Commentary

BRT Better Solution than Purple Line for Maryland Suburbs

A cloud of uncertainty has been hanging over the Purple Line since Maryland Governor Larry Hogan’s election in November 2014. During the run-up to the election Hogan publicly spoke out against the Purple Line’s price tag. After he was elected he asked his new Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn to study and review the Purple Line proposal. Then, in February 2015, Hogan extended the deadline from for the private sector to submit bids for Purple Line construction March 2015 to August 2015. Although these delays represent Hogan’s careful attempt to keep the project alive by cutting costs, remaining doubts about the Purple Line’s meager benefits seriously challenge the Purple Line’s future.

The Purple Line is a proposed 16-mile 21-stop transit line that would connect Bethesda in Montgomery Country with New Carrolton in Prince George’s County. This projected light rail line is to link the Red, Green and Orange lines of Washington Metro transportation system with the suburbs in Maryland. The FTA estimates that the project will cost $2.45 billion to build and $55 million to operate and maintain every year. To help reduce taxpayer costs, Maryland officials said that they will ask the private sector to contribute between $500 million to $900 million towards the line’s construction. However, this means that the Maryland Transit Administration will require at least $1 billion in federal dollars. This taxpayer funding has led to substantial taxpayer concerns as many residents believe that embarking on the $2.45 billion Purple Line project will pave the way for additional tax increases. To make matters worse, Maryland has recently raised taxes on its residents, making the state one of the highest-taxed jurisdictions in the country.

However, the high price tag is a necessary but insufficient fact in understanding all the vehement opposition to the Purple Line. Economically, the Purple Line is not expected to result in substantial economic development; although the Purple Line can concentrate development around stations, in most cases the development would occur anyway. Also, the Environmental Impact Statement’s final projection of 46,000 riders per day by 2030 is utterly unrealistic. This means that in the entire country, only the Green Line light rail line in downtown Boston and the Green Line light rail line in suburban Los Angeles carry more riders. And both lines are in far denser, more transit friendly areas. In addition, the belief that the Purple Line will save people’s time is a myth. In reality, the traffic analysis for EIS estimated the average speeds of automobile traffic in 2030 will be 24.4 mph with the Purple Line and 24.5 mph without it.

Building the Purple Line will lead to environmental problems as well. According to Governor Hogan, building the Purple Line is an ‘environmental disaster.’ This concern was demonstrated when a Montgomery County non-profit group called the Friends of the Capital Crescent Trails, filed a lawsuit against the FTA on the grounds that the Purple Line will cause irreparable harm to a forested trail that provides public health and environmental benefits. Despite this lawsuit, Maryland officials have not altered their plans to deforest the picturesque trails to build the train line through that area. In addition, the hazardous materials that would be dug up during Purple Line construction would pose health risks to humans and wildlife. Finally, the storm-water runoff, from the loss of 48 acres of forest along the Purple Line and from an increase in impervious surfaces, will be too large to be contained on site.

With respect to the issues of congestion relief, Randal O’Toole argues that the Purple Line will not significantly reduce congestion. After all, the Montgomery County’s most recent Mobility Assessment Report does not place the Purple Line rail among the top 10 congestion relieving projects in the county. That is because the Purple Line, which would run from Bethesda to New Carrollton (east-west), does nothing to resolve the Montgomery County’s 10 most congested intersections which are all on north-to-south roads.

Given the level of controversy, experts have been seeking alternatives. The State’s attempt to reduce the amount of federal funding has led to consideration of a public private partnership (P3). If the Purple Line PPP succeeds, it would be the nation’s second transit P3 project after the FAStraks rail expansion in Denver. Current Maryland transportation officials claim that such a partnership would take advantage of the private sector’s light-rail expertise and require the companies to assume the financial risks of any construction delays or cost overruns. However, there are concerns about the state’s lack of experience with such a far-reaching public-private partnership.

One potential alternative is to build a bus rapid transit line. Opponents of the Purple Line in the Town of Chevy Chase have cited the town’s study of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) alternatives and have spent close to a million dollars campaigning for it. Frank Lysy, a retired World Bank economist published his comparison of the costs and benefits of a comparable capital investment in BRT in Montgomery County, and estimated construction costs of less than $1 billion. There is also an ongoing discussion of the ‘Transitway’ BRT for Maryland – a proposed two-phase project that will build bus-only lanes from the Shady Grove Metro Station to the Communications Satellite Corporation in Clarksburg. While it remains unclear whether Hogan will decide to fund the project, cancelling Purple Line construction would free-up funding for the BRT project. Alternatively, if the Purple Line project is built, it is projected to prevent the consideration of any other new transportation projects for six to ten years.

Having broadly discussed the non-pecuniary arguments against the Purple Line, it is worth revisiting the cost issues. The total cost of the Purple Line, including operating and maintenance costs over 30 years, is expected to exceed $6 billion. Meanwhile, the amount of incoming transportation revenue is declining. The State Department of Legislative Services indicates that there will be an estimated $400 million shortfall in projected Transportation Trust Fund (TTF) revenue from fiscal year (FY) 2015 through FY 2020. This fact makes it difficult to explain why the state is investing billions so future residents will be able to ride one train line. Current residents want to see a less costly, quicker fix for their transit problems. As such, it is time for Hogan to cancel the Purple Line and focus on building a BRT system, which will better serve the needs of today’s residents.