissions.”
Just because trains don’t have exhaust pipes, doesn’t mean they’re better for the environment. “The impact on GHG emissions of mass transit solutions that draw their power from the grid, such as the proposed light rail transit options, depends on the fuel source used to produce the electricity,” WRI writes. So, in other words: dirty grid = dirty trains. Light rail would actually increase carbon dioxide emissions along the Purple Line corridor. Instead, medium-investment BRT would reduce CO2 emissions by nearly 9,000 metric tons–equivalent to taking 1,600 cars off the road.

Of course, there are other issues at play. Some people prefer rail because of its “permanence” and economic development potential. Others can’t stand the noise of buses. And then there’s those passengers that just “like trains” because of positive experiences they’ve had with other rail systems.

Some “not-in-my-backyard” groups oppose the Purple Line completely, worried that it will destroy pedestrian and bike paths or take away from the business of their country clubs.

At the end of the day, Maryland planners needs to find a sustainable transport solution to accommodate the region’s rapid population growth and increasing traffic congestion.

“We have to view this as a long-term investment,” MTA’s Madden says. “We need to choose the right option and do it the right way.”


To read the full WRI analysis, click here.

To read the WRI press release, click here.

To get involved in the Purple Line debate, consider getting in touch with these organizations:

Action Committee for Transit: actfortransit [at]
Coalition to Build the Inner Purple Line: purplelinenow [at]
Greater Bethesda-Chevy Chase Coalition: MierWolf [at]
Prince George’s Advocates for Community-based Transit: princegeorgesact [at]
Rethinking the Purple Line: info [at]
Save the Trail Petition: pambrowning [at]
Silver Spring/Thayer Opposed to the Plan: rosyjapan [at]
Washington Area Bicyclist Association: waba [at]

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  • Kevin Warner

    As a resident of the North Chevy Chase neighborhood through which the Purple Line will traverse, I find it interesting that the hot debate seems to be BRT vs LRT. Is anybody else perplexed by the proposed route alignment – Jones Bridge Road vs. the Capital Crescent Trail? I don’t get it. The Purple Line is a great idea that should be implemented. But why not put it where it will have the greatest immediate and long-term benefit – along East-West Highway. TOD experience informs me that the route should be where the greatest current and future development density will be located. Neither Jones Bridge Road nor the trail, both of which pass through low-density, single family housing neighborhoods in Chevy Chase and West Silver Spring, meet that criteria while East-West Highway, which goes through higher density neighborhoods (particularly in and around Silver Spring), does. Perhaps by routing the line on East-West Highway, LRT might make more sense, because it certainly does not make sense on either of the routes studied by the MTA.

  • Dario Hidalgo

    Rail is important in the transit mix. There are corridors that support rail in a cost effective way. Purple Line is not the case. The numbers in the AA/DEIS indicate that bus rapid transit is more cost effective in this corridor. The WRI report also indicates that it entails less risk if the projections on cost and ridership are optimistic (as has often ocurred in the past). The WRI analysis on climate change also shows that buses are beneficial, while LRT brings greater green house gases due to the heavy reliance on coal of the power grid (even with some improvements in alternative technologies for power generation)
    WRI report indicates that any transit option is better than doing nothing, and calls the attention on some aspects that may need to be discussed when selecting the locally preferred alternative.

  • Dario Hidalgo

    Capcity is an important feature and should not be confused with potential ridership. Capacity can always be increased in rail and buses with more frequency. High capacity bus systems are able to handle up to 3,600 passengers per hour with conventional 40 foot buses and single lanes, single platforms (using US occupancy standard). This can be increased to 6,000 passengers per hour in articulated 60 foot buses. Impact on intersections is not high; this capacities entail 1 bus per minute, which can be accomodated in normal signal cycles.
    This numbers are not limiting, though. It is possible to further increase bus capacity by adding station platforms and operate in convoys. There are reports of up to 22,000 passengers per hour per direction in convoyed bus systems in Brazil (Sao Paulo, Porto Alegre), and even much more, if overtaking at stations is possible, such the 45,000 passengers per hour per direction observed in Bogota, Colombia.
    Capacity arguments are hence not definitive, on our view.

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  • Capacity is not addressed in the WRI report and it is given a brief nod here. Yes, Mexico City buses may carry more passengers than the projections for the Purple Line, but it is not clear that potential U.S. passengers will pack themselves in the way bus riders do throughout Latin America. This, in fact, was the basis for the Planning Board’s 4-1 vote for LRT. The Chair noted that the successful LA Orange BRT Line is apparently having capacity problems despite the fact that it is below the average loading factor that formed the basis for system design and well below that used by MTA for the Purple Line.

    The WRI report does not address significant alignment disagreements. The assumption is that the support is for MTA’s medium BRT option running alongside the Georgetown Branch which has less support in the communities through which it will pass than LRT.

    The WRI report addresses one air quality factor while ignoring 5 for which LRT options are rated higher than BRT ones.

    Has WRI ever supported a LRT project over a BRT one or is this organization essentiall functioning to ensure that BRT options get a fair shake. Does rail have nor role in our transit mix, in the view of WRI?

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