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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.

Transit


2015's greatest hits: Will the Purple Line appear on the Metro map?

To close out 2015, we're reposting some of the most popular and still-relevant articles from the year. This post originally ran on July 17. Enjoy and happy New Year!

With the Purple Line's future looking brighter, it is finally becoming easier to envision the embattled light rail line becoming a reality. But if the line does become a part of our region's transit network, will it also be a part of the iconic Metro map?


Base map by Peter Dovak, cartoony additions by David Alpert.

While it's called the "Purple Line," WMATA would not be building this line, nor was it planned as a part of the Metrorail system. It's still unclear how well the line would integrate with other lines. There hasn't ever been a decision made about whether, for example, you'll pay a separate fare to ride the Purple Line, as with a bus, or whether it will be part of the same fare structure as all of the rail lines.

Advocates and planners have long shown images of the Purple Line on Metro map to help cement the idea that this new line will become a critical component of the region's rail transit. But it isn't trivial to fit the line into the existing Metro map.


An older diagram of the Purple Line atop the base WMATA Map via Coalition for Smarter Growth.

How can the Purple Line fit?

If it appears on the map, the Purple Line would be the just the second line color to go on the map since the system's inception, besides the Silver Line. Unlike the Silver, though, the Purple Line and its winding route among the branches of the Metro system will force significant changes to fit with the map's chunky, iconic style.

The map's diagrammatic nature distorts the system heavily as the lines spread outside the core. Simply adding the line itself in and making minor modifications to label placement actually works fairly well, but it's tough to squeeze 10 Purple Line stations into the space between Silver Spring and College Park, while there are only three between Silver Spring and Bethesda.

People might assume, from the above map, that the stations east of Silver Spring are very close together, and very far apart to the west. But that's not true. Instead, the two branches of the Red Line are much closer together than the map suggests.

One solution is to shift the Green/Rush Yellow segment north of Fort Totten to the east. While this more accurately reflects the route through Prince George's County, the change would be one of the most significant to the map since its creation in the 1970s, and may perhaps be a controversial one.

Should the Purple Line get equal billing to heavy rail lines?

The Purple Line is not a Metrorail line. It is a light rail line. And WMATA will not even operate it. Arguably, therefore, the Purple Line should appear less important than the six Metrorail lines.

Today's map doesn't even show other rail services like Amtrak, MARC and VRE. They only get logos next to their respective transfer points. But far more people will likely transfer to and from the Purple Line, and it will run much more frequently than commuter rail or Amtrak. Just using icons would not make the Purple Line very visible. On smaller printed or web versions of the map, they may be difficult to spot at all.

The map could display the Purple Line but in a different style. A thinner line, using smaller station labels, or only showing the line itself and not the stations are all possible solutions.


See the Purple Line with: Icons only   Thin line   Small labels   No stations

Most other American cities with multimodal rail transit do not bother to make this distinction, however. Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Boston all operate light and heavy rail (though under the same agency) and display them no differently.

What about other services?

If and how to show the Purple Line will likely depend on its ridership, differences in fares or operating hours, and many other factors. After decades of campaigning, though, many would agree that the Purple Line deserves a spot on the Metro map, but it is still a topic that raises an interesting discussion.

And if the Purple Line is deserving, what about MetroWay, DC Streetcar, or the multitude of planned BRT lines? Should it show commuter rail, akin to Philadelphia and Boston's transit maps? What makes a service deserving? These are questions Metro leaders and the region will have to grapple with if the Purple Line becomes a reality.

Transit


Here's how funding for the Purple Line will work

The proposed Purple Line light rail will connect Bethesda, Silver Spring, College Park, and New Carrollton, and many places along the way. Yesterday was the deadline for private companies to bid to build and operate the line over the next three decades. In 2013, Matt Johnson wrote this post explaining how the "public-private partnership," or "P3," which is new to the region, will work. We've re-published it below.


Map from MTA Maryland.

A P3 is a partnership between a government agency (in this case, the Maryland Transit Administration) and a private firm (called a "concessionaire") to build and operate an infrastructure project. Many P3s are toll roads, like the new Beltway HOT lanes in Northern Virginia. But transit P3 projects are fairly new to the United States. Currently, the only example in the nation is in Denver, which is using one to build almost 70 miles of rail projects.

The details of the public-private partnership won't be hammered out for some time, so there's still a lot we don't know about what this method of construction and operation will look like. But a recently-published "presolicitation report" from the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) tells what they have in mind.

What is a P3?

Essentially, the idea is to leverage private capital and the efficiency of private firms to reduce the public cost of building and operating a project. It also helps the agency by making costs more predictable and assigning risk to the private contractor. MDOT currently estimates that they could save about 20% of the cost of constructing and operating the Purple Line for 30 years by entering into a P3.

While they aren't common in the United States, our neighbors in Canada use them a lot. One notable example is Vancouver's new Canada Line, opened in 2010, though it's not without its criticism.

Where do the savings come from?

In P3s, the cost savings come primarily from two factors: private firms may be more efficient, and risk may be more properly assigned and managed.

One way projects end up wasting money is through "interface problems." For example, a crew comes out to string catenary wire, but they discover that the catenary supports haven't been installed yet. That risk is still there with a P3, but since the contractor has assumed the risk, it's their problem, not the public's.

Meanwhile, the contractor, which is likely to be a major firm, may be able to leverage their other investments to get a good deal on steel. Or they might have a subcontractor who builds railcars, which saves them from having to do a separate procurement.

How will this P3 work?

In a few months, MTA will ask qualified contractors to submit bids to operate the Purple Line. These bids will be very detailed, and MTA will use a "best value" method to pick the contractor, not necessarily picking the cheapest bid.

Each prospective concessionaire will include their estimate for what they can build the Purple Line for, plus what they think it will cost them to operate and maintain the line for 30 years. MTA estimates that the selected contractor will also put in between $400 to $900 million. The agency will put in additional money, as will the federal government, through the New Starts program.

MTA will pay the contractor an annual "availability payment," which equals the contractor's contributions plus the operating costs the contractor estimated in their bid, divided by 35 (5 years of construction, plus 30 years of maintenance). During construction, the contractor will have to take out a performance bond that MTA keeps in case they can't complete the project. If they go out of business after construction is complete, MTA would have to rebid the contract.

Will the concessionaire hike fares or cut service to make a quick buck?

MTA, not the concessionaire, will set the fares, service hours, and train frequency.

The concessionaire wouldn't make money from this, anyway. Like all transit lines in the United States, the Purple Line will not earn enough fare revenue to be profitable. If the contractor can provide their services for less than what was budgeted, they'll keep the difference as (additional) profit. But if they go over budget, they'll lose money.

How will Maryland hold the operator accountable?

MTA will write very detailed requirements in the contract setting performance standards for on-time performance and cleanliness. If the operator can't meet these standards, the MTA could pay them less. That gives the operator a financial incentive to provide good service.

What will the concessionaire be responsible for?

The concessionaire's responsibilities can differ from one P3 to another, but the private firm selected for the Purple Line will be responsible for completing design, building the project, acquiring railcars, and then operating the line for 30 years.

Will the private firm own the line?

No, the state of Maryland will own the Purple Line. After 30 years, the firm operating the line will be responsible for giving it back to the state in a certain pre-specified condition. At that point, the MTA could decide to operate the line on its own or rebid the project to a different firm or even the same firm.

Why is the Purple Line a good choice for a P3?

The Maryland Transit Administration's operations, including local buses, light rail, and subway, are primarily focused in Baltimore, 30 miles from the Purple Line. Because it's so far away, the MTA would likely need a new management and operations structure just for that one line, meaning it would basically stand alone. That makes it a good candidate for a P3, as opposed to the Baltimore Red Line, which interacts with several other MTA services and is much closer to home.

According to the MTA's Henry Kay, the Purple Line's risk profile is well suited to the private sector. In many cases, there will be tight quarters and traffic management plans. There's lots of risk that those conditions will delay the project or make it more expensive. One overarching contractor can better manage that risk than a public agency with multiple contractors. And if the contractor can't manage the risk well, it's their money, not the state's.

There are other risks, like unpredictable weather or even subway tunneling, which are difficult to manage. Contractors may be reluctant to assume the risks of building the Baltimore Red Line, with its long downtown subway. That makes it a less likely candidate for a P3.

Why consider a P3 for transit at all?

Using a P3 for the Purple Line will allow the MTA to spend a little less up front for the project, allowing Maryland to make better use of its gas tax revenues for projects around the state.

According to the MTA's Executive Director for Transit Development and Delivery Henry Kay, the P3 will be more predictable for MTA. For example, once MTA grants the contract, they'll know exactly how much it will cost to run the line every year for 30 years. If energy costs go up or labor costs go up, the contractor is on the hook. But the state will always pay the same price, unless the contractor fails to meet their performance targets (in which case, Maryland would pay less). That could help keep fares and tax rates in check.

Of course, there are risks in a P3. The contractor could go bankrupt, or they could fail to deliver what they promised. MTA's goal is to provide good transit service, and they need to find a reliable partner who they can hold to the same high standard. Over the next several months, the MTA will release a Request for Proposals and companies will respond, allowing us to get a better understanding of how this P3 might work.

Since public-private partnerships for transit are generally untested in the US, communities and transit agencies across the country will watch the Purple Line to see how well they work. Hopefully, it will set the bar high.

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