Purple Line Part I: To build or not to build a $2.4 billion light rail line

Purple Line Part I: To build or not to build a $2.4 billion light rail line

Above: The Purple Line is planned to run through the heart of the College Park campus of the University of Maryland.

Purple Line MapBy Glynis Kazanjian


Plans to connect Bethesda to New Carrollton by light rail have been in the works for nearly 15 years.

The Purple Line started off as a $1.2 billion transportation initiative in 2000. The transit line is now projected to cost $2.4 billion, or a little over $150 million per mile.

The tab could be even higher. If built out using a proposal endorsed by outgoing Gov. Martin O’Malley, a portion of the Purple Line costs would be financed over a 30-year period, adding to the total cost.

The 16-mile light rail transit line would provide 21 east-west stations between Prince George’s and Montgomery Counties inside the Capital Beltway. It is on course to be built by 2020.

Developers want it.  Business wants it.  But does the incoming Republican governor want it?

The project has all the markings a Republican governor could want – job creation, economic stimulus and a private business partner to help build and operate it. So why hasn’t Gov.-elect Larry Hogan signed on yet?

While campaigning Hogan sent more signals he would reject the project rather than proceed with it, but recently he has settled on a stance that the project is worth considering and said he would not announce a decision until after he is sworn into office January 21.

But in an Oct. 16 campaign fact sheet, Hogan called the Purple Line a fiscal and environmental “disaster” – stating costs had spiraled out of control, with no end in sight.

He argued for clean fuel buses that he said would be “far less expensive” and more environmentally responsible. He also stated the line would help developers and not people.

“The Purple Line is about accelerating development, not relieving congestions, and helping big developers, not people—that is why it goes to downtown Bethesda, not NIH and Walter Reed.”

Yet, the wheels remain in motion to move the Purple Line forward. Last week the state approved a $5 million land purchase for the line and Hogan remained silent on the issue.

This is the first of two stories examining the pros and cons of the Purple Line. Today’s story focuses on the positive arguments. Tomorrow’s story will focus on opposing arguments.

New line would provide vital connection, but take major resources

Adding an east-west transit line would eliminate the need for commuters to travel into and out of Washington, D.C. on Metrorail to reach a destination on the Purple Line and it provides a direct connection to the University of Maryland College Park.

However, taking on two major transportation projects simultaneously – the Purple Line and the Red Line in Baltimore – as proposed by the O’Malley administration, restricts funding for roads and highways. And it is not guaranteed that the $600 million to $900 million in private financing the state is expecting to receive for the project won’t count against the state’s tax-supported debt limit, causing credit issues.

Meanwhile, critics have raised persistent questions about the ridership numbers required to make the finances work — and are being met with secrecy from the state about the calculations behind those estimates.

The Pros

Purple Line Silver Spring Library

The Silver Spring Library Station


Proponents say the Purple Line would –

  •          Connect thousands of residents and workers to major economic hubs and activity centers in Bethesda, Chevy Chase, Silver Spring, Takoma Park/Langley, College Park (including the University of Maryland), Riverdale and New Carrollton;
  •          Connect to existing transportation lines including Amtrak, three MARC train lines, four Metrorail lines and dozens of bus lines. The proposed Metro stops include Bethesda and Silver Spring on the two branches of the Red Line, College Park on the Green Line and New Carrollton on the Orange Line. The MARC lines originate in West Virginia and Baltimore and  go to Union Station in Washington, D.C.;
  • Eliminate the need for Metrorail riders to travel into and out of Washington, D.C. when traveling to eastbound or westbound destinations. The only east-west transit options currently in that region are bus lines;

Jobs and economic development

  •          Create 6,300 regional jobs. A workforce development initiative created by the O’Malley administration would seek to train thousands of local residents in transportation and construction jobs.
  •          Create a long stream of economic development, estimated to be $8 billion by Montgomery County Council President George Leventhal. Over two dozen real estate development projects are proposed to be built or redeveloped along the Purple Line corridor, according to an economic development map on the MTA website.

The projects would add thousands of residential units, including townhomes, apartments, mixed income residential and affordable housing – as well as a variety of retail and commercial office space. Some of the projects propose hotels in Montgomery and Prince George’s County.

  •          Take an estimated 17,000 cars off the road by 2040 and alleviate congestion at multiple intersections which are already over capacity. An estimated 74,000 riders per day are expected to use the Purple Line by 2040, though those projections are being questioned by critics;
  •          The Capital Crescent Trail, an 11-mile hiker-biker trail originating in Washington, D.C., that runs through Bethesda, would be finished and improved to Silver Spring. Montgomery County will foot the bill for the construction, but MTA would build it as part of the Purple Line project where a shared right of way exists. However, some community members have raised concerns about the overall impact on the character of the trail as it would be next to the line and with fewer trees.

Henry Kay, executive director for Transit Delivery and Development at the Maryland Transit Administration, said the goal is to invest in transportation and encourage development in areas  where infrastructure and dense populations already exist.

“The Purple Line addresses a long-standing deficiency in the transportation system in the Maryland part of the DC region – which is your ability to travel east and west between major business districts and residential areas – safely, quickly and efficiently,” said Kay.

O’Malley, Smith defend project

The pros and cons of the project were debated just last Wednesday at the Board of Public Works in Annapolis when Comptroller Peter Franchot questioned the purchase of $5 million in land to build the line.

Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, and Transportation Secretary Jim Smith, the former Baltimore County executive, argued for the project.

“It’s hard to imagine any governor will turn down $900 million in federal dollars,” said O’Malley, as well as the prospect to create 57,000 jobs. He blamed the opposition on a “very wealthy group of people” at the Columbia Country Club.

“Both projects are fully funded,” said Smith, though that is disputed by critics. The project is “being watched all up and down the East Coast,” because it is a public private partnership.

“This is a big deal,” Smith said. “It’s a big economic deal, it’s a big employment deal … There is a lot of momentum in the business community.”

“We’ve had no indication from the transition team or the administration-to-be that they want any slow down,” Smith said.

The land purchases were approved.

Hogan is expected to name a new transportation secretary this week.

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  1. Dalek American

    Whether you like it or not, this is a necessary project for the long term economic viability of Maryland, if Virginia under a GOP legislature and governor can proceed with the far more costly Silver Line, then Maryland should have the sense to build the Purple Line. Ridership is hard to predict at first, but the intermediate and long term economic benefits are no joke. These light rail projects are far more of an economic engine than roads. Like it or not, Bus ridership tends to be far lower, and does not have the same economic benefits of attracting businesses. One can argue about costs, but the benefits of rail have been proven time and time again. I mean if you want more money flowing into DC which has far better transit services fine. I am a DC resident, and we would love to take your businesses and office spaces and use our better access to mass transit as a selling point. We would love it. But if Maryland does not build the purple line it is the definition of dumb. It benefits maryland and it benefits the region. If he was smart, he would build the purple line and abandon the red line. Baltimore is a lost cause, no reason to dump money into it. Focus on the region and project which will attract businesses and provide economic growth, which is the purple line. If Virginia can build the Silver Line, Maryland can build the Purple line.

  2. Dale McNamee

    If developers,businesses, and “citizens” want it so much… Why don’t THEY PONY UP THE MONEY for it since they’ll benefit from it ? I’m tired and disgusted about paying for all these “beneficial” projects that don’t benefit me, since I rarely use them….

    They are the same “very wealthy group of people” that O’Moron blasted at the Columbia Country Club… Hypocrisy at its best…

  3. citizensadvocate

    A far more practical, speedy, comfortable, and less costly approach would be a grade-separated electrified bus-way running largely along the inside I-495 right of way, connecting the Largo, New Carrollton, Greenbelt, Silver Spring and Grosvenor metro stations, with possible additional stand alone transit stations near Route 1 and New Hampshire Avenue, and also provide integrated access for Uber-like ride sharing companies at each of the 5 or 6 stops, plus an optional series of dedicated short-line busways and bike routes radiating north and south from these metro stations, plus expanded parking and improved weather-proof connecting walkways and people movers to speed up interconnections at each of the existing metro stations.
    Staged implementation of this approach would also be much easier and less disruptive than construction of the purple line snaking around through suburban city streets and highways.
    A similar project could as Diane Russell points out connect Branch Avenue, National Harbor, and the yellow line in Alexandria.
    I bet both projects could be implemented for a fraction of the cost of the purple line, and years if not decades earlier
    The purple line street level light rail is a technological dinosaur whose efficiency will degrade as development intensifies along the line. Streetcars are great for historic pedestrian tourist routes like in DC, but not as a major component of a future suburban or interurban transit system.
    Mike Hethmon

  4. DCRussell

    In many ways it would make as much or more sense to build a purple or something line from Alexandria, through National Harbor, and on through areas need redevelopment in southern Prince George’s County along or inside the Beltway,

    Fighting for that kind of connection was one of Rushern Baker’s campaign lies (along with his whopper to NEVER allow gambling in Prince George’s County).

    If casinos and transit are good, why haven’t our all-Democratic elected leaders made the casino and development interests fiance the transportation infrastructure needed to support the millions the casino owners and developers will be making? Remember, a century and more ago, most rail transit systems were financed by developers, not by taxpayers. We should return to that model.

    The answer is that despite all of their rhetoric and BS, our elected leaders are so beholden to special interests that they cannot conceive of doing what is right for most of the people.

  5. dwb1

    The ridership projections are likely to be inflated, like all the states projections for such projects (ICC, casinos). Haircut them 25%. With lower ridership projections operations of the Purple line will eat into the budget for the Red line, which probably also wont meet projections. Seems to me, if developers want the project done, they should put up more of the money and the ridership and maintenance risk. Also, the county. 90% of the state is never going to use this or otherwise benefit.

    • but

      When you say “90% of the state is never going to use this” please make it clear that you are talking about 90 percent of the geographic area of the state…not of the actual population, since a far, far higher number than 10 percent of the state’s population live in both Montgomery and Prince George’s and could very well use the Purple Line.

      Also, you can’t say with a straight face that this project won’t “otherwise benefit” the rest of the state if there are already development projects on the books and ready to go that will build the tax base when it’s completed.

      • dwb1

        Only a small fraction of the population even within MoCO and PGCo will ever use this, per the ridership estimates. As I said, if MoCo and developers think its a great idea for their tax base, they should take all the risk of inflated costs and ridership.

        And Baltimore City needs far more development dollars that MoCo or HoCo.

        • Dalek American

          Actually most of PG and MoCo would use this, maybe not every day, but on occasion. There will be regular commuters, sure, but a large portion of both PG and MoCO already use public transit.

      • Oscar Gregory

        Unfortunately, your assertions are simply not true. Anyone actually grew up in this area knows the history of “increasing the tax base” to pay for new short term development has led to accelerated deterioration of infrastructure, higher crime rates, higher cost of living and eventual wholesale migration out of the area leaving depressed real estate values and a struggling economy. Every 30 to 40 years the cycle repeats. The Purple Line, essentially an overpriced designated bus route, is merely a short term covenience for some but offers no sustainable economic growth and worse yet, no relief for traffic congestion. Studies have shown increase in mass transportation has been matched by increase of personal vehicle ridership because of this huge, and now current, influx of people.

    • Dalek American

      While the state residents might never use it, they will benefit from the revenue as a result of increased business and investment.