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Transit


"Ludicrous" ruling could delay or scuttle the Purple Line

Just four days before Maryland was set to sign a key agreement to build the Purple Line, a federal judge blocked the project, saying declining Metro ridership requires re-studying all of the projections for the light rail line from Bethesda to New Carrollton (which will not be built or operated by WMATA).


This would destroy the environment, right? Image from the State of Maryland. (Governor Hogan has cut the grass tracks and many trees from the plan to save money, in an ironic turn for Purple Line opponents who supported him.)

The decision, from US District Court judge Richard Leon, says that the federal government "arbitrarily and capriciously" violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) by deeming it unnecessary to do another, supplemental Environmental Impact Statement.

Saving the environment, or protecting an exclusive enclave?

The EIS is the way federal law ensures that public works don't harm the environment, or at the very least, that the government analyze their environmental effect. It's an important way to be sure the environment isn't ignored (and that low-income areas don't bear all the brunt of environmental harm), but it's been widely misused as a way for wealthy communities with lots of legal resources to block projects.

Nobody seriously believes that saving the environment is the goal of the wealthy plaintiffs, most of whom are from the Town of Chevy Chase and who have been fighting the project in the courts and in the political sphere for many years. The Purple Line will run along the edge of the town, in an old railroad right-of-way that is now the unpaved Georgetown Branch Trail and will be part of a forthcoming Capital Crescent Trail extension.

The trail will remain, next to the Purple Line, but in a less forested setting. It will, however, finally connect to Silver Spring, making it usable for far more Montgomery County residents than today. That's not a boon to the few wealthy homeowners who have monopolized this transportation-dedicated land for their own semi-private use.

They have, however, repeatedly cast about for environmental excuses to block the project. For a while, that was the Hays Spring Amphipod, an endangered species of tiny, sightless crustacean found only in Rock Creek in the District. Chevy Chase opponents paid a researcher to try to find evidence of the amphipod near the Purple Line's proposed route in hopes that would stymie the line, but to no avail.

Now, they seem to have hit on an argument that worked at least with one judge: that Metro's woes mean the Purple Line, which will connect four branches of the Metro, won't get as many riders. The EIS uses ridership projections to justify the line, including why it should be light rail as opposed to the "bus rapid transit" that Town of Chevy Chase opponents have pushed for (since a bus wouldn't go through their town). About a quarter of the Purple Line's riders are expected to transfer to or from Metro.


Image by Peter Dovak and David Alpert.

Metro is suffering. That doesn't make the Purple Line a bad idea.

Metro ridership has been declining for the last few years thanks in large part to the system's maintenance, safety, and reliability problems. This, the Purple Line opponents argue, calls into question the calculations in the EIS. Leon bought that argument.

The federal government said that Metro ridership isn't sufficiently connected to the Purple Line. Metro won't operate the Purple Line and it uses different technology (light rail versus heavy rail), so there's no reason to believe the Purple Line would have similar maintenance problems. But Leon said Metro's dropping ridership still counts as a "substantial change[] in the proposed action that [is] relevant to environmental concerns" and that dismissing the issue is "arbitrary and capricious" on the agency's part.

This is, as AU Law professor Tony Varona put it, "absurd." Once could as easily, and perhaps more credibly, argue that Metro's struggles will get more people riding the Purple Line as an alternative to Metrorail.

Regardless, the judge is impermissibly substituting his own judgment for experts' when he decided that Metro missteps create a "substantial change." Ben Ross said, "Metro's current problems will have absolutely no impact on a forecast of 2040 ridership made by FTA-approved models. FTA regulations require that the models must be based on COG demographics and the transportation network in the [Constrained Long-Range Plan]." The FTA also argued that Metro should have its problems under control by 2022, and even if the judge thinks otherwise from what he hears at cocktail parties and in the media, that's not a basis for a legal decision.

Finally, even if ridership will drop, the Purple Line will not harm the environment. Quite the contrary, it will move many people from cars to a more efficient, lower-polluting mode of travel, and likely reduce congestion as well. There's no serious argument that this ridership change could harm the environment, and protecting the environment is the purpose of NEPA.

Transit gets held to an unreasonable standard

Sadly, too often, road projects sail through NEPA while transit has to repeatedly justify its value. Some of this is because people used to believe new road projects relieved traffic, and people driving faster pollute less. This is false; instead, new highway capacity induces some driving demand, increasing the total amount of driving and thus pollution.

That hasn't stopped people from (mis)using NEPA and other laws, like California's even tougher CEQA, to block anything that inconveniences drivers. In San Francisco, a judge held up the city's bike plan for four years because bike foes argued that lanes would add to traffic and thus pollution; they similarly tried to stop the city from charging at parking meters on Sundays under a similar chain of reasoning.

Maryland will appeal the ruling, and hopefully the DC Circuit will quickly reverse Judge Leon's ridiculous ruling. The delay will surely cost money; if it's enough to derail the line is yet to be seen, though certainly what the plaintiffs hope.

If the appeals court doesn't smack Leon down rapidly, it seems someone could sue in DC District Court to overturn every single EIS for a road anywhere. After all, it's not just Metro whose ridership projections have fallen; the government has over-estimated the amount of driving nationwide for at least a decade.


Image from Transportation For America.

While flat VMT does counsel against adding or widening highways, it wouldn't mean Leon ought to block every road on this basis. It'd be interesting to see what he'd do if someone tried, though.

Transit


The Purple Line will have America's longest railcars

According to the latest plans for Maryland's Purple Line, it will have the longest transit railcars in America. Each train will have a single 136-foot-long five-segment railcar. They'll practically be open-gangway trains.


A Purple Line railcar compared to Metro and DC Streetcar. Image by the author.

Purple Line trains will be Urbos model trams, built by Spanish company CAF. Urbos trams are modular; you can make them as long or as short as you want. These will be unusually long ones.

At 136 feet long, they'll be 2 feet longer than the closest US competitor: Austin Metrorail's 134 foot cars. But Austin's cars are DMUs, a sort of commuter rail / light rail hybrid, built for longer distance and fewer stops compared to the Purple Line.

The next biggest US light rail cars are Dallas' 124 foot cars.


Dallas light rail car. 12 feet shorter than the Purple Line's cars. Photo by Matt' Johnson on Flickr.

Longer is better

Having one long railcar rather than multiple short ones has a lot of advantages. There's less wasted space between cars, less expense per rider, and passengers can move back and forth inside the train to find the least crowded spot. Overall, having one long open interior increases the capacity of a train by about 10%, and it costs less.

The downside is you can't pull individual cars out of service if something goes wrong. It's all or nothing. But as long as everything works, long railcars are great.

Since the Purple Line will be operated by a private company that faces penalties if it doesn't meet service requirements, the onus is on them to keep trains in service.


An open interior train on the Paris Metro. Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

In transit jargon, these open interior trains are called "open gangway," and almost everyone else in the world uses them, except the United States. For the Purple Line to move in that direction makes it a national model.

Using these long trains was one of the changes project officials made in response to Maryland Governor Hogan's demands to reduce the Purple Line's costs. One long railcar rather than two short ones coupled into a train saves money and keeps train capacity high enough to work.

Hogan's other changes made the Purple Line a lot worse. They reduced train frequency, eliminated the direct transfer to Metro at Silver Spring, and reduced the electrical power of the line, limiting its capacity. But the move to longer railcars with open interiors may be a silver lining.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Transit


To save money, Silver Spring's Purple Line station will be farther from the Metro

The winning bidders for the Purple Line project, Purple Line Transit Partners, proposed a few changes that would save the state of Maryland money. One of those changes is to relocate the Silver Spring Purple Line platforms farther away from the Metro.


Concept sketch for the original station location. Image from MTA.

In the original plan, the Purple Line platform was going to be in a a new elevated structure between the existing Silver Spring Metro station and the new Silver Spring Transit Center. The new plan moves the Purple Line platform to the other side of the transit center, closer to the intersection of Colesville Road and Wayne Avenue.


Plan of the new Purple Line station design. Image from PLTP.

This design means that people going between the Purple Line and the Red Line will have a longer walk. However, the new platform will now be level with the top floor of the transit center, giving people a shorter walk to buses, taxis, and the kiss-and-ride. It's also slightly closer to the heart of downtown Silver Spring.

Moving the Purple Line station also consumes a lot of land next to the transit center that was originally set aside for development, though those plans have since fallen through. But the change makes it unnecessary to demolish one building, 1110 Bonifant Street, which the original plan required.

This design includes a large bridge over Colesville Road. As planned all along, the Purple Line will rise over the existing Red Line tracks, the Silver Spring Transit Center, and the large hill behind the transit center, before coming down to ground level near the intersection of Bonifant Street and Ramsey Avenue. At some places, the tracks will be over 60 feet high.


Proposed Purple Line vehicle interior. Image from PLTP.

This plan is part of a large report PLTP submitted to Governor Hogan, which includes drawings, maps, and even renderings of potential Purple Line vehicles. In the coming months, the state will work with PLTP to create a final design for the Purple Line. Construction is scheduled to start later this year and the line could open in 2022.

Transit


Maryland has named a firm to build and run the Purple Line

After more than a year of uncertainty and delay, Maryland has selected a firm to build and operate the Purple Line. With Purple Line Transit Partners in place to run the 16-mile line, the project is ready to move forward.


A rendering of the Purple Line. Image from Montgomery County.

After Marylanders elected Governor Larry Hogan in November 2014, it wasn't clear whether the long-planned light-rail line would even happen. But following a prolonged public show of support, Hogan announced that the Purple Line would get built if Montgomery and Prince George's Counties committed more funds and trains ran less frequently.

Four teams submitted bids in December, and Maryland selected Purple Line Transit Partners. Some have questioned the bidder's plan to purchase railcars from a company that made some of Metro's least reliable cars and has been plagued with delays in other cities.

Update: After a series of state and federal approvals, construction should start late this year for a planned opening date in spring 2022.

Transit


Larry Hogan couldn't have canceled the Red Line so easily if a new bill had been law

In Maryland, the governor has a lot of unilateral authority to kill or approve transportation projects, and Larry Hogan hasn't been slow to wield it. But Maryland legislators are working to pass a law that'd make it harder to cancel projects that'd benefit the community at large.


Students supporting the Baltimore Red Line, a project that Maryland governor Larry Hogan cancelled. Photo by Maryland GovPics on Flickr.

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan campaigned on redirecting more money from transit to roads. And when he came in, he started doing just that, removing large amounts of state aid from the Purple Line and totally killing Baltimore's plan for a light rail system.

Last Tuesday, Maryland lawmakers unveiled a slew of bills aimed at bringing balance back to the transportation budget. One, called the Open Transportation Decision Investment Act (SB908/HB1013), could change the way Maryland funds transportation projects.

This particular law would establish a scoring system that considered transportation projects in the context of measures like environmental stewardship, community vitality, economic prosperity, and equitable access to transportation. If a Governor decided to fund a project that ranked low over one that ranked high, he or she would have to provide an official explanation.

It's been hard to stop Hogan from going after transit projects

In Larry Hogan's first year, state construction aid for the Purple Line went from $700 million to $168 million, and both Montgomery County and Prince George's County had to cough up more money to keep it alive. Highways went from making up 45% of the transportation budget to 57%.

Hogan is now using the Maryland Transportation Trust Fund to build highways and support sprawl, the exact opposite of what the fund was intended to do.

Regarding the Baltimore Red Line, Hogan called the project a "wasteful boondoggle." Killing it, however, was a major blow to Baltimore leaders and business interests. Research pointed toward the line having huge economic benefits, with 15,000 jobs coming from project construction alone.

Cancelling the Red Line is an even bigger blow to Baltimore when you consider sprawl is a major economic drain on the city's economy.


Baltimore's cancelled Red Line. Image from the Maryland Transit Administration.

Where did the savings killing the Red Line go? You guessed it: roads.

Of $2 billion dollars in road projects($1.35 billion of it new), most went to sprawl-inducing development like $160 million dollars to widen Route 404 on the Eastern Shore and $90 million to realign a road in Garrett County.

This bill could keep officials like Hogan in check

While Hogan's spokesperson called SB908/HB1013 a "power grab," Virginia enacted a similar bill with bi-partisan support.

So is this really a partisan issue? No. What this bill does is prevent killing or approving projects arbitrarily. It makes it so that merit, not ideology, is what decides whether projects move forward.

Hopefully with more transparency, pro-sprawl governors like Larry Hogan will have to explain to taxpayers why they are spending millions of dollars on projects that just do not add up.

If you're a Maryland resident who supports the Open Transportation Investment Act, you can contact your legislator via 1,000 Friends of Maryland.

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