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The Purple Line gets a boost from President Obama's budget

Yesterday, the Purple Line took a big step forward when the federal government recommended giving it a $100 million grant for next year and providing additional funding in the coming years. Now, all it needs is approval from Congress.


Image from the Maryland Transit Administration.

President Obama included the $2.2 billion, 16-mile light rail line between Bethesda and New Carrollton in his 2015 budget. It's one of 7 transit projects the Federal Transit Administration recommended for a "New Starts" grant, including the Baltimore Red Line, an extension of LA's Purple Line, Boston's Green Line extension, the Columbia River Crossing in Portland, and commuter rail in Orlando and Fort Worth.

The agency also recommended Congress give the Purple Line a "full funding grant agreement" committing it to help pay for construction. Maryland hopes the federal government will provide $900 million, though it's unclear what the final amount will be.

The state has already agreed to put in up to $900 million for the project. Montgomery and Prince George's counties will give $220 million total, while the state is looking for a private partner to build and operate the line and pitch in additional funds.

The Purple Line has been discussed in some form since 1986. If everything goes right, it could start construction in 2015 and open in 2020. But getting here hasn't been easy.

From the beginning, it faced vehement opposition from the exclusive Columbia Country Club in Chevy Chase, because the line would follow the Capital Crescent Trail, a former freight rail line that bisected its golf course. Meanwhile, the University of Maryland didn't want it passing through the heart of campus, and even hired former Montgomery County executive Doug Duncan (now running for a fourth term) to oppose it.

Maryland was able to find a workable solution for both parties, and the Purple Line now enjoys the support of both county executives, elected officials in both counties, and hundreds of civic, environmental, business, and advocacy groups.

But there are still a few challenges remaining. One is that Congress actually has to approve President Obama's budget and decide how much the "full funding grant agreement" for the Purple Line would be. The other is the Town of Chevy Chase, which continues to oppose the project because of its impacts on the trail. The town recently hired a lobbyist who happens to be the brother of the House transportation committee chair to make the case against the line.

Meanwhile, other residents may sue the government because they feel not enough research has been done about the Purple Line's impacts on a small, shrimp-like creature that's listed as an endangered species but is found several miles away. These things may add additional delay to the Purple Line, but it's unclear whether they're enough to actually halt the project.

In any case, yesterday was a great day for the Purple Line. When I attended my first Purple Line meeting in 2003, as a junior in high school, I assumed that I'd be riding it by now. Hopefully, 28 years after the project was first announced, we won't have to wait much longer.

A planner and architect by training, Dan Reed also writes his own blog, Just Up the Pike, and serves as the Land Use Chair for the Action Committee for Transit. He lives in downtown Silver Spring. 

Comments

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the most obvious obstacle not mentioned is the Baltimore Red Line. What are the chances both get funding? What are the chances only one gets funding? If it comes to only one, which one will win.

by Richard on Mar 5, 2014 10:33 am • linkreport

Yonah Freemark also noted that the recommendations are for dividing up a recommended total of $2.5 billion, while Congress has signaled an intention to fund only about $1.9 billion.

by Gray on Mar 5, 2014 10:41 am • linkreport

@Richard

the most obvious obstacle not mentioned is the Baltimore Red Line. What are the chances both get funding? What are the chances only one gets funding? If it comes to only one, which one will win.

Well, let's see. Who will be Maryland's next governor?

Anthony Brown is from Prince George's County
Doug Gansler is from Montgomery County
Heather Mizeur is from Montgomery County

Sorry, Ball'mer

by Dizzy on Mar 5, 2014 11:01 am • linkreport

@Richard, with the proposed new New Start grants going to projects in MD, MA, FL, TX, CA, OR, a coalition of the delegates in those states could be put together to boost the New Starts account to cover their projects.

MD also has an advantage with Senator Mikulski as the Chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. She will make sure MD is taken care of.

by AlanF on Mar 5, 2014 11:05 am • linkreport

Is development along the Purple Line's route going to occur independently of it breaking ground? I feel like an invevitable delay won't be too bad provided that the infrastructure is there to supplement ridership by its completion.

by Jason L. on Mar 5, 2014 11:16 am • linkreport

This is great news. I'm pretty confident that funding will get pushed through Congress. The biggest obstacle to the beginning construction next year on the Purple Line are the NIMBY's in Chevy Chase with their idiotic lawsuits.

As for the Red Line getting funding, it's also one of the 7 New Starts projects recommended by the FTA (as Dan stated), and has been a favorite of the administration even before the Purple Line was.

by King Terrapin on Mar 5, 2014 11:38 am • linkreport

Exciting times for Maryland transit.

by h st ll on Mar 5, 2014 11:38 am • linkreport

@Dizzy

Well, let's see. Who will be Maryland's next governor?

Anthony Brown is from Prince George's County
Doug Gansler is from Montgomery County
Heather Mizeur is from Montgomery County

Sorry, Ball'mer

sure, despite the Baltimore red line being further along along probably more important for collective region it is the underdog. But if the you say that there is an 80% chance that only one gets funded and that if there is only one that there is a 80% chance it will be the purple line due to the PG-MOCO bias in the governors mansion, then the red line still is a significant hurdle for the purple line.

by Richard on Mar 5, 2014 11:47 am • linkreport

@ Jason L.

Yes and no. In established urban areas such as Bethesda, developers can build whenever they want as long as they meet current zoning codes (which are likely to scale up around the Bethesda station after the rewrite especially after the recent Apex building boost).

However, in Chevy Chase Lake, which had a new sector plan approved last year, only around 50% of development can begin before the Purple Line begins construction. I think it's the same thing for Long Branch/Takoma/Langley. I'm not aware of any restrictions in Prince George's County. I would imagine though that some of the more cautious developers would simply wait until Purple Line construction has begun to break ground on their projects.

by King Terrapin on Mar 5, 2014 11:47 am • linkreport

Rich, the two projects aren't directly competing. They're both rated very highly by the USDOT. [Deleted for violating the comment policy.]

by Cavan on Mar 5, 2014 11:50 am • linkreport

On the other hand both could happen which would be awesome. There are some 1.5 million voters between Baltimore City and County that may appreciate new commuter options (as well as maybe Howard County considering how poor Camden Line service is) not to mention the whole job development component of it. I guess it will all come down to how the politics play out.

by BTA on Mar 5, 2014 12:03 pm • linkreport

Jason L.
Is development along the Purple Line's route going to occur independently of it breaking ground? I feel like an invevitable delay won't be too bad provided that the infrastructure is there to supplement ridership by its completion.

The development that might occur along the purple line will likely not occur until the line gets federal funding.

by Richard on Mar 5, 2014 12:11 pm • linkreport

Uh why can't both happen at the same time? Maryland has the highest average income of any state and just passed the gas tax.

by h st ll on Mar 5, 2014 12:12 pm • linkreport

FTA's recommendation that both the Purple and Red Lines receive full funding grant agreements is essentially a green light for both projects at the federal level. Based on the established FTA New Starts funding process, there is no indication that one Maryland project stands a better chance of getting funded nor that they are in competition with one another for federal money (at least not anymore). If one of these projects was unlikely to be funded this year, it would not have been recommended by FTA for a full funding agreement nor would FTA have proposed $100 million each as a down payment. Of course, Congress must still approve 2015 funding, but anyone nay-saying about the likelihood of both projects being approved by the Feds should familiarize themselves with the New Starts process.

State funding is a separate issue, however, Maryland has always maintained that it intends to build both projects concurrently and has structured its financing plan (also scrutinized by the Feds) to support paying for both transit lines.

by Harry on Mar 5, 2014 12:26 pm • linkreport

I'm not sure that's entirely true, Richard. Columbia Pike, H St NE, and Georgia Ave have all seen development booms even before dedicated project funding was in place. Certainly it will be more speculative in nature, but given the state of the regional economy I think we will see some projects start to enter the pipeline before the dust settles.

by BTA on Mar 5, 2014 12:32 pm • linkreport

Yahoooo!!!

by Thayer-D on Mar 5, 2014 1:43 pm • linkreport

FTA's recommendation that both the Purple and Red Lines receive full funding grant agreements is essentially a green light for both projects at the federal level. Based on the established FTA New Starts funding process, there is no indication that one Maryland project stands a better chance of getting funded nor that they are in competition with one another for federal money (at least not anymore). If one of these projects was unlikely to be funded this year, it would not have been recommended by FTA for a full funding agreement nor would FTA have proposed $100 million each as a down payment. Of course, Congress must still approve 2015 funding, but anyone nay-saying about the likelihood of both projects being approved by the Feds should familiarize themselves with the New Starts process.
State funding is a separate issue, however, Maryland has always maintained that it intends to build both projects concurrently and has structured its financing plan (also scrutinized by the Feds) to support paying for both transit lines.

I know it shouldnt matter that they are both in MD, but it might get in the way.

I really hope they are both funded and both built.

by Richard on Mar 5, 2014 1:57 pm • linkreport

Development will depend on the pace and restrictions of zoning. Bethesda and Silver Spring need no changes. The Chevy Chase Lake plan is decided. Ditto for Long Branch where the Council wisely resisted a plan that would have replaced the neighborhood's affordable housing with more expensive housing. The Council and state officials have assured the single-family neighborhoods around the Dale Avenue Station that there wil be NO rezoning. The Lyttonsville station is probably next up for rezoning. It is likely that high-rises will replace light-industrial around that station. The 16th street station will eradicate a strip mall, but state officals have said there could be development on top of and at the edges of the station. There are already apartment and condos across the street from the station. I doubt that there will be any rezoning nearby. These stations still have to function for walking and drop-off passengers so you can't overbuild on the station sites.

by woody brosnan on Mar 6, 2014 10:19 am • linkreport

" The Council and state officials have assured the single-family neighborhoods around the Dale Avenue Station that there wil be NO rezoning. "

Perhaps GGW advocates of upzoning SFH neighborhoods who live in MoCo and think such upzoning is not that difficult, should get on the case. I mean Dale Drive station is not only on the Purple line, but its only 1 mile from the Silver Spring Transit Center, with Metro Red Line, MARC commuter rail, and multiple bus lines (and of course right near downtown Silver Spring with all its amenities). If upzoning a SFH neighborhood is hard here, its going to super difficult in less well located places.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Mar 6, 2014 10:35 am • linkreport

Or perhaps you should just leave it alone! Comments like these feed the fears of single-family neighborhoods that urban zealots are out to destroy their way of life. Single-family neighorhoods are part of the diversity that makes Montgomery County a great place to live. Downtown Silver Spring is going to have lots of residential development near the Purple Line stops at the Silver Spring Metro and the Library without extending that development into nearby single-family neighborhoods.

by woody brosnan on Mar 6, 2014 11:47 am • linkreport

Woody

I do not expect upzonig of SFH neighborhoods to take place in MoCo, or in any suburban area in the region - and I doubt we will see much if any of it in DC. There happens to be an ongoing debate within GGW as to whether large scale upzoing (including of SFH neighborhoods) is a realistic enough option to make certain other pro-density policies (more widespread zoning for hi rises, changes to the Height Act) unnecessary. I have been repeatedly criticozed, often in fairly harsh terms, for my belief that expecting to upzone SFH areas is unrealistic. I wanted to merely point out how supremely difficult such upzoning is, where its justified or not.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Mar 6, 2014 11:58 am • linkreport

As someone who lives at Wayne & Dale, I'd love it if the Purple Line meant there would be more shops at that intersection. Ertter's Market is a good corner store in a pinch, but I'd love a coffeeshop or corner bar like the ones in my old neighborhood in Philadelphia. And I personally don't think that having a few more shops at the corner would have a negative impact on my house or my street but, in fact, would make it even easier for me to accomplish all of my daily needs without a car, which means less traffic (and more open parking spaces!) for everyone else.

by dan reed! on Mar 6, 2014 12:00 pm • linkreport

Or perhaps you should just leave it alone! Comments like these feed the fears of single-family neighborhoods that urban zealots are out to destroy their way of life.

Well, no. Why must a neighborhood never change once it's initially established?

single-family neighorhoods are part of the diversity that makes Montgomery County a great place to live.

And this is overwhelmingly what you're likely to find if you go looking for a home in Montgomery County. And that's unlikely to change.

Downtown Silver Spring is going to have lots of residential development near the Purple Line stops at the Silver Spring Metro and the Library without extending that development into nearby single-family neighborhoods.

It's not an either/or thing. Plus there is a lot of leeway between an SFH on a 1/4 lot and a 25 story apartment building. Unfortunately, the way zoning is across much of the region your options are basically one or the other. Some see that as a feature rather than a bug but it's silly to think these are the only options. Especially when you're talking about investing in an area with a light rail line.

by drumz on Mar 6, 2014 12:01 pm • linkreport

@drumz

I am actually in sympathy with Woodys point. DTSS will have plenty of more housing (beyond what is already built).

BUT - that is in large part BECAUSE DTSS will have 25 story apartment buildings - a form of building that some people believe is inhumane, hostile to pedestrians, anti-urbanist, likely to create another Rosslyn, etc. But it allows DTSS to have transit supporting density while allowing a place like Dale Drive to remain SFH's. If we restricted DTSS to Parisian style 6 story buildings, I am not sure you could accommodate enough new units, without expanding those 6 story buildings to what are now SFH neighborhoods - of which Dale Drive is, for reasons I mentioned above, probably a more likely choice than most (including many in DC.)

But as Woodys post makes clear - and I dont think Dan Reed would disagree - such an upzoning is not politically feasible and would in fact engender such opposition to the urbanist project in general, and to the Purple Line in particular, as to be utterly self-defeating.

We need to consider that when we suggest upzoning SFH neighborhoods as an alternative to building hi rises.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Mar 6, 2014 12:12 pm • linkreport

Okay. Assuming you could get the rezoning, which I don't think you can get, make the economics of this work. There is a house listed at 504 Dale Drive for $714,000. The Purple Line will make these properties more valuable, not less. Let's say a developer wanted to put in a small retail shopping area with Dan's coffee shop and maybe a couple of townhouses or condos on tops. How many parcels does he put together to make that happen and at3 what cost? You're talking $3 to $5 million to put the property together before you put a shovel in the ground, not to mention the tear down costs. Meantime, you are undermining the value of the condos, apartments, retail stores, etc., in the nearby CBD.
And why is it that folks only want to upzone Silver Spring? Go upzone Bethesda or Wisconsin Avenue.

by woody brosnan on Mar 6, 2014 12:15 pm • linkreport

"And why is it that folks only want to upzone Silver Spring? Go upzone Bethesda or Wisconsin Avenue. "

I am sorry. Perhaps I have not made myself clear - I was merely using Dale Drive to provide a tangible, real world example, of the difficulty of upzoning SFH neighborhoods - even when adjacent to transit. Too many discussions of such upzoning on GGW have been in the abstract. In the real world, in the USA, in 2014, its almost never possible - the only places I think upzoning SFH areas is realistic is when such areas are in a state of substantial decay (something I think is not the case with any SFH area in metro DC currently, not even in PG county.)

Too bad we don't have branching threads. I did not mean for this issue to sidetrack the larger questions regarding the Purple Line.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Mar 6, 2014 12:22 pm • linkreport

@woody

The county's working on a plan as we speak for downtown Bethesda that will probably involve some upzoning. Chevy Chase Lake was upzoned for higher density. And Westbard isn't on the Purple Line, but plans to redevelop the shopping center there will definitely mean higher density there as well. It's not like Silver Spring is the only place where this is happening.

by dan reed! on Mar 6, 2014 12:26 pm • linkreport

Well, we probably are closer in agreement here. I have no problem with 25 story apartment buildings in downtown Silver Spring or Wheaton. But then I'm originally from Chicago and I'm more liberal on the subject then some other civic folks. I try to tell them that allowing denser development in DTSS and Wheaton EASES pressure on to develop single-family neighborhoods. And as someone who has tried to put coalitions together on various issues, I think our first priority is to get the Purple Line funded and built. So let's not do anything to feed the opposition.

by woody brosnan on Mar 6, 2014 12:31 pm • linkreport

Okay. Assuming you could get the rezoning, which I don't think you can get, make the economics of this work.

That's fine, I'd rather have the market figure out what works than what doesn't than premptively declaring some neighborhoods as no change zones. I get why that can be politically necessary but I don't think it's optimal for the community at large. I can accept it as a necessary compromise though.

Same as Walker's point/comment to me. I would prefer a finer grain of increasing density (speaking from my experience living in Ballston/Clarendon where the drop between high rise and SFH is very stark) but I get why that is.

Plus, MoCo is doing that writ large with how it treats its ag reserve anyway. But to really max out the benefits of the ag reserve it should be doing what it can to max out it's urban areas (including future purple line stations).

by drumz on Mar 6, 2014 12:39 pm • linkreport

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