The Town of Chevy Chase has run out of coherent arguments in its fight to keep the Purple Line away from its borders.
With a Republican administration arriving in Annapolis, endangered shrimp-like creatures are no longer in fashion. So in a series of blog posts this week, former Chevy Chase mayor David Lublin focuses instead on the project’s finances. He makes two main points in his criticism of the Maryland Transit Administration’s plans for the Purple Line: that the state will turn to private partners to help fund it, and that the state expects it to carry more passengers than other light rail lines around the country.
But these are strengths, not weaknesses.
Lublin’s claim that the project is weak because it uses a public-private partnership (P3) has things backwards. The project’s merit is why the state chose it as the vehicle for P3 funding. Maryland could afford to build the Purple Line with current revenues, but it needs money for other transportation projects.
The total of the road and transit projects around the state is more than what the state can finance within its debt limit. Under Maryland law, P3 financing doesn’t count against the limit because it is not paid back out of taxes. (In this case, fare revenue will repay the investors.) The state selected the Purple Line as a vehicle for P3 financing rather than some other facility because it judged that it would be unusually attractive to private investors. This judgment has proved correct, demonstrating the project’s financial soundness.
Compared to other transportation projects, the Purple Line is the best investment Maryland can make
Maryland faces serious budget pressures, but that does not mean it can or should stop building transportation infrastructure. Over the next six years, the state plans to spend $7.2 billion on capital projects through the State Highway Administration, and $6.2 billion on transit through MTA and WMATA.
The state relies heavily on county governments to prioritize transportation investments. In 2013, following the increase in the gas tax, MDOT announced funds for replacing the Nice Bridge, a project that will cost $1 billion to serve an estimated 37,000 cars per day, because that’s what
Calvert Charles County prioritized. MDOT also funded design for the Thomas Johnson Bridge, estimated to cost over $800 million, because that’s what Calvert and St. Mary’s Counties wanted.
In Montgomery and Prince George’s alone, there are dozens of road widening and interchange projects in the pipeline that collectively cost billions. In Montgomery, there are at least eight interchanges, including the Georgia Avenue/Norbeck Road interchange ($142 million), the US-29/Fairland Road interchange ($148 million), a new interchange at I-270/Newcut Road ($138 million), and four more interchanges on US-29 that will cost an additional $500 million. In Prince George’s, officials have plans for an interchange at MD-4/Suitland Parkway for $150 million, and for seven interchanges on Indian Head Highway totaling $606 million.
Ten interchanges cost as much as the state’s share of the Purple Line. Which of these will create more access to jobs and stimulate more economic development? Prince George’s and Montgomery know the answer, and for many years their leaders have identified the Purple Line as their transportation priority.
Lublin claims the Purple Line’s projected ridership is inflated, but that’s not true
Lublin’s second claim is that Purple Line proponents have overestimated its ridership. For this argument, he relies on a blog post by the well-known light rail critic Randal O’Toole, who asserts the Maryland line won’t carry any more riders than others around the country.
O’Toole doesn’t look at the specifics of the state’s ridership forecast — which, as I showed recently, is probably too low rather than too high — but instead relies on general observations about the route. These range from very dubious (“no major job centers” in Montgomery County) to irrelevant (the average density of the built-up sections of the county, including Germantown and Olney) to just plain false (he says many University of Maryland classrooms are not within walking distance of a future station).
Even worse, O’Toole gets the numbers completely wrong. He says the final Environmental Impact Statement forecasts 46,000 riders a day in 2030; actually, it says there will be 69,300 in 2030 and 74,160 in 2040. Similarly, he misquotes the draft EIS — 36,000 rather than around 65,000 (the route the state later chose is a hybrid of alternatives with forecasted ridership of 62,600 and 68,100).
Based on O’Toole’s analysis, Lublin infers that fare revenues will fall short of estimates. He then throws in a complete red herring, asserting that Baltimore bus fares will pay to run the Purple Line. It would have the same degree of truth, and be just as misleading, to say that car registration fees paid in Garrett County finance the free courtesy van at Martin Airport east of Baltimore. Maryland collects revenue from air, water, and ground transportation throughout the state into a single trust fund. All regions contribute, and all benefit.
David Lublin is not a stupid person, and he is familiar with the Purple Line ridership forecasts. While he served on its council, Chevy Chase paid consultants a lot of money to critique the state’s numbers. If the arguments in his recent blog posts are the best he’s got, that speaks volumes about the weakness of the case against the Purple Line.