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UMD fights phantom fences from Purple Line

The University of Maryland and the Maryland Transit Administration remain at odds over the Purple Line. One argument that UMD loves to trot out is that the light rail line will turn campus into a maze of tall fences.

Campus Drive already has fences.

While MTA fiercely denies that they are planning to install fences, the University of Maryland claims evidence to the contrary. Administrators cite the University of Minnesota, where a light rail line connecting Minneapolis and Saint Paul is under construction. Staffers at UMD claim that the light rail line there caused 42-inch-high fences to be erected to keep students off the tracks.

There are several problems with this logic, but the most important is that the fences pre-date the light rail line. In fact, they are being removed as part of the project.

The proposed LRT is shown in green, current fencing in red, the transit/ped mall in yellow.
View larger image.

The University of Minnesota is located along the banks of the Mississippi River, close to downtown Minneapolis. Running east-west across campus is Washington Avenue. It's a major arterial roadway. In fact, leaving downtown Minneapolis it is a full-fledged freeway. It is a depressed, controlled access highway across the "West Bank" part of campus and on part of the "East Bank" campus. East of Church Street, Washington Avenue becomes a surface street with sidewalks and cross traffic.

But on the freeway section of Washington Avenue, the east and westbound lanes are divided by a concrete median barrier topped by 42-inch high iron fences. Those fences have been there for some time. Light rail construction just started at the University of Minnesota this month, so the causation argument fails.

Photo by jby1982 on Flickr.

This photo looks east toward the intersection of Church and Washington. Note how the fence ends just beyond the pedestrian overpass. That's where the freeway becomes a street.

Looking west (from the other side of the street), you can see the Washington Avenue freeway enter the bridge over the Mississippi River. Also note the lack of sidewalks. This is not a pedestrian friendly campus center, it's a freeway shoulder.

Photo by Mulad on Flickr.

The Central Corridor Light Rail will improve access between the University of Minnesota and both Minneapolis and Saint Paul. As a part of the construction, Washington Avenue will be converted to a transit and pedestrian mall. This will result in wider sidewalks, better access to transit, and a less obtrusive barrier to pedestrians. The light rail project will be removing the fences that currently "divide" campus.

Since UMD brings this up so often, that's worth repeating. Right now a freeway median with fences divides the campus. With light rail, the freeway will be closed and the fences removed.

Another objection that UMD brings to the table quite often is the idea that traffic signals will be needed to control the flow of pedestrians. They again cite the University of Minnesota. UMD says that the Minnesota light rail is adding pedestrian signals where currently there are none. And they're right. Currently, there are traffic signals at each intersection with Washington Avenue from Church Street to Walnut Street. All of those signals will remain, because those streets will cross the transit/ped mall. In addition, the LRT line will add two mid-block pedestrian crosswalks with signals where they currently don't exist.

So, while the University of Maryland uses the fact that new signals are being installed at the University of Minnesota as a negative side of light rail, in reality, these signals are going to increase pedestrian connectivity on campus because they will allow pedestrians to cross where they currently cannot.

All of this information is readily available in the Final Environmental Impact Statement for the Central Corridor LRT project. However, just to be sure that I didn't misread the document, I contacted the agency building the Central Corridor.

I received a prompt response from Metro Council spokeswoman Laura Baenen confirming two things. The Central Corridor will indeed be removing the fences and will not be putting up new ones. And the project will also add two new signalized pedestrian crossings where they currently do not exist.

But even if these two things were not the case, it would not be appropriate for the University of Maryland to cite fences at the University of Minnesota to make their case. If the Maryland Transit Administration says they're not installing fences or traffic signals, then the point is moot. Light rail projects are designed differently in different areas. Just because one has fences in one place, it doesn't mean that every other light rail project will have fences in every place.

Light rail projects co-exist peacefully with pedestrians throughout the United States and around the globe. Fences are not necessary to protect the right-of-way, and neither of the Universities mentioned in this article are going to be home to projects with fences.

Besides, Campus Drive already has fences to keep students off of Campus Drive. Who installed those? Not MTA: The University of Maryland.

Cross-posted at Rethink College Park.

Matt Johnson has lived in the Washington area since 2007. He has a Master's in Planning from the University of Maryland and a BS in Public Policy from Georgia Tech. He lives in Greenbelt. Hes a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners. He is a contract employee of the Montgomery County Department of Transportation. His views are his own and do not represent those of his employer. 


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As someone who spent time at the Univeristy of MN before light rail, I can attest to the fact that fences do indeed predate light rail, although I did spend most of my time on the West Bank Campus where the professional schools are located.

by Kate on May 28, 2010 12:16 pm • linkreport

The light rail and streetcar system in Portland does not have fences. Fences are only required for heavy rail.

But MTA does have a policy that a bike trail has to be separated by a fence from the light rail line. I am not sure if this is an FTA policy.

by Richard Layman on May 28, 2010 12:23 pm • linkreport

Can you please clarify that it is the University of Maryland's administration that opposes the Purple Line? I believe that university's students, faculty, and staff are fully behind the proposed line and shouldn't be impugned as being complacent with the stance made by the campus's administrators.

by Adam L on May 28, 2010 12:27 pm • linkreport

Great summary of the facts, Matt.

Richard, I don't think fences would be a matter of mode, but rather vehicle speed. If the vehicles are operating at regular street speeds, then fences shouldn't be necessary - however, if they get up to much higher speeds (freeway speeds), then they would be warranted - regardless of if we're talking about cars, LRVs, or Streetcars.

by Alex B. on May 28, 2010 12:46 pm • linkreport

@Alex B.
MTA has stated that Purple Line trains will be limited to 15 mph while on the UM Campus.

by Matt Johnson on May 28, 2010 12:47 pm • linkreport

Actually, there are a few extant examples of heavy rail operating on streets without fences!

More locally, the southern extension of the Northeast Corridor runs through Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, VA. You probably wouldn't want to jump across the tracks, fences.

by andrew on May 28, 2010 12:50 pm • linkreport

Those are not examples of heavy rail. Those are examples of conventional rail.

In the case of the South Shore Line, that line started out as an interurban, which is a hybrid between light rail and commuter rail and intercity rail.

Part of the problem with nomenclature, by the way, is that the British call intercity and commuter trains "heavy rail." We do not.

by Matt Johnson on May 28, 2010 12:55 pm • linkreport

So here's a question. If the UMD leadership is lying through their teeth about the purple line, why aren't students writing pieces like this. Why are they relying on GGW to point out the obvious lies of their administration?

Come on Terps! Get off your ass and get something done!

by Jasper on May 28, 2010 1:10 pm • linkreport


I believe Matt Johnson is a recent alum, and this piece was cross-posted at Re-Think College Park, a blog with a decidedly student/University focus.

by Alex B. on May 28, 2010 1:19 pm • linkreport

@Jasper, Alex B.
I am a recent graduate (Master's) of UMD, yes. And I was writing about this stuff when I was a student. Alas, we can't stay young(ish) forever.

by Matt Johnson on May 28, 2010 1:21 pm • linkreport


My apologies. I lived in the UK for a few years, and must have picked up that terminology over there.

by andrew on May 28, 2010 1:35 pm • linkreport

Wow, that South Shore line photo is crazy. If they can operate that safely, then the Purple Line doesn't need a fence.

(I'm like Andrew in thinking of "heavy rail" as encapsulating "conventional rail". Specifically I would have called that a heavy rail line operating as an interurban. But I guess I'm wrong.)

by Reid on May 28, 2010 1:46 pm • linkreport

My recent post about this matter has links in it to the (Undergraduate) Student Government Association's explicit re-endorsement of the Purple Line on Campus Drive. They aren't silent about the issue. The Graduate Student Government has also taken similar positions. The SGA was also responsible for organizing the recent hearings on the matter and setting up meetings between the UMD administration and officials from the City of College Park, Prince George's County, WMATA, and Montgomery County (the bus routes that run on Campus Drive also run in Montgomery County so our WMATA subsidies would be affected).

We don't have any undergraduate contributors to GGW, just UMD alum contributors like Matt, Dan, and I. That makes sense because when you're an undergrad, you don't really keep up with Greater (Greater) Washington, just campus issues. It's a bubble like any university. There are regular letters and op-eds in the Diamondback in favor of the Purple Line. That was also the case back when I was an undergrad between 1999 and 2003.

They aren't relying on us to get things done. We choose to report on the issues for a broader regional audience because the public probably wouldn't hear much about this stuff without us. At the risk of sounding boastful, you'll notice that the coverage of the issue in the Post came after my original piece. You'll also notice that the coverage of this issue has been more extensive here than in the Post. Rethink College Park is another excellent, timely source on this matter. As is The Diamondback.

by Cavan on May 28, 2010 1:59 pm • linkreport

Also not to be boastful, but the Purple Line barely existed as an issue on campus before Rethink College Park started covering it (and the Diamondback by proxy). In 2007 we provided technical assistance to student groups who jointly wrote a letter (I wrote it) to Dr. Mote and CCed dozens of local politicos. I was an undergrad at the time....

RTCP has helped get 3 articles in the Washington Post over the years and written 85 posts and counting. I called and got them on the case for the most recent story.

by David Daddio on May 28, 2010 2:47 pm • linkreport

I need to echo a salient point the author of this piece made.

Each project is unique, in and of itself. What happens at Minn doesn't necessarily mean that it will happen at MD.

What these "arguments" that the university officials are making seem like an apologists feebly inept attempt at stopping all forms of rail from making their way onto the campus. I fail to see how this project will detract from the campus, because the more accessible it is by pedestrians, the more that the average person will generally (and naturally, I might add) want to see the campus' security increase (or, at least have an increased sense that they are secure on the campus).

Another incompetent and incredible argument often cited is the frequency of crime will increase. Crime frequency usually increases in areas where a lack of investments to the area (divestment, more correctly) occur. This fundamental lack of knowledge about area investments leads some regional leaders (and you know to where I am referring) to think that a flurry of social action programs will help close that fundamental gap, without realizing that failing to correctly address the main problem leads to more of the same results (Albert Einstein said that this thought process defines 'insanity')

Yes, I know that part of the argument I made wasn't completely related to the Purple Line, but I needed some place to vent. E O R. Now that that's out of my system, my point about the lack of legitimate arguments, supported by salient and cogent facts is a pathetic and meek attempt to forestall a noble goal. Such negativity from the Purple Line's opponents needs to be vigorously met with enthusiasm and cheer, no matter how vitriolic the arguments get.

Continue to fight the good fight. In the end, noble deeds outdo false pretenses. Plus, a hard earned victory will make the fight for thr Purple Line that much more worthwhile.

I propose we get Chris Van Hollen and Donna Edwards involved. Should we e-mail them or call to let them know that UMD officials are acting ike living impediments, neglecting that this project is much greater than their shallow, narrow-minded perspectives?

by C. R. on May 28, 2010 2:53 pm • linkreport

Alex B. -- u r right but by definition LRVs and streetcars don't reach the speeds of heavy rail. (which is why each mode has different engineering requirements for roadbeds). Heavy rail has grade separation and protection requirements mandated by the FTA, just as railroads do as mandated by the FRA.

Andrew -- it is true that railroads aren't required to have fully separated grade. The NE corridor has many stretches where there is no fencing, including in the areas of Halethorpe and Middle River in Baltimore County. The Halethorpe station is somewhat scary when you are waiting (with distance from the tracks, sure) and the Amtrak trains barrel through at full speed.

Of course this is an issue because while the wind against the train makes noise, electric trains are relatively quiet and people get killed when they walk across the tracks and aren't paying attention.

by Richard Layman on May 28, 2010 2:57 pm • linkreport

Matt -- you should contact the PG editions of the Gazette and see if they'll run your piece as an op-ed.

by Richard Layman on May 28, 2010 2:58 pm • linkreport


No, LRVs don't get going that fast, but they can and do reach speeds of around 50 mph, speeds at which a fence could easily be justified depending on the context.

As Matt notes in his piece, the reason for the fence at the University of Minnesota is because the portion of roadway in question is essentially a grade-separated freeway. The fence is there because a) vehicles travel fast though there, and b) to ensure pedestrians do not cross at grade, i.e. to keep the grade separation intact.

The LRT plans for Minnesota will change all that. The Washington Ave segment, much like Campus Drive in College Park, would become a transit mall. The LRT would still share the freeway-esque road with traffic on the West Bank, but that's for purposes of grade separation (and it's a grade separation that already exists, this is not a condition that the LRT creates). LRT will improve the pedestrian realm in Minneapolis, not degrade it.

by Alex B. on May 28, 2010 3:12 pm • linkreport

Give UMD a deadline and if something isnt decided on by that date the lightrail is rerouted around there campus.

This crap has taken to damn long do get a plan for the campus.

by kk on May 28, 2010 3:40 pm • linkreport

kk, if the Purple Line is rerouted around campus, it will fail cost, travel time, and ridership metrics for FTA funding. As Matt said in the piece, blocking the Campus Drive is a move to kill the whole project from Bethesda to New Carollton. That's the most cynical part of the whole storm that the administration is trying to unleash.

by Cavan on May 28, 2010 4:02 pm • linkreport

If you want to give UMD a deadline, then you do it the same way Minnesota's Met Council did - they negotiated with the University, and after they stalled, they threatened to take the easements they needed via eminent domain. That, as it turns out, was a powerful negotiating tactic.

by Alex B. on May 28, 2010 4:05 pm • linkreport

I'm not exactly sure how a state can eminent domain it's own land.... please enlighten us.

by David Daddio on May 28, 2010 4:34 pm • linkreport

Also, rerouting the Purple Line around campus is exactly what UMD wants. That's what they suggested in the first place.

by David Alpert on May 28, 2010 4:36 pm • linkreport

@David Daddio,

I can't speak to the specifics of the Maryland case, but in the Minnesota case, the land was indeed owned by the University, and the agency in charge (the Metropolitan Council) needed easements for construction and later operation. Governments can use eminent domain against other governments, but they usually work out some amicable agreement, land swap, etc.

It's rare that it has to come to that, and in Minnesota, it did not. But before that happened, you had two public bodies bickering with each other in the news. It was not pretty.

The point, however, is that if the MTA wants to just go ahead and take the land for transit, they can probably do it. UMD's choice then becomes one of either negotiating with MTA to get the best outcome, or getting compensated in court.

by Alex B. on May 28, 2010 4:55 pm • linkreport

"Looking west (from the other side of the street), you can see the Washington Avenue freeway enter the bridge over the Mississippi River. Also note the lack of sidewalks. This is not a pedestrian friendly campus center, it's a freeway shoulder."

Just a tiny point: while it certainly looks forbidding from the angle of this photo, and while the presence of the Washington Avenue near-freeway indeed does seem antithetical to pedestrian considerations, note that the bridge over the Mississippi (shown in the photo) is a double-decker, with a large partly enclosed (for winter winds) pedestrian deck on top of the roaring freeway. That's how UM connects the two major parts of its campus, separate by the river gorge. The pedestrian deck continues on the east bank alongside one of the campus buildings there, with entry points -- and the pedestrian deck is definitely used. This is a city that has second-floor "skyways" connecting many downtown buildings, after all, another winter-weather accommodation. So my point is: There is decent pedestrian planning here, with separation of foot and vehicle traffic for both safety and aesthetics. It's actually an example of somewhat decent design, considering that the west bank end of Washington Avenue connects to I-35W with real freeway ramps. This is the out-of-towner's automotive entry point to the east bank campus.

It would be well worth Purple Line boosters' while to research the ongoing saga between UM and the Metro Council in Minneapolis-St. Paul. When the Central Corridor project was first funded for exploration a few years back, the U trotted out all kinds of arguments for why the line should not follow the shortest distance, right through the congested heart of its campus. I believe ultimately they lost the battle, but they were for awhile holding up a great deal and jeopardizing the federal funding process by insisting on other studies that imposed on other landholders besides the state-funded school. I'm sure there are plenty of pro-LRT blogs out there in the Twin Cities that could be mined for personal connections to people who heard the arguments then. I am almost certain that UMD officials have swapped notes with UMinnesota to see whether they can't prevail in the Purple Line fight.

by Graham S on May 28, 2010 4:56 pm • linkreport

Meant to include this link to a recent Metro Council press release regarding agreements with UM.

by Graham S on May 28, 2010 4:58 pm • linkreport

@alex b: what i'm saying is that MTA and UMD are both the Maryland State government. the state can't eminent domain itself. The UMinn situation sounds like a regional authority vs. a state entity. That's a totally different situation.

by David Daddio on May 28, 2010 5:00 pm • linkreport

Minnesota's Met Council is indeed a regional body, but it is a creature of the state. The State is the one who enables it to exist, the Chair and all the members are appointed by the Governor of Minnesota. It is a much stronger body than just a run of the mill council of governments, and it has some real teeth at its disposal when it comes to planning and regional governance - these tools have seldom been used since the Council is appointed by the Governor and often doesn't wish to upset the applecart, but the tools are there. It is essentially an arm of the State, just as Maryland DOT is.

Like I said, I don't know the specifics of Maryland's laws on eminent domain, but there's no categorical reason that a state-level government cannot take land for a public purpose from another state level entity. If Maryland law precludes this, I'll stand corrected - but many states do allow for narrowly tailored condemnations of public lands for certain easements of use.

by Alex B. on May 28, 2010 5:18 pm • linkreport

Well, the meeting last Monday Night was more so about alignment and an overall impasse at an attempt to reconcile the alignment - Campus or Preinkert.

This sub-battle within a battle may be the main hinge of this battle. Should UMD administration officials finally relent, they may attempt to throw their weight behind an alignment that is unpopular, forcing the whole argument right back to square one: not out of inexorability, but this time being portrayed as a quarrelsome impediment, which would seem like a procedural move used to forestall a controversial bill from being voted upon.

I still think we need to hold some educational sessions for the general public with (CSG volunteers) decorative signs and such for attractiveness, then have a lot of graphics to keep peoples' attention. (I'm just thinking what would get me to sit in on one of these meetings, then what would get me to stay). An obligatorily mandatory mention would include how it can be beneficial not just to the campus, but also to the surrounding area.

Enough wild tangentials and theoreticals for tonight. Sharp minds = high productivity levels. Let's keep up the good fight.

by C. R. on May 28, 2010 7:46 pm • linkreport

An additional factor for UMinnesota and the Met Council is that the governor during Central Corridor planning has been Republican Tim Pawlenty, and the line serves the strongly Democratic Twin Cities. Add to that the no-earmarks pledge Pawlenty made in 2008 -- at the height of transit earmarks season -- and then fold in the U's objections to the alignment, and you start to get a sense of the complexities of what on paper might look like a simple matter of one regional body as an arm of the state negotiating with another state body, the U.

by Graham S on May 29, 2010 9:26 am • linkreport

@ Matt, Cavan: Apologies for underestimating you all.

by Jasper on May 29, 2010 7:54 pm • linkreport

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