March 23, 2015

Why the Purple Line makes sense

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Purple line

In response to last week’s commentary opposing the proposed Purple Line, Richard Parsons, vice chair of the Suburban Maryland Transportation Alliance, describes why it should be built.

By Richard Parsons

As Gov. Larry Hogan weighs his options on the Purple Line, and opponents ramp up their efforts to defeat if, it is important to keep our focus on this project, not sweeping generalizations about transit in general that have little bearing on this case.

With construction slated to begin later this year, and significant transportation and economic development benefits at stake for our entire region, there is a strong case to be made for the Purple Line.

Gov. Hogan and his team are right to look for additional cost savings, but their decision on the Purple Line itself should be based on its merits, not the questionable arithmetic and general philosophical aversion to transit that underlies some of the arguments Randall O’Toole and others are making recently.

The naysayers are ignoring certain key facts, but the governor and his team need to look at the whole picture.

The whole picture

To begin with, the Purple Line is nearing the end of a marathon federal approval process that has taken decades. Cancelling this project now – when it is literally at the finish line — would have drastic financial consequences for the state of Maryland, including the loss of roughly $900 million in federal funds already committed to the Purple Line.

The federal funds are specific to this project, and would simply go away if it’s cancelled, to be spent on other transit projects in other states. This is a point even the opponents have conceded.

What they don’t seem to grasp is that this would not only hurt our local economy, by shifting thousands of construction jobs and billions in economic development out of our region, it would also hurt taxpayers.

The Purple Line won this $900 million in federal funding because it outperformed all other transit projects in cost-effectiveness. So why should Maryland’s governor turn down these federal funds so they could be spent somewhere else, on a less cost-effective project? The money will still be spent, just less effectively.

What opponents are also missing is that it’s not just this federal funding we would be losing.

In his commentary, Dr. O’Toole gets his math wrong when he states (incorrectly) that Maryland would have to spend $1.5 billion to secure this $900 million.  In fact, the State’s funding share for the Purple Line is $300 – $500 million. The balance is other project-specific funding the state would leverage through a public-private partnership, and that additional $900 million in private funding also goes away if the Purple Line is cancelled.

How much is lost and other downsides   

Thus, a large majority of the project’s funding – $1.8 billion of the $2.4 billion total – would not be “saved” if the Purple Line is cancelled, only lost. When you look at the whole picture, the state’s $300 – $500 million share looks a lot better from a financial investment standpoint, and it’s leveraging more than three and a half times as much from other sources.

There are other major economic downsides from cancelling the Purple Line.

It would undermine the state’s credibility among investors in future public-private partnerships, which we will need in order to address other critical transportation bottlenecks. If the Free State pulls the plug now on its first major public-private partnership, after several top transportation firms have already sunk hundreds of millions into their Purple Line bid proposals, how likely would those firms be to take on similar risks in the future, once Maryland proves to be a less reliable partner than Virginia?

The Governor’s decision will also have a major impact on local real estate markets and property values and, here again, cancelling the Purple Line will prove costly.

Hundreds of millions in private sector investment has already been made in properties along the approved alignment. O’Toole and other skeptics can make all the vague references they want to about other markets where light-rail did or didn’t foster economic development, but we don’t have to speculate about the Purple Line’s effects.

At least 31 large-scale economic development projects are already in the pipeline as a result of this project. This isn’t theory, it’s a fact. The nearly $10 billion increase in the local property values, and major expansions in our economy and tax base, are not just projections, they’re already being felt. All of this is at risk if we pull the plug.

Opponents are simply denying reality when they dismiss the Purple Line’s multi-billion-dollar economic returns as “ephemeral.”

Other transportation benefits

Even if the financial and economic cases for the Purple Line were not strong enough to win the day – and they are – the transportation benefits are more than sufficient.

For starters, the Purple Line’s regional “network effects” are compelling: Joining the two ends Metro’s Red Line with the Green and Orange lines, MARC lines and local bus lines.

It transforms our current disconnected set of rail lines, all of which run into DC, into a robust suburb-to-suburb network that matches current commuting patterns. It will attract over 28,000 new riders to the region’s transit system, not just the 17,000 new transit riders along the Purple Line corridor that O’Toole includes in his calculations. In this highly-congested inside-the-beltway corridor, not many other options exist, and the daily ridership forecast of 69,000 riders is likely to be met or surpassed, based on previous forecasts in this market.

When it comes to travel time savings, the arguments opponents are advancing suffer from massive problems with selective use of data. True, the travel time savings from Bethesda to New Carrollton are not much, but end-to-end riders are a tiny fraction of the total riders on the Purple Line. Far larger numbers will be going from Bethesda to Silver Spring or College Park, or from College Park to New Carrollton, and for these riders the travel time savings are huge.

Trips from Bethesda to Silver Spring go from 39 minutes on Metro to just 9 minutes on the Purple Line. Bethesda residents could get to the University of Maryland’s College Park campus, without sitting in Beltway gridlock, in just 39 minutes using the Purple Line, which includes new stations on-campus. That same trip would take 56 minutes by Metro, and you’d have to catch a shuttle bus to get to campus. Going from College Park to New Carrollton would take just 16 minutes on the Purple Line versus 56 minutes on Metro.

Those are the very real travel time savings O’Toole and other opponents conveniently omit when they focus only on the insignificant share of Purple Line riders who travel end-to-end.

When it comes to congestion relief, it’s true that the Purple Line has a relatively small impact on congestion levels region-wide. Obviously, we need a lot more capacity throughout the region, but the Purple Line does have a positive effect on congestion in the corridor it serves.

The number of failing intersections in the morning peak period drops from 9 to 3 with the Purple Line, and from 15 to 9 in the evening. In a corridor with few other options, any new capacity helps.

 

  • Vidi

    One of the major arguments for the Purple Line seems to be “they are giving us money, so let us build”. While that has a lot of logic to it, the question should be “who will be left holding the bag when costs go up?”. Will the private sector step in? Will taxpayers be on the hook? Will the federal government make up the difference? Projections on costs are very rosy at the outset of all such undertakings; what happens when thorns appear?

    • abby_adams

      You’re missing the point, it’s free money right? No mention that current & future taxpayers ( probably our great grandkids) will be footing the costs for years! Those pushing mass transit always paint a rosy picture that never materializes. It’s a given.

      • Dalek American

        Ask DC about the benefits to Mass Transit. You know all of that gentrification and population growth, and the millions and millions in additional tax revenue. Not to mention business flooding into it right now. It is coming from the best transit access in the area. Or Virginia with the Silver Line. Throw out your doubts, but if you want to compete with DC or Virginia, you have to invest in your infrastructure, and that especially includes mass transit.

    • The project is done using a public-private partnership that shifts more of the construction risk to the concessionaire. The concessionaire is financing more than half of the remaining non-federal share which is to be reimbursed out of “availability payments.” Essentially their portion of the investment only gets paid back after the train is operational and only to the extent that it is meeting level of service standards.

      The other part of the P3 idea is to have the vendors design, build, operate, and maintain on the same team so that they can’t just finger point at one another for any complaints.

      It’s a model that’s newer to the U.S., but that has been used with in Europe and Canada. There’s trade-offs to this of course, and the $2.45B price tag does incorporate higher interest rates than bond financing would provide. So part of the project cost is the baked in shifting of risk to the concessionaire side.

      If you’re interested in more details on that, let me know and I’ll round up some links.

  • Dale McNamee

    So, the Purple Line will have a very small effect on traffic congestion region wide… All the more reason to build it ! /sarc

    As I’ve posted before… Let it’s supporters, boosters , and those who stand to profit from it raise the funds…

    • abby_adams

      I’d also add let riders who will enjoy the benefits of faster, hassle free commutes pay higher fares. All the justifications for building both the Purple & Red lines reminds me of the big push for the Intercounty Connector. When it was free, the road was packed. Once tolls kicked in, the $$ didn’t roll in as quickly as predicted.

      • Dale McNamee

        I agree on the riders paying, but do they really pay full price fares that would make the Red & Purple lines self-supporting ? I don’t think so…

        Mass transit should be privatized IMHO.

        You’re right on the effects of the fares reducing ridership… And “free” isn’t free !

  • T1n

    I still question the ridership figures. I just don’t see it. I never saw the UMD shuttles from Silver Spring to College Park full, and the Purple Line would be catering to the same audience. I also don’t full buses running along E-W Hwy. So are we solving a non-existence problem?

    • Dale McNamee

      Because some real estate developers who own the land in the path of the Purple Line want to make money…

  • joe

    Call or write maryland Governor Hogan to veto any bill funding the Purple and Red lines!

  • Dalek American

    The part that Marylanders who are against the purple line fail to understand is the growth of DC is directly related to transit. The gentrification and population increases, as well as all of the additional tax revenues, all come with transit as the backbone. Virginia has been wise enough to put additional investments into transit infrastructure with the Silver Line, under GOP and Democratic bipartisanship. But some Marylanders fail to understand why DC and Virginia are outpacing them. You are not going to grow economically with just roads. Frankly, the investments in rail transit corridors, always come with growth in tax revenues. Don’t believe me…look at Columbia Heights, it was a slum beforehand, and now the houses there cost nearly a million dollars and it generates DC millions in sales and property taxes. Never mind the income taxes from affluent residents. If Maryland wants to invest in itself, it needs to learn that it comes from laying down the right infrastructure in the right places. In this case it is the purple line. I should note, most travel is not from the entire line end to end, but from shorter trips. The Silver Spring to Bethesda will be the major source of revenue, but those College Park trips will happen as develop happens around the line. You either develop the right transit, or you flat out fall behind. As a DC resident, we would love to take more of your businesses from failed decisions over transit in Maryland. But I think it is better for the region if you actually make rational decisions and build the purple line. Growth does in fact come from rail projects of this nature.