The blog Just Up The Pike did an excellent six part series on the Purple Line back in August.
Nearly twenty years after Montgomery County first proposed an east-west transit line between Bethesda and Silver Spring, the debate rages on. Once former Governor Glendening's top transportation priority, the Purple Line has become mired in debate and utter confusion. Most people aren't even familiar with the technologies - bus rapid transit or light rail - that it'll use if built.
The Purple Line, for those who have been living in a cave, is most often thought of as running on the same right of way as the interim Capital Crescent Trail from Bethesda to Silver Spring. The series interviews (among others) Peter Gray, chair of the Coalition for the Capital Crescent Trail, which is officially neutral; Pam Browning who opposes the purple line because of what the trail will lose (trees) and frequent washcycle commenter and silverspringtrails.org editor Wayne Phyillaier who supports the trail because of what it will gain (a connection into Silver Spring). The state of the interim section is discussed.
Not long ago, "you couldn't ride it on a road bike safely," laments Peter Gray, chair of the Coalition for the Capital Crescent Trail. "That part of the trail was in horrible shape."
Drainage problems and an uneven trail surface made it a difficult ride for bicyclists - not to mention the fact it currently ends a mile west of Downtown Silver Spring, forcing riders onto a poorly marked, convoluted route through neighborhood streets for the remainder. While the county recently spent $100,000 to rebuild a portion of the trail so it would drain properly, there remains a lot to be done to bring Silver Spring's part of the Capital Crescent up to par.
At Stewart Avenue in Lyttonsville, the off-road portion of the trail abruptly ends in an industrial district. A string of poorly-marked signs attempt to guide users to neighborhood streets in Rosemary Hills and Woodside, following a convoluted, mile-long route that ends at the Silver Spring Metro.
The debate breaks down to this question: is it worth giving up the reserve (or neighborhood park) like atmosphere of the trail and spending all that money to build the improved trail and the light rail line?
If the Purple Line is built alongside it, according to Gray, the trail would be fully paved between Bethesda and Silver Spring, replacing the current gravel surface. "The County is not spending millions of dollars to build a trail," he notes.
If the Purple Line were built, Phyillaier suggests, the trail and the rail could follow the rest of the unused Georgetown Branch right-of-way - currently owned by CSX and overgrown beyond recognition - behind the neighborhood and onto tracks that lead to the Silver Spring Metro. The trail would likely be elevated over the railway. "If [the Maryland Transit Administration] can negotiate with them, we have the access we need," says Phyillaier, but CSX will not grant the right-of-way for a trail alone.
"They're telling us it'll be a nice trail," says Browning, referring to the Maryland Transit Administration's plans to build the Purple Line alongside the trail. To do so would involve the removal of thousands of trees dating to the area's original development a century ago. "I say it's a fiction in the most generous terms."
It's nice to see the safety argument dropped. I think that's a sign that it's been shown to be a complete fallacy and I'll stop showing photos to dispute it. I've always said that you might be able to convince that the costs (money and trees) outweigh the benefits (transit and trail) but if all you had was safety your argument was a loser.
On one side are people whose motives can be questioned.
We have people who are adamantly opposed to putting rail on the trail," Gray says. "Folks I would characterize as living right by the trail in Bethesda
The neighborhoods that [the trail] goes through were vehemently opposed to it going in," explains Gray. "They thought poor people were going to ride their bikes in and rape their women! And now, ten years later, everyone's going 'Wow! My property values are up because of this trail.'"
In the Columbia Country Club, which surrounds the trail on both sides, the trail is hemmed in on both sides by tall chain-link fences. Columbia, the most exclusive country club in the region, has historically been the Purple Line's largest opponent, suing the County for control of the railway in the 1980's when the project was first proposed.
And on the other those...whose motives can be questioned.
Groups like the Action Committee for Transit have opposed previous campaigns to have the trail paved because "it would preclude the perception of the Purple Line being built," says Gray.
That's unfortunate. The trail should be paved.
While Phyillaier stresses the significance of the Purple Line in completing the Capital Crescent Trail, he insists that the two projects are not fully intertwined. But it's hard to understand what he means when a business card advertising his website reads Finish The Trail - Build Light Rail at the bottom.
"I would never make the argument that we need the light rail to build the trail," he says. "We can't have the tail wag the dog . . . I think we should sell the Purple Line for its own reasons."
That may be the most telling statement. The Purple Line will probably fail or succeed on it's own merits and the trail will probably only be a small part of that.
Purple Line or no, the trail is not a high priority for local politicians. "I think the County doesn't seriously take biking as a form of transportation," Peter Gray says. "For me to be seen biking to work or biking in my neighborhood, it's seen as a little . . . odd."
And the FTA, who will be the final arbiter, probably cares less than the local politicians.
The key decisions about Maryland's proposed Purple Line -- the route it takes, the type of rail cars it uses, the possibility of tunneling underground -- will be determined not by public opinion or political pressure.
"It's the driving force behind the planning process," Maryland Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari said of the competition for federal money. "You can have the best conceived transit project in the world, and it's not going forward if it doesn't qualify for federal funding."
Toward that end, Porcari delayed consideration of the Purple Line for another year after deciding that the rider estimates were too crude to impress the federal officials in charge of doling out critical funding. Analysts are now recalculating ridership predictions using more sophisticated forecasting models.
Browning makes the Metro line argument.
"I'm saying the best transit plan for this area is Metro, and if it's tunneled or along the Beltway...I would love to have a Purple Line. I'd just like to have it underground," laments Browning. "We shouldn't be pitting transit against the environment."
Unfortunately, almost any transit program is going to have an environmental impact. It's hard to argue that an underground line - one that runs regular metro trains and allows for connections to the red line - is not the best technical solution. But, then there's the price tag and the FTA will never go for it.
Concerns about federal guidelines also led local officials to quickly rule out heavy rail -- the type of trains used on Metro -- in favor of slower, but far cheaper, light-rail trains or express buses. State officials have also rejected calls to run the line under the popular Capital Crescent Trail, saying it would be too expensive without saving travel time -- another effort to satisfy federal criteria.
And it's not like an underground system is going to save those trees. It would probably be built by digging a trench (cut and cover) not with a tunnel boring machine, and all those trees would go. And they wouldn't come back, it's not good to have trees growing above your tunnel.
In the end, I don't know if the cost is worth the benefit, but I'm glad to see the argument getting to where the rubber meets the road (or trail in this case).
Problems with the FTA are another issue. I'm pro-transit, and I hate the FTA. What does that say about the job they're doing. The feds fund highways at 80% and transit at 50%, highway funds come without strings attached
Unlike federal highway funds, which states receive based on a formula and may spend as they wish, money for new transit projects is awarded at the discretion of the FTA.
and yet states still line up for the a chance at the transit money.
More than 100 transit projects across the country are expected to compete for federal money in coming years, according to a federal report.
Doesn't that mean that maybe we should balance the playing field - and that includes this ratio
The FTA has proposed spending about $1.4 billion on new transit projects next fiscal year, compared with $42 billion that states will receive for highway maintenance and construction
And there is this...
The process has grown so complicated and time-consuming that, across the country, many local officials have begun to forgo federal money if they can secure enough local or private funds to build a project, according to a recent U.S. Government Accountability Office report.
How f$#ed does your program have to be when local governments say "no thanks" to money?