The other Purple Line fight: Wayne Avenue
While the future of the Georgetown Branch right-of-way through the Town of Chevy Chase has gotten the majority of the attention throughout the planning stages of the Purple Line, there has also been a quieter discussion on Wayne Avenue in eastern Silver Spring. Back in January, the Montgomery County Council endorsed the light rail, medium investment option (PDF) for the Purple Line. That option calls for a dedicated right-of-way on Wayne Avenue east of Downtown Silver Spring. In a recent meeting with Wayne Avenue residents, Purple Line Project Manager Michael Madden addressed concerns and explained to a divided audience why the tunnel option has fewer aggregate benefits and more drawbacks for Wayne Avenue residents.
There is a faction of Wayne Avenue residents who have taken the stance that any train on Wayne Avenue will disrupt traffic flow. Since motorists could theoretically be inconvenienced, the train must go underground. Also, won't someone think of the noise? How about those awful overhead wires that a Congress from a century ago had the foresight to ban in the L'Enfant City?
There is also a group of Purple Line proponents, the Silver Spring Advocates, who point out that when there is a convenient, efficient transit line, traffic either stagnates or decreases as more people shift to the train. This is similar to what has been experienced in the Rosslyn-Ballston Corridor in Arlington.
The main advantage of the tunnel option is it would take the Purple Line transit cars off of already-congested Wayne, proponents said. Under the medium-investment option, the Purple Line would not have dedicated lanes. Left-turn lanes would be added to Wayne to accommodate the light rail.Light rail vehicles are also so quiet that the biggest danger in urbanized areas is that people don't hear them coming. One would think that the anti-neighbors would be in favor of a light-rail Purple Line due to its quiet operation. Advocates and Madden elucidated the benefits of the surface rail option:
But Silver Spring resident Adam Daniel said adding a train to Wayne would not make things much worse than they are now.
"Wayne is a street with noisy buses on it," said Daniel, who lives near the Wayne and Dale Drive intersection. "If anything, I would expect it to be a quieter street than it will be decades down the road if there is no mass transit."
The surface route calls for a station at the planned site of a proposed Silver Spring Library at Wayne and Fenton Street and a second in downtown Silver Spring, said Michael Madden, the Purple Line project manager. The tunnel option would displace three houses on Wayne and restrict access to three or four others, Madden said.In a broader sense, the two opposing points of view also represent different views about the role of intracity rail in urban areas. Using other regions' metros as metaphors, BART would be analogous to the Tunnel option on Wayne Avenue. BART was built as solely a way for commuters from car-dependent places in the suburbs/exurbs to get into job centers in San Francisco and Oakland. It only has 43 stations over 107 miles of total track length. Most of its stations are park-and-rides, similar to Vienna or Greenbelt on our own Metro. It wasn't really designed to serve the dense inner suburban and urban areas it passes through. Similarly, the tunnel through Silver Spring would only have a station at the Silver Spring Transit Center (the existing Metro Red Line station). It wouldn't serve other destinations in Downtown Silver Spring. There would be no increase in the amount of land that is a convenient walk to a train station of some kind. There will be no increase in property values that would lead to an increase in tax revenue. There will be a much smaller reduction in CO2 emissions as more people either drive to the Metro/Purple Line at the Silver Spring Transit Center or never make the switch to transit due to lack of convenience. BART tells a cautionary tale in this respect. Because of the lack of convenience for anything other than suburb/exurb to downtown commuting, it has a little more than 1/3 the average daily ridership of our Metro.
With a tunnel, it would take 5.4 minutes to get through Silver Spring as opposed to 9 minutes for the surface option. But with the tunnel only bringing stations at the transit center and Manchester Place, the short travel time only benefits those traveling through Silver Spring, not residents along Wayne, said Jonathan Elkind, a Silver Spring resident and chairman of the Silver Spring Advocates, a pro-Purple Line group.
For the Silver Spring portion of the Purple Line, the medium-investment option would cost $179 million and the tunnel option would cost $352 million, according to the study.
On the other hand, the New York City Subway would be analogous to the surface option for the Purple Line on Wayne Avenue. Within Manhattan and the inner parts of the boroughs, the Subway makes frequent stops, serving many neighborhoods along the way. That makes it less convenient to commute from the end of the lines into Manhattan but that means that more people have convenient access to the system. There are more vibrant, pedestrian-oriented neighborhoods. Since there are more people riding the system, more businesses are supported in areas adjacent to the Subway stations. Similarly, the surface option for the Purple Line will have more stations, including one in front of the new Silver Spring Library. Therefore, more people will use the Purple Line since it will conveniently service more destinations, in addition to have more stations closer to where more people live.
Our Metro has been so much more successful that BART, both in ridership and regional cultural significance, because it has more stations in more places that people live and want to go. Our Metro was planned to have a commuter rail aspect to it with its long arms extending to the Beltway (approximately). We are fortunate that its stations along those arms have breathed new life into walkable urban legacy pre-war towns such as Wheaton, Hyattsville, Bethesda, Takoma Park, and Silver Spring. In Arlington, the vision that created the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor demonstrated the value of having more stations that are close together. One Montgomery County Councilmember recently proposed adding another station on the western Red Line. Such a station would build the infrastructure that would plant the seeds for another urban corridor, similar to Rosslyn-Ballston.
The Purple Line is our region's first rail transit project that is designed to serve and transform the inner suburbs exclusively since the streetcars were ripped out in 1961. (In this context, I'm defining the outer car-dependent parts of the District as inner suburban since their urban form is largely identical to Maryland and Virginia inside the Beltway.) How it is designed and constructed will serve as a template for how to build a rail line that connects radial rail lines. The precent that this project will set will address the question of the purpose of such connector lines. Are connector lines for getting people from one radial line to another at the expense of serving people and places in between? Or, are they for getting the people in those in-between places to the radial rail lines/ getting people from the radial lines to the places in between? Finally, what is the proper balance between the needs of those traveling from one end to the other and those traveling only a few stations?
With the exception of the stretch between Bethesda and Silver Spring, which is unique since it has its own right-of-way and will run though low-density residential areas and a large wilderness park, the Purple Line has been planned to do the latter. The decision was made because the project will compete for scarce federal funds. In order to be as competitive as possible, it needs to have very high ridership projections. The planners learned the same lesson that the Bay Area and our region have learned with BART (in its failure) and Metro (in its success): more stations closer together means more people with convenient access, more transit-oriented human-scale walkable urban development, less gasoline consumption, and higher ridership.
At tomorrow's Action Committee for Transit meeting, Madden will present MTA's analyses of the Wayne Avenue tunnel and single-tracking on the Georgetown Branch, two options requested by some neighbors that would have seriously impaired the line's ability to move people. The meeting is Tuesday, June 9th, 7:30 pm at the Silver Spring Center, 8818 Georgia Ave.
Update: The original Gazette story erroneously omitted a word in Adam Daniel's quote, making it sound like he opposed rather than supported light rail. This post has now been updated to reflect the correction in the Gazette.
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