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Transit


Behold how the Purple Line corridor is changing

When built, the Purple Line could dramatically improve transit commutes in Montgomery and Prince George's counties. To explore that and other changes the line will bring, researchers created a series of maps including this one of the "commute shed" of each Purple Line station, or how far you can get on transit before and after it's built.


All images from the Purple Line Corridor Coalition.

Two weeks ago, the Purple Line Corridor Coalition organized a workshop called "Beyond the Tracks: Community Development in the Purple Line Corridor" to bring different stakeholders together and talk about ways to prepare for changes along the future light-rail line between Bethesda and New Carrollton, which awaits federal funding and could open in 2020.

The coalition is a product of the National Center for Smart Growth at the University of Maryland, which hosted the workshop. Members of the group include nonprofit organizations, developers, and local governments in Montgomery and Prince George's counties. At the workshop, they looked at examples from cities like Minneapolis and Denver, which recently built light-rail lines.

The 16-mile corridor contains some of the region's richest and poorest communities, in addition to major job centers and Maryland's flagship state university. When it opens in 2020, the Purple Line will help create the walkable, urban places people increasingly want. However, rising property values could potentially displace small businesses and low-income households. To illustrate and explore these issues, the Center for Smart Growth produced a series of awesome maps.

Like the DC area as a whole, the Purple Line corridor is divided from west to east, with more jobs and affluence on the west side, and more low-income households on the east side. Many of the estimated 70,000 people who will ride the Purple Line each day in 2040 will come from communities in eastern Montgomery and Prince George's county to jobs in Bethesda and Silver Spring.

But today, getting between those areas can be difficult and time-consuming, whether by bus or by car. It's no surprise that many commuters along the eastern end of the Purple Line have one-way commutes over an hour.

These maps, and the map above, show the "commute shed" of three Purple Line stations, or how far you can get on transit in an hour. In all three cases, the Purple Line opens up huge swaths of Montgomery, Prince George's and DC to each community. While the Purple Line only travels through a small portion of our region, it adds another link to our existing Metro and bus network, meaning its benefits will go way beyond the neighborhoods it directly serves.

But better access comes with a price, namely rising property values. The revitalization of downtown Silver Spring has resulted in higher home prices in surrounding neighborhoods because of the increased demand to live there. But Silver Spring and Takoma Park still have substantial pockets of poverty, meaning that low-income residents may not be able to afford to stay in the area once the Purple Line opens.

There are two ways to ensure that neighborhoods near the Purple Line remain affordable for both current and future residents. One is to protect the existing supply of subsidized apartments. Many complexes near the Purple Line have price restrictions for low-income households, but they will expire before it's scheduled to open in 2020.

The other is to build more new housing near the Purple Line. New homes are usually expensive, but increasing the supply of housing to meet demand can result in lower or at least stabilized prices. We're starting to see this in downtown Silver Spring, where thousands of apartments have been built in recent years. But Montgomery officials reduced the number of new homes allowed in Chevy Chase Lake and Long Branch due to concerns about changing the character of each neighborhood.

There are a lot of great and interesting communities along the Purple Line. But many of them are dramatically different places than they were even 10 years ago. They'll be different in 10 more years, whether or not the Purple Line is built. We can't preserve these places in stone, but we should try to ensure that the people who enjoy and contribute to these places can stick around in the future.

Transit


With federal approval in hand, the pieces needed to build the Purple Line fall into place

The Federal Transit Administration has just issued a Record of Decision for the Purple Line, basically approving the 16-mile light rail line between Bethesda and New Carrollton. It's one of the last pieces needed to build the line, which is scheduled to break ground next year and open in 2020.


This just got one stop closer to reality. Image from Montgomery County.

Maryland Transit Administration officials made the announcement this morning during a Montgomery County Planning Board meeting about the Purple Line, which Purple Line NOW! and BethesdaNow subsequently tweeted.

The FTA will make a formal announcement next week. The agency's decision means Maryland can start purchasing right-of-way to build the $2.37 billion Purple Line, and makes it eligible for federal funding. President Obama recently included it in his 2015 budget, which Congress will have to approve later this year.

With state funding in place and an ongoing search for a private partner in the works, nearly all of the money needed has been secured. As a sign of how likely the Purple Line is to get built, the Planning Board is meeting today to make detailed recommendations about how it should interact with surrounding neighborhoods, like what materials to use for retaining walls.

Meanwhile, Washington Post columnist Robert McCartney has a column today urging the affluent Town of Chevy Chase, which has been fighting the project for years and recently hired a congressman's brother to lobby on their behalf, to lay down their arms and use their money to make the project better instead.

"Some people have more money than good judgment," he wrote. "The town should end its obstruction of a worthy project. Burning money is unwise even if you have it to spare."

Transit


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.

Transit


Transit projects top Montgomery's priorities list for state transportation funding

This week, the Montgomery County Council and County Executive Ike Leggett sent their transportation priority letter to state officials. Topping the list were funding for Metro's Momentum plan, the Purple Line and Corridor Cities Transitway, and bus rapid transit, though some road projects remain.


A Route 29 bus stuck in morning rush hour. Photo by the author.

The letter, which will help Maryland decide which projects get state funding, expressed a commitment to investing in alternatives to driving. Also included are WMATA's Priority Corridors Network, which will add express bus service to popular Metrobus routes, and funds to continue studying Bus Rapid Transit on routes 29 and 355.

It places high importance on funding WMATA's Momentum plan, which will allow Metro to buy 8-car trains sooner, reduce crowding on the Red Line, and run all trains to Shady Grove and Glenmont during rush hour. Metro asked Maryland, Virginia, and DC for funding this year. Yesterday, the three jurisdictions agreed to a $75 million down payment and to negotiate a multi-year agreement that would cover the plan's entire cost.

The list still includes some interchanges and road widenings. While an earlier proposal included four interchanges along Route 29, Leggett and the council settled on a compromise of two interchanges, at Tech Road and Fairland Road, and made them a lower priority. At over $100 million each, the two interchanges would equal well over half the cost of Bus Rapid Transit from Burtonsville to Silver Spring.

Studies for BRT on Route 29 will begin this year, giving the council an alternative to building the interchanges. It's expected that next year's council will redo the letter, offering another chance to rethink how to address Route 29's transportation needs.

The discussion at yesterday's full council session made it clear that most councilmembers agree that we need transit to address congestion by providing alternatives for people who can't or don't want to drive.

District councilmembers Roger Berliner (Bethesda), Phil Andrews (Rockville-Gaithersburg), Nancy Navarro (Wheaton), and Cherri Branson (Silver Spring), and at-large councilmembers Hans Riemer and George Leventhal all echoed their support for the Purple Line, Corridor Cities Transitway, and the Priority Corridors Network.
At-large councilmember Marc Elrich went further, saying in his ideal world they would build the transit projects first, and then evaluate if the road projects are still necessary.


Existing and projected vehicle miles traveled in Maryland. Image from the State Smart Transportation Initiative.

With annual vehicle miles traveled continuing to fall below projections both nationally and in Maryland, it makes sense to invest in projects that support the demographic shift towards driving less. This letter shows that Montgomery County is moving in the right direction.

Transit


Chevy Chase hires a powerful Congressional chairman's brother to lobby against the Purple Line

In addition to some recent high-profile spins through the revolving door, we now have a new example of ethically questionable influence peddling in Washington: A powerful Congressman's brother working to bring down a transit line in Maryland.


Robert Shuster. Photo from Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney.

Rep. Bill Shuster (R-PA) wields the gavel of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committeea post his father held, with great success, before him. Now Shuster's brother, Robert, has been hired by the town of Chevy Chase, Maryland, to help them oppose the construction of a light-rail line.

The Purple Line concept has been under development since 1989, with the state beginning work in earnest in early 2008. The principal opponent to the line, the Columbia Country Club, has dropped its opposition and promised not to bring any lawsuits as a result of a deal to adjust the route.

The Purple Line has faced countless obstacles and defeated them all. Rep. Shuster's brother now has $20,000 a month of Chevy Chase's taxpayer dollars to try to come up one the transit line can't overcome.

According to the Washington Post, Chevy Chase hired Robert Shuster's law firm last month, so far paying a total of $40,000 for two months. The town council is now deciding whether to move from a month-to-month arrangement to an 18-month contract, still for $20,000 a month.

The Post notes that the firm, Buchanan, Ingersoll & Rooney, lists Robert Shuster first as one of four lawyers on the project.

No worries, though: Shuster won't be lobbying. The Post quotes Mayor Pat Burda as saying she didn't even know about the Shuster connection when she first contacted the law firm, and that the town is focused on the Federal Transit Administration, not Congress. She said it in no uncertain terms: "We're not lobbying Congress."

But the pro-Purple Line Action Committee for Transit has found a Congressional lobbying disclosure form from Shuster's firm that "states explicitly that Shuster and his partners are lobbying the House of Representatives and Senate for the Town of Chevy Chase." The form says Shuster and two others will be lobbying on urban development, transportation, and "government issues."

"I do not and will not lobby my brother," Robert Shuster pledged in a statement to the Post. But whether or not Shuster lobbies his brother may be beside the point. A Shuster calling up a member of Congress is going to get his phone call answered, and "in Washington, that's your first goal," said Purple Line advocate Tracey Johnstone.

But what does Chevy Chase seek to get out of Congress anyway? Maryland is in the market for $900 million in federal aid to round out funding for the Purple Line, but they're looking to get it from a New Starts full-funding grant agreement from the FTA, not Congress.

Undoubtedly the town of Chevy Chase, ably represented by the good people at Buchanan, Ingersoll & Rooney, will petition the FTA to reject the MTA's request for a New Starts grant. Purple Line opponents always find some legit-sounding reason to block it: endangered amphipods (except, oops, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said it's no problem), impact on a nearby trail, the view from a tony golf course clubhouse. They'll certainly come up with a good story to tell the FTA.

But the lobbying disclosure form makes clear that they'll be taking that message to Congress, too. After all, FTA only makes recommendations for New Starts grants. House and Senate appropriations committees make the final decision.

Sure, that's a different committee from the one the other Shuster heads, but "if you think the appropriations committee isn't checking with the chair of T&I about what they're putting in a New Starts grant, you don't know how Congress works," said Joshua Schank of the Eno Center for Transportation.

Earmarks were eliminated in MAP-21, and if that ban continues, there would be no place for an explicit Purple Line funding authorization in the next bill. But there are some possibilities for the next bill to have an impact.

First, Congress could go back to earmarks, though it's unlikely. Second, Congress could make it clear, outside of bill language, that the region is expected to use its urbanized area formula grant money on the Purple Linethough that's a tough demand to make without offering new money. Third, Congress could underfund New Starts altogether, which is entirely possible and even likely, which could hobble the agency's ability to fund the Purple Line. Or, fourth, Congress could slip an amendment into the bill that targets the Purple Linerequiring more studies on endangered amphipods, for example.

Either way, it never hurts to have friends in high places in Washington.

Cross-posted from Streetsblog DC.

Development


Chevy Chase digs in its heels to fight the Purple Line

After almost 30 years, the pieces are finally falling into place to build the Purple Line. But as it decides whether to keep fighting the project, will the Town of Chevy Chase see the writing on the wall?


Protesters at a Purple Line event last year. Photo by dan reed! on Flickr.

This week, the Maryland Transit Administration narrowed down the list of private partners to help build and operate the $2.2 billion, 16-mile light rail line between Bethesda and New Carrollton. But on Wednesday night, Chevy Chase held a public hearing about whether to spend $360,000 on legal representation to keep fighting the Purple Line, which passes through it for a half-mile.

During the hearing, residents of the affluent town of less than 3,000 people debated the merits of continuing to fight a project that even opponents admit is basically a done deal. Matilde Farren compared the Town Council to change-resistant aristocrat Lord Grantham on the TV show "Downton Abbey." "Trying to keep our town the way it was in the '20s is not realistic," she said. "Times change and we must too."

Residents worried about sound barriers, small shrimp

The Federal Transit Administration could approve Maryland's environmental impact study for the Purple Line in a few weeks, making it eligible for federal funding. Once it's approved, the town will have 150 days to file a lawsuit.

Chevy Chase will probably argue that the MTA hasn't done enough to mitigate the Purple Line's impacts on the town. Some trees will have to be cut down on the Purple Line's route along the Capital Crescent Trail, a former freight line that was converted to a trail in the 1980s with the expectation that transit would follow. And some of the 30 or so houses that back to the trail might have to get sound barriers or retaining walls.

Meanwhile, parents are concerned about losing an at-grade crossing at Lynn Drive that students use to walk to Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, though the town's been unwilling to consider an underpass there. And environmentalists have taken up the fight for a small, endangered shrimp-like creature in Rock Creek Park that's actually never been seen near the Purple Line route.

Town would rather hire lawyers than talk to MTA

It's not like the MTA isn't willing to listen. There have been meetings and public hearings about the Purple Line and its earlier iteration under Governor Bob Ehrlich, the Bi-County Transitway, for over a decade. Even the Columbia Country Club, which straddles the trail and has historically been the Purple Line's biggest opponent, agreed last year to lay down their guns and work with them.

MTA officials have been communicating with Chevy Chase's Mitigation Advisory Committee since 2009. But town officials haven't spoken to the MTA in months.

Instead, the town has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in recent years to fight the project, including over $430,000 to consultant Sam Schwartz to study alternatives to routing the Purple Line through Chevy Chase and a subsequent review of the state's plans. More recently, it hired law firm Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney in December and will decide on a longer-term arrangement next month.

At the hearing, some residents were prepared to spend more. Doug Kammerer, a meteorologist for NBC4 whose house backs to the trail, compared not hiring a lawyer this time to "entering a fight without a boxer."

A "self-centered" town

Chevy Chase previously considered suing the MTA to block the project in 2009 before deciding not to, which came up multiple times during the hearing. "4 years ago we fought this battle," said Jacob Bardin. "We lost something in those years. If we continue this antagonistic view we'll lose more." Bardin was one of fourteen citizens who wrote an open letter to local officials in 2008 decrying the town council's "self-centered" behavior.

The town seems to be digging in its heels. Recently-elected councilman John Bickerman vowed to "find a way to defeat" the Purple Line and its supporters, and this last-ditch effort appears to be his attempt to do so.

But more residents on both sides of the issue are recognizing how bad this fight makes Chevy Chase look. Many speakers at the hearing noted that this effort wasn't about killing the Purple Line, but finding the best solution for their town.

"To say we are going to take a step [hiring a lawyer] does not mean we're going to oppose the Purple Line," testified Rolf Sinclair. "We do run the risk for a lot of efforts to squash our attempts at this...people are opposing something that will benefit the working people of PG [County]."

Transit


Companies vie to build and operate Purple Line

Six private consortia have expressed interest in building and operating the $2.2 billion Purple Line in partnership with the Maryland Transit Administration. They bring experience from similar deals around the world, including a successful project in Denver.


Rendering from the Maryland Transit Administration.

The Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) has received responses from six private consortia who want to bid on the planned light-rail line between Bethesda and New Carrollton in a public-private partnership (P3), which the state approved in August.

"The six responses, from local, national, and worldwide firms, clearly demonstrate leaders in the P3 industry have strong interest in delivering this long-awaited project," said Maryland transportation secretary James Smith in a statement. The consortia include a who's-who of investors and operators active in the P3 space, including the investors in the only comparable transit concession in the United States, the Eagle P3 in Denver.

The interested teams are: M-PG Connect (Plenary Group and Bechtel Development), Maryland Purple Line Partners (Vinci Concession, Walsh Investors, InfraRed Capital Partners, Alstom, and Keolis), Maryland Transit Connectors (John Laing Investments, Kiewit Development, and Edgemoor Infrastructure & Real Estate), Purple Line Development Partners (CSCEC and United Labor Life Insurance), Purple Line Transit Partners (Meridiam Infrastructure, Fluor, and Star America Fund) and Purple Plus Alliance (Macquarie Capital and Skanska Infrastructure Development).

Macquarie and Fluor's Denver Transit Partners was the winning bidder of the Eagle P3, the only design-build-finance-operate-maintain (DBFOM) transit concession that has successfully closed in the US. John Laing and Uberior bought Macquarie's stake in the project when its financing closed in August 2010.

Under a DBFOM concession, a private consortium takes responsibility for the design, construction, financing, operations, and maintenance of a project within the parameters of the contract with the grantor, which in this case is the state of Maryland. The deal structure also places the majority of the design, construction, and operational risks on the private sector.

The Eagle P3 is a good comparison for Maryland's Purple Line. In addition to being the country's only DBFOM transit concession, it also uses availability payments, which are guaranteed payments to the concessionaire from the grantor.

It also involves an isolated rail system that is separate from Denver's existing light rail. This separation is important in terms of measuring the operational performance since there aren't any other services to affect it. This allows the grantor to accurately reimburse the private concessionaire in the future.

The Purple Line light rail will stretch 16 miles from Bethesda to New Carrollton through Montgomery and Prince George's counties. Operationally separate from the MTA's other transit lines, the concession also includes a maintenance facility and rolling stock.

The Eagle P3 includes three commuter rail lines that will run more than 35 miles from Denver Union Station to Denver International Airport, the suburb of Westminster and the suburb of Wheat Ridge when they open in 2016. It also includes a commuter rail maintenance facility and Hyundai Rotem rolling stock.

Fluor, John Laing, and Macquarie will undoubtedly be able to bring best practices to Maryland from their experience in Denver, some of which could help reduce costs and possibly speed up the construction schedule.

Other interested firms also have transit concession experience outside the US. Keolis and Plenary are investors in the eight-mile Gold Coast light rail concession in Australia, and Vinci is an investor in multiple light rail concessions in Europe.

Meridiam and Skanska bring experience from other DBFOM concessions in the US to the table. Meridian built a courthouse in Long Beach, California, while Skanska worked on the Midtown and Downtown Tunnels in Virginia's Hampton Roads area.

The next steps for Maryland include evaluating the responses that the six consortia submitted for the Purple Line P3 and selecting a shortlist of qualified teams who will move on to the actual bidding phase. Robert Smith, administrator of the MTA, says that they plan to shortlist up to four consortia.

The MTA plans to announce the shortlist in January 2014 with proposals due in the early summer, the agency says. It expects to pick a preferred bidder by either the end of 2014 or early 2015.

Construction on the Purple Line could begin as early as the second quarter of 2015, subject to approval of the concession contract by the Maryland Board of Public Works and funds from the federal government to help finance the project.

Maryland is seeking up to $1.05 billion in a New Starts grant from the US Federal Transit Administration and has submitted a letter of interest for a TIFIA loan from the US Department of Transportation. The state plans to contribute at least $711 million and expects between $400 million and $900 million in funds from the private sector.

While there aren't many transit projects built through P3s in the United States, if successful, the Purple Line could set an example for the rest of the country.

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