Image from Purple Line NOW!

Not only would the Purple Line benefit many Maryland commuters, it’s also cost effective, says the recently-released Environmental Impact Statement. It’s so cost-effective, the Columbia Country club claims that it’s now in talks with the state about a land swap deal. I’m a little confused about the timing on that one..

According to the Gazette, the Purple Line meets the FTA’s cost-effectiveness guidelines. This includes the preferred “High Investment LRT”, one of six alternatives being considered. (Ryan Avent wishes heavy rail were among them.) To make a long story short, the High Investment LRT is the most Metro-like in performance, with separated, dedicated rights of way for the entire route, except on the University of Maryland campus. Through the campus, the line runs at grade to avoid dividing and destroying the pedestrian friendliness of the campus. The campus plans to close the streets the Purple Line will run on to automobiles so the trains won’t be held up by rush hour traffic. (In truth, UMD had planned to close Campus Drive before the Purple Line was being planned for. It’s great that the two developments happen to work together nicely.)

This is an incredibly welcome development, given how many years of planning this project has taken, combined with its enormous potential to increase mobility and economic vitality in our region. One primary reason the project is so cost effective, even with the $1.6 billion price tag for the most expensive (and best) option, even with the Bush Administration’s anti-transit FTA, is the high ridership projections: 68,000 per day. Plus, most of the work for that projection was done before $4/gallon gas affected the transportation habits of our region, despite the temporary reprieve we’ve had at the gas pump in recent weeks. Also, those models were done using FTA guidelines that tend to lowball estimates. For example, light rail lines in Charlotte and Salt Lake City exceeded their ridership estimates in their first year. In my view, those factors imply that ridership will actually be higher once the line is running.

I don’t completely know what to make of this report that the Columbia Country Club is negotiating a land swap with the state for a different right of way. Why would the Columbia Country Club now claim to be discussing this? Montgomery County has owned a former freight train rail bed with a 100ft wide right of way since 1986. The right of way is flanked on both sides by the golf course part of the time between Wisconsin and Connecticut Avenues. The Club has been opposed to any passenger train uses on this county owned right of way since the County bought the land with the intention of using it for electrified rail mass transit. The freight train line existed before the golf course.

The cynic in me says that it’s yet another attempt to delay things and hope a transit project— one that has an incredibly wide coalition of community support, broad support of elected leaders at all levels of government, is a solution to an obvious shortcoming in our region’s beloved Metro system, and meets the FTA’s cost effectiveness guidelines—just magically goes away. I suppose an optimist would say that they had a change of heart and genuinely want to be helpful after years of being an opposing force. Either way, I can’t truly know someone else’s intentions. I have my view, but I suppose every GGW reader could reasonably come up with a differing opinion on that one.

Either way, I highly doubt the state would consider rerouting the Purple Line at this late stage. I can’t imagine them redoing all the engineering that has gone into planning the Purple Line segment between Wisconsin and Connecticut Avenues. That includes both the Purple Line tracks and a grade separated hiker/biker trail. Restarting the engineering could take years and millions of dollars. The cynic in me seems to be winning the argument over CCC’s motives.

I am excited to see such a positive development. Despite the criticism that the O’Malley Administration deserves for not killing Ehrlich’s ICC, the current governor also deserves praise for following through on his public support for the Purple Line so far. For more information, including information about the upcoming hearings, check out the state’s page and the pro-light rail Purple Line NOW! coalition.

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Cavan Wilk became interested in the physical layout and economic systems of modern human settlements while working on his Master’s in Financial Economics. His writing often focuses on the interactions between a place’s form, its economic systems, and the experiences of those who live in them.  He lives in downtown Silver Spring.