Greater Greater Washington

Posts in category Transit

The Northeast Corridor carries more rail passengers than anywhere else in the country. What could it look like in 2040?

The Federal Railroad Administration recently unveiled their draft plans to improve rail travel across the northeast, from Washington to Boston. The plan will help set the stage for a potential transformation of train service in the mega region.

Acela at New Carrollton. Photo by the author.

Today, Washington, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston are linked by a busy rail line known as the Northeast Corridor (NEC). The 457-mile line is the busiest passenger railway in the nation, carrying over 750,000 passengers each day on more than 2,200 trains.

But the corridor is desperately in need of investment just to bring it to a state of good repair. Several chokepoints mean that the line is currently operating near capacity, which means it can't support expected growth in population, employment, or intercity travel.

The plan is what's known as a "Tier 1 EIS." That means that it is an environmental analysis that looks at the broader issues. Detailed study of specific elements will require "Tier 2" EIS studies and those will be conducted as projects work their way through the planning process.

The plan sets out three options

The analysis looks at three main scenarios for investment in the Northeast Corridor. Each of the options has the same core objectives: making rail more reliable, dependable, durable and environmentally sustainable, increasing both the number of passengers it can carry and the places it goes, and contributing to economic growth. But some of the plans are more ambitious than others.

Alternative 1 would make fixes to existing rail and other infrastructure, but would otherwise leave things alone. Its investments in the corridor would mainly involve fixing chokepoints, with limited areas of additional track. It allows for an increase in service which would keep pace with employment and population growth.

Alternative 1. All maps from NEC Future.

The second alternative would build more rail, allowing an expansion of capacity faster than population or employment growth. Work will involve getting rid of chokepoints, widening most of the corridor to four tracks, and building a few new segments outside the current alignment.

Alternative 2.

The third option would build a lot more rail, the goal being to "transform" rail into the dominant mode in the northeast. In addition to upgrading the existing corridor with new track and chokepoint relief, this alternative adds a new independent high-speed line parallel to the corridor. Between Washington and New York, it's very close to the existing route. However, between New York and Boston, there are three possible routings, including one via Long Island and two through inland Connecticut.

Alternative 3.

There's also a "no action" alternative, which assumes the corridor won't be upgraded, in which case, capacity and travel times won't be changed by 2040.

Each option has different ridership projections and capacity increases...

More people will certainly ride on the corridor by 2040, and taking no action would mean doing little to accommodate that growth. Even now, tunnels under the Hudson River are completely full during rush hour; the current 24 trains per hour in each direction is the maximum.

Alternative 1 would allow for a 75% increase over the no action alternative for inter-city trips and a 13% increase for commuter trains, to 33.7 million and 474.5 million trips, respectively. This scenario would add two new tunnels under the Hudson and allow for 37 trains per hour.

Alternative 2, which expands the role of rail, would allow for a 92% increase in inter-city and an 18% increase in commuter trips on the corridor, to 37.1 million and 495.4 million, respectively. The second alternative also adds two new Hudson tunnels, which, in conjunction with other projects, would allow for up to 52 trains per hour in each direction.

The third alternative, which transforms the role of rail, more than doubles intercity ridership to 39 million trips and increases commuter rail ridership to 545.5 million, a 30% increase. This option adds four tunnels under the Hudson, for a total of six. It would allow up to 70 trains per hour to cross under the river. well as a different effect on travel time

Each of the alternatives would reduce travel time over the no action option. Without the proposed improvements, an express could cover the distance between Washington and New York in 2:47. It would be 6:33 to Boston.

Alternative 1 would reduce the Washington to New York express time to 2:43 and Washington to Boston to 5:45. Alternative 2 does even better, reducing the New York trip to 2:26 and the Boston trip to 5:07. But Alternative 3 is the fastest, with a completely new high-speed corridor reducing travel time to New York to 1:48 and to Boston in 3:57.

For corridor trains (roughly equivalent to today's Northeast Regional), there are also time savings. The no action alternative would have Washington to New York trips in 3:23 and Washington to Boston in 8:02.

Alternative 1 would allow corridor trains to cover the distance to New York and Boston in 3:08 and 6:57, respectively. Under the second alternative, DC to New York would come in at 3:01 and to Boston in 6:22. The major investment alternative would bring times down to 2:51 to New York and 5:47 to Boston.

Details for each alternative
Even the no action alternative costs $19.9 billion. That's because it includes the costs of funded projects, funded and unfunded mandates, and over $10 billion in projects that are necessary to keep the corridor operating but which are currently unfunded.

Alternative 1
Alternative 1 is the cheapest alternative, with an estimated price tag of $64-66 billion.

There are a few notable projects included in this option. Locally, it calls for rebuilding New Carrollton station so that it has four tracks, each with access to a platform. It also includes a project to widen the corridor to four tracks from Odenton to Halethorpe, along with a new BWI station with four tracks.

Alternative 1 in Baltimore.

Importantly, the plans call for replacing the B&P Tunnels in Baltimore, which are near the end of their useful life. The plan also includes two new tunnels under the Hudson, bringing the total to four.

One realigned section of track is part of this alternative, a 50-mile bypass of the shore line in Connecticut and Rhode Island, between Old Saybrook and Kenyon. Slower trains would continue to use the curvy line, but faster trains would run on the new line, which would avoid several drawbridges.

Alternative 2
Alternative 2 comes in at around $131-136 billion.

Like the first alternative, it includes four tracks at New Carrollton and between Odenton and Halethorpe, along with a new BWI station. It also calls for a third track between Washington and New Carrollton.

The B&P Tunnel replacement in Baltimore and two new Hudson tunnels are included in this option as well. But the plan also adds two new tunnels under the East River (for a total of six), which was not part of the first alternative.

Alternative 2 in northeastern Maryland.

Several new segments are also part of this project, bypassing slower sections of the line with straighter bypasses. A new line between Aberdeen, Maryland and Newark, Delaware, a bypass of Wilmington, and a straightened section in north Philadelphia allow for faster trains. The plan also includes running a more direct route into Philadelphia 30th Street station via a station at Philadelphia Airport.

Alternative 3
Alterative 3 is the most expensive, since it's building two railway corridors. The estimate for that option ranges from $267 to $308 billion, depending on which route is chosen.

This option upgrades the existing corridor significantly, including many of the projects from the other alternatives. Under this plan, the existing corridor would be widened to four tracks for most of its length south of New York. This aspect would include four platform tracks at New Carrollton and BWI Airport.

Like the other proposals, this alternative replaces the B&P Tunnels. It also adds two new tubes under the Hudson for the corridor and two more Hudson Tunnels (for a total of six) for the high-speed line. The East River would also get two new tunnels (for a total of six).

The existing corridor wouldn't get very many straightenings under this plan, since the second spine would be far more direct and faster. The high-speed line would include tunnels under downtown Baltimore and Philadelphia, with center city stations there.

Alternative 3 in Baltimore.

North of New York, the second spine would be on a completely new route. There are a couple of options for the new routing.

Options for a new high-speed routing north of New York.

Between New York and Hartford, the new line could either run east across Long Island to Ronkonkoma and turn north to cross the existing line at New Haven before continuing to Hartford or it could turn north via White Plains and Danbury before reaching Hartford.

From Hartford to Boston, the line could either run east to Providence and then along the existing line to Boston or northeast to Worcester and then east to Boston.

These new lines are expensive, but have the possibility of opening up new markets, especially on Long Island.

Each of the options outlined in the FRA study is expensive. But an upgrade to the corridor is necessary. The current infrastructure is aging and overburdened. Chokepoints like the Hudson tunnels severely constrain capacity, and will prevent Amtrak and commuter agencies from meeting growing demand.

And the cost of doing nothing is not zero. Without this investment, the northeastern mega region won't be able to move efficiently or grow. And that will have dramatic economic consequences.

But not investing in rail will mean that we'll have to spend even more enlarging highways and airports. And even with that, we'll still have to spend money just keeping the existing Northeast Corridor infrastructure in a state of good repair.

Montgomery will go ahead with BRT, but at what cost?

Despite a big funding setback last week, Montgomery County could start building bus rapid transit after all. But to do so, it may have to do it on the cheap. That could mean making BRT less useful for transit riders.

BRT in Alexandria. Photo by Dan Malouff.

Montgomery County officials have been looking at building rapid transit routes for buses since 2008, and approved plans for a countywide BRT network in 2013. County Executive Ike Leggett had proposed creating a transit authority that could raise taxes to pay for building it, but yanked the idea last week due to opposition from some community members.

Yesterday, he announced that the county would build one or two of its planned BRT routes in a "less costly" fashion. One way to cut costs is by taking out dedicated lanes that give buses a way out of traffic. But doing that would make BRT slower and less reliable, discouraging people from using it.

According to Leggett, the county can afford to pay for one or two BRT corridors from its construction budget, which the County Council approves each spring. There are three corridors transportation officials are looking at, down from ten in the original plan: Route 355 between Bethesda and Rockville, which would cost an estimated $422 million to build; Veirs Mill Road between Rockville and Wheaton, which would cost $285 million, and Route 29 between Silver Spring and Burtonsville, which would cost $200 million.

Where people use transit in Montgomery County. These areas coincide with the three potential BRT corridors being considered. Map by the author using Census data.

The three corridors serve the county's two biggest downtowns, Silver Spring and Bethesda, plus the county seat in Rockville and emerging town centers like Wheaton, White Oak and White Flint. These are places where lots of people already ride transit.

They're also congested streets that are ideal for bus lanes, the key feature of bus rapid transit, which can give riders a fast, reliable alternative to sitting in traffic. But there's limited space to make bus lanes, whether by converting existing lanes or by widening the road. And some neighbors in these areas are loudly against them.

This street might be congested. And that's why it needs bus lanes. Photo by the author.

Not only do dedicated bus lanes make the bus faster, but they reduce labor costs, since bus drivers can do more trips in less time. Like train tracks, bus lanes create the sense of permanence that can attract development to underserved areas like White Oak. Better transit also means lower commute times, which has a huge impact on access to jobs and economic mobility.

Leggett might find that not including bus lanes on all or some of these routes could save money and avoid confronting transit opponents. But there are ways to design them that require less space and reduce impacts on neighborhoods. And as long as buses are stuck in the same traffic as everyone else, people will be less interested in riding them, and county residents will have a hard time seeing the benefits of investing in more transit.

Last week, I suggested that Montgomery County show people how BRT works by doing a temporary trial. It looks like county officials want to go a step further and try building something more permanent, which is great. That's why it's even more important they do it right.

WMATA's new general manager is listening before he even takes the reins

We won't know for some time whether WMATA's new General Manager, Paul Wiedefeld, will be able to fix the agency's many problems. But he seems to be off to a good start even before he officially starts the job.

Image from the Maryland Aviation Administration.

To get Metro on a stable path, Wiedefeld and other leaders at WMATA will need to address safety, finance, maintenance, communication, and much more. That won't all happen overnight, and fixing some problems will require help from local and federal governments. Therefore, he's going to need the support of riders, residents, local officials, members of Congress, federal regulators, and more.

WMATA has historically not been good at building bridges with people outside its walls. Too often, the message was "leave us alone, give us some money, and we'll fix things," a sentiment which rings hollow at any time but particularly after revelations this year that things weren't getting fixed very well after all. And, it turned out, WMATA almost hired someone who chafed at the level of public scrutiny that unceasingly accompanies this job.

Wiedefeld embraces it. He doesn't officially start until Monday, but he has already started meeting with people to understand what needs to change at WMATA. He's met with members of Congress and given press interviews. He sat down with leaders of the WMATA Riders' Union and agreed to attend a public forum.

"Paul Wiedefeld has already shown that he the initiative and interest in the immense challenge of reforming WMATA in the short time he's been named to the job by reaching out to advocates and riders," said Ashley Robbins, the chair of the WMATA Riders' Union. "He called us before he was officially voted in by the board and wants to be engaged with the rider community going forward."

On Friday, he also sat down to speak with me.

"Not sweeping stuff under the rug"

"We can't pretend our problems away," he said, in a refreshing change in tone from some in the past. "We're not sweeping stuff under the rug." Too often before, people in some divisions at WMATA kept problems quiet, hoping they could fix them before anyone else found out, and the agency as a whole would similarly keep problems from the public. That prevented bad press only until the problem became too acute to ignore, at which time riders and local leaders felt even more betrayed by the cover-up.

Wiedefeld is intent on changing this, though he acknowledged that bringing this attitude to the entire agency will be a challenge. Just some pronouncements at the top won't end decades of culture of not sharing bad news with superiors or the public. But he plans to push each department to think about how it can support others' goals and avoid "tunnel vision" of doing things the way they've always been done just because.

He's not going to come in swinging an axe, but also said some executives, if they're not on board with this approach, may need to go elsewhere. He made an analogy to an architect who, when Wiedefeld ran BWI airport, refused to design a ticket counter for electronic ticketing that was radically different from the traditional counter layout. That architect is not at the airport any longer.

The wrench-turners know more than we do

One more group Wiedefeld will be listening to is the front-line employees. "The gentleman or woman turning the wrench: They know a heck of a lot more and it's amazing what you can find out by listening, walking, and talking," he said. "The perception is that they don't, but that's not true."

Riders sometimes vent frustration at the employee who has a bad attitude, and certainly, Wiedefeld said, "every organization has knuckleheads." But he argued that most other workers are themselves getting frustrated at those colleagues and at bad conditions. As another analogy, he referred to an experience while he was running the Maryland MTA. Bus drivers were frustrated because the rest areas at the ends of the bus stops had no toilet paper. "If you worked in an office, would you go into a restroom like that?" he asked, rhetorically. And then, why would we "expect [the bus drivers] to turn around and have a smiling face?"

"Don't underestimate what an organization can do if you get buy-in up and down the line," he said. About trends toward "bashing" public sector and unionized employees, "that's total baloney."

There are still big problems

Certainly, listening is not everything. Just understanding everyone's points of view won't cure the financial gap; WMATA will very quickly face trade-offs between higher fares, lower service, more money from local governments, or compensation for employees. WMATA isn't able to adequately maintain its railcars to get the number running that are supposed to be, and listening won't make new ones arrive faster from the manufacturer.

But while listening isn't everything, to paraphrase Red Symons, not listening is nothing. Good communication inside the agency will help Wiedefeld know what he needs to work to fix (and who he needs to hire to do it); good communication outside the agency will help build goodwill from riders, local leaders, and federal officials to help him succeed.

Communicating is also one thing he can do right away. He knows that it might "drive some staff nuts" for him to talk with everyone, but every big organization has people who think their best value is to stop the flow of information, to channel all communication through a rigid process to ensure it's fully sanitized. That doesn't make organizations effective. Wiedefeld isn't afraid to speak with advocates, or the press, or riders, or Congress. That frankness is just what WMATA needs right now.

"I am impressed and optimistic about what the future has to hold for WMATA with Paul at its helm," said Robbins. "If he maintains the openness that he's already shown and the gusto with which he's hit the ground running, I believe that we will see a very different agency in five years, and one that we will all be proud of."

Knowing that he can't solve all of the big problems at once, he also has been asking for quick steps he can take to make a difference. I suggested a few. What do you think he could do, realistically and in the short run? Post your ideas in the comments—he'll be listening.

What if Montgomery County gave BRT a temporary test run?

Last week, Montgomery County pulled its proposal for building bus rapid transit, citing community opposition. How can the county win people over? By getting something on the ground now and doing a trial run.

How can we get streets like Colesville Road better transit sooner rather than later? Photo by the author.

After several years of discussion, the county approved a plan for a network of dedicated bus lanes in 2013 with strong support from residents, business leaders, and transit advocates. Soon after, County Executive Ike Leggett proposed creating an Independent Transit Authority that could build and operate transit in the county and raise taxes on its own to pay for it. Today, the department of transportation runs transit service, using money from the county's budget, which the County Council sets each year.

Leggett's proposal drew an unlikely coalition of opponents, from civic organizations who were against BRT in the first place to groups worried about government spending. Meanwhile, initial designs for BRT on corridors like Georgia Avenue proposed unnecessarily massive road widenings that would have removed dozens of homes and businesses, which naturally angered many residents.

Do county leaders still want BRT?

Now in his third term as county executive, Ike Leggett has alluded to transit as part of his legacy. He's said that the 100,000 jobs slated to come to places like White Flint and White Oak depend on better transit. Bus Rapid Transit lines on Route 355, Route 29, and Veirs Mill Road are among the county's top transportation priorities.

But the county seems to be backing away from BRT. The Georgia Avenue line got shelved. And Leggett already pulled his ITA proposal earlier this year.

Ike Leggett says he wants to do a public outreach campaign for BRT to build support for a transit authority. But it may not be enough to convince skeptical residents. They need to see something tangible.

Metroway in Alexandria. Photo by Dan Malouff.

We could send people to Alexandria to ride the Metroway BRT line. It's already carrying 20% more riders than anticipated. It serves the new neighborhood of Potomac Yard that looks like what Montgomery County wants to create in White Flint or White Oak.

Or we could start bringing BRT in some form to Montgomery County today in trial form, so people can see how it can improve their daily lives.

A trial run?

Bus Rapid Transit consists of several different parts that make buses faster, more reliable, and more comfortable, like a train: machines where you pay before getting on; larger, covered stations; longer distances between stops; and of course, dedicated lanes.

The county's vision for BRT, as in many other places, involves doing all of those things at once. It's more effective, but also more expensive. We're already implementing some of those things now, like limited-stop bus service or off-board fare machines.

The thing that has the biggest impact, but is also the most controversial, are bus lanes. And that's what people need to see in action.

A very basic bus lane on Veirs Mill Road in Wheaton. It's maybe a mile long. Photo from Google Street View.

Local political consultant Adam Pagnucco has suggested that the county build a BRT line on Veirs Mill Road to prove that it works, but it would still take a few years and a lot of money.

In the meantime, we could do a trial: for a few months, simply reserve the curbside lane of a major street for buses, using paint and some police enforcement to keep drivers out. Drivers and transit riders alike could see how it would affect their travels.

The catch is we'd have to do this in a place with high transit use, like Veirs Mill Road, Route 29, and Route 355, the three BRT corridors the county's studying. These streets are congested now, but they're also where most transit riders are, and would get the most benefit from dedicated lanes.

Doing a trial would be hard and require a lot of political will. But it's ultimately easier than convincing the public to make a huge investment on something they haven't seen before. And it allows us to see what works and what doesn't work, so we can make needed tweaks early on.

Most importantly, a trial gives Montgomery County transit riders a better trip now, rather than far in the future. They can't afford to wait, and neither can we.

Here are the answers to whichWMATA week 76

On Tuesday, we posted our seventy-sixth photo challenge to see how well you knew Metro. I took photos of five Metro stations. Here are the answers. How well did you do?

This week, we got 23 guesses. Six got all five. Great work, Gregory Koch, Jay K, Peter K, We Will Crush Peter K, JamesDCane, and AlexC!

Image 1: Glenmont

The first image shows Glenmont. This one was pretty straight-forward. There aren't very many "Arch II" stations, which have a six coffer cross-section, and the only one on the Red Line is Glenmont.

Nineteen got this one right.

Image 2: Shaw

The next image was taken at Shaw's southern entrance. The main clue here is the Shaw Library and the lighted art out front. The traffic signals in the background are also clearly DC-style signals, so that may have helped you figure it out.

Seventeen knew this one.

Image 3: Bethesda

The third image shows an entrance pylon at Bethesda station. The sign is clearly non-standard, especially the font, which is not Helvetica. This entrance is on the southeast corner of East-West Highway and Wisconsin Avenue and access to the station is via the office building lobby.

Other than the sign, the biggest clue here is the median, which separates one-way traffic. East-West Highway (Route 410) is a part of a couplet (with Montgomery Avenue) in downtown Bethesda. The five westbound lanes are separated by a median, with the left two lanes turning left onto Wisconsin. This sort of street arrangement is fairly rare.

Fifteen guessed correctly.

Image 4: National Airport

I can almost guarantee that most of you have used this station—National Airport—without ever setting eyes upon this entrance. The station actually has three entrances: The escalator-only entrances at the north and south ends of the platform are staffed and popular. But in between those, there's a third mezzanine for the elevator-only entrance.

The platform elevators are in the center of the platform, and don't connect directly to either of the main entrances. Instead, they lead to this small, unstaffed mezzanine with just two faregates and two farecard machines. A covered walkway beneath the platform leads to the main entances and the airport bridges at either end.

As several of you noted, the framing is evocative of the design of the new airport terminal. Another clue is the airport upper level roadway, just visible in the distance. You can also see a column supporting the station at center-right, indicating that this is an elevated station.

Eleven got the right answer.

Image 5: Stadium/Armory

The final image shows a sign outside Stadium/Armory. Like most WMATA stations, only one entrance has an elevator. In this case, that's the southern entrance. The northern entrance is closest to RFK Stadium and the DC Armory, though, so many users may be unfamiliar with the design. This sign points the way, two blocks farther south to the elevator.

The sign is very reflective of the huge banner in the station that says "Stadium this way," and I suspect they were designed at the same time. That was a clue. As is the somewhat distinctive fence at left.

Sixteen came to the correct conclusion.

Thanks for playing!

We're going on hiatus for a few weeks. WhichWMATA will return in 2016. So use the holidays to study up on the Metro system to prepare for more quizzes in the new year.

Information about contest rules, submission guidelines, and a leaderboard is available at

Metro made an amusing appearance in a hotel ad

A recent commercial for SpringHill Suites, a national hotel chain, is set on the Metro. In the ad, a businessman steps on to a railcar and is surprised to find plush seats and lots of legroom.

I did a double take when I recently saw Metro featured in this hotel ad. It surprised me that Metro allowed filming in a station and on a railcar for an ad saying you shouldn't expect much style or space from the transit system.

Have you seen Metro pop up in other unexpected mediums? Share in the comments!

Here's how funding for the Purple Line will work

The proposed Purple Line light rail will connect Bethesda, Silver Spring, College Park, and New Carrollton, and many places along the way. Yesterday was the deadline for private companies to bid to build and operate the line over the next three decades. In 2013, Matt Johnson wrote this post explaining how the "public-private partnership," or "P3," which is new to the region, will work. We've re-published it below.

Map from MTA Maryland.

A P3 is a partnership between a government agency (in this case, the Maryland Transit Administration) and a private firm (called a "concessionaire") to build and operate an infrastructure project. Many P3s are toll roads, like the new Beltway HOT lanes in Northern Virginia. But transit P3 projects are fairly new to the United States. Currently, the only example in the nation is in Denver, which is using one to build almost 70 miles of rail projects.

The details of the public-private partnership won't be hammered out for some time, so there's still a lot we don't know about what this method of construction and operation will look like. But a recently-published "presolicitation report" from the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) tells what they have in mind.

What is a P3?

Essentially, the idea is to leverage private capital and the efficiency of private firms to reduce the public cost of building and operating a project. It also helps the agency by making costs more predictable and assigning risk to the private contractor. MDOT currently estimates that they could save about 20% of the cost of constructing and operating the Purple Line for 30 years by entering into a P3.

While they aren't common in the United States, our neighbors in Canada use them a lot. One notable example is Vancouver's new Canada Line, opened in 2010, though it's not without its criticism.

Where do the savings come from?

In P3s, the cost savings come primarily from two factors: private firms may be more efficient, and risk may be more properly assigned and managed.

One way projects end up wasting money is through "interface problems." For example, a crew comes out to string catenary wire, but they discover that the catenary supports haven't been installed yet. That risk is still there with a P3, but since the contractor has assumed the risk, it's their problem, not the public's.

Meanwhile, the contractor, which is likely to be a major firm, may be able to leverage their other investments to get a good deal on steel. Or they might have a subcontractor who builds railcars, which saves them from having to do a separate procurement.

How will this P3 work?

In a few months, MTA will ask qualified contractors to submit bids to operate the Purple Line. These bids will be very detailed, and MTA will use a "best value" method to pick the contractor, not necessarily picking the cheapest bid.

Each prospective concessionaire will include their estimate for what they can build the Purple Line for, plus what they think it will cost them to operate and maintain the line for 30 years. MTA estimates that the selected contractor will also put in between $400 to $900 million. The agency will put in additional money, as will the federal government, through the New Starts program.

MTA will pay the contractor an annual "availability payment," which equals the contractor's contributions plus the operating costs the contractor estimated in their bid, divided by 35 (5 years of construction, plus 30 years of maintenance). During construction, the contractor will have to take out a performance bond that MTA keeps in case they can't complete the project. If they go out of business after construction is complete, MTA would have to rebid the contract.

Will the concessionaire hike fares or cut service to make a quick buck?

MTA, not the concessionaire, will set the fares, service hours, and train frequency.

The concessionaire wouldn't make money from this, anyway. Like all transit lines in the United States, the Purple Line will not earn enough fare revenue to be profitable. If the contractor can provide their services for less than what was budgeted, they'll keep the difference as (additional) profit. But if they go over budget, they'll lose money.

How will Maryland hold the operator accountable?

MTA will write very detailed requirements in the contract setting performance standards for on-time performance and cleanliness. If the operator can't meet these standards, the MTA could pay them less. That gives the operator a financial incentive to provide good service.

What will the concessionaire be responsible for?

The concessionaire's responsibilities can differ from one P3 to another, but the private firm selected for the Purple Line will be responsible for completing design, building the project, acquiring railcars, and then operating the line for 30 years.

Will the private firm own the line?

No, the state of Maryland will own the Purple Line. After 30 years, the firm operating the line will be responsible for giving it back to the state in a certain pre-specified condition. At that point, the MTA could decide to operate the line on its own or rebid the project to a different firm or even the same firm.

Why is the Purple Line a good choice for a P3?

The Maryland Transit Administration's operations, including local buses, light rail, and subway, are primarily focused in Baltimore, 30 miles from the Purple Line. Because it's so far away, the MTA would likely need a new management and operations structure just for that one line, meaning it would basically stand alone. That makes it a good candidate for a P3, as opposed to the Baltimore Red Line, which interacts with several other MTA services and is much closer to home.

According to the MTA's Henry Kay, the Purple Line's risk profile is well suited to the private sector. In many cases, there will be tight quarters and traffic management plans. There's lots of risk that those conditions will delay the project or make it more expensive. One overarching contractor can better manage that risk than a public agency with multiple contractors. And if the contractor can't manage the risk well, it's their money, not the state's.

There are other risks, like unpredictable weather or even subway tunneling, which are difficult to manage. Contractors may be reluctant to assume the risks of building the Baltimore Red Line, with its long downtown subway. That makes it a less likely candidate for a P3.

Why consider a P3 for transit at all?

Using a P3 for the Purple Line will allow the MTA to spend a little less up front for the project, allowing Maryland to make better use of its gas tax revenues for projects around the state.

According to the MTA's Executive Director for Transit Development and Delivery Henry Kay, the P3 will be more predictable for MTA. For example, once MTA grants the contract, they'll know exactly how much it will cost to run the line every year for 30 years. If energy costs go up or labor costs go up, the contractor is on the hook. But the state will always pay the same price, unless the contractor fails to meet their performance targets (in which case, Maryland would pay less). That could help keep fares and tax rates in check.

Of course, there are risks in a P3. The contractor could go bankrupt, or they could fail to deliver what they promised. MTA's goal is to provide good transit service, and they need to find a reliable partner who they can hold to the same high standard. Over the next several months, the MTA will release a Request for Proposals and companies will respond, allowing us to get a better understanding of how this P3 might work.

Since public-private partnerships for transit are generally untested in the US, communities and transit agencies across the country will watch the Purple Line to see how well they work. Hopefully, it will set the bar high.

Support Us