The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.

Posts about Purple Line


How turning an old train track into a trail helped transform Charlotte

In Charlotte, an emergency access path next to a light rail line doubles as a popular trail. It's a public space that has helped transform the city's identity, and a great example of how to take something old and unused and make it new.

A section of the Charlotte Rail Trail. Image courtesy of Charlotte Center City.

With a little over 800,000 residents, Charlotte is North Carolina's largest city, one of the biggest in the southeast, and the 17th-biggest in the US. But despite this large population the city ranks poorly when it comes to how easy it is to walk around in.

But Charlotte's transportation reputation is changing fast. It opened its first light rail line in 2007 and now has a streetcar as well. Another big change in Charlotte has happened without huge investments in transit technology: the Charlotte Rail Trail, an urban trail in central Charlotte that runs along the emergency access path for the light rail.

The trail, which opened in 2007, runs alongside the tracks for the Lynx Blue Line for 4.5 miles between the city's Central Business District (known as Uptown) and the formerly industrial South End neighborhood.

The Rail Trail has helped transform Charlotte

The Lynx Blue was a great addition to the neighborhood, jump-starting a lot of transit-oriented development (TOD) in the area. But the neighborhood's industrial heritage meant that parks and other public space were in short supply in a rapidly changing place. Part of the construction for the Blue Line included an emergency access path for first responders that is otherwise open to people walking or cycling in the area.

A trio of individuals, David Furman, Terry Shook, and Richard Petersheim, thought that the path could be a lot more than just a way for ambulances and fire trucks to get to the light rail. They envisioned public art, a better way to get around, and trail-side retail— a "linear commons" that would become a destination and public space valued by nearby residents and the city at large.

From there, Charlotte Center City, a business improvement district (BID) that works to promote neighborhoods like Uptown and South End, took over the organizing, working with developers, the city, and other stakeholders to make the trail happen.

Chairs along the trail encourage people to hang out and linger. Image from Charlotte Center City.

Today, the trail is both a great way to get around and a destination all to itself.

According to Erin Gillespie, who works to improve the trail with Charlotte Center City, trail usage has nearly doubled in the short time the trail has been opened. 1250 people per day were using the trail in 2014, and the number climbed over 2000 in 2015 (for reference, the number of people who biked across the 14th Street Bridge on the average weekday in May of 2015 was a little under 2,250).

Surveys of nearby residents say many of them use and rely on the trail in their day to day lives. The trail is busiest in the evenings, when commuters and residents use it to enjoy and explore their city.

Dining along the trail at the Lynx's Bland Station. Image from Charlotte City Center

Along the trail, there's public art and nearby retail. There are also events that get people to stop jogging and to start lingering.

Buildings that would normally avoid putting any entrances close to a rail line are instead building entrances to entice trail based customers. Public art and furniture line the entire length of the trail inviting people to sit and admire the scenery and even participate with special events along the trail. New connections between the street and the trail make it easier for people to get to the trail, which allows more people to enjoy what many have discovered for themselves.

This restaurant faces the tracks and trail rather than the street. Image from Google Maps.

That identity may not always mesh with people's idea of a walking and biking trail. There is not a lot of tree cover, but that's hard to avoid, as much of the South End was developed as an industrial and warehouse district. Because Charlotte Center City has worked with landowners to provide easements for trail access, the trail has actually been able to create more open space than was there before.

Meanwhile, Charlotte does have a separate Greenway program aimed at improving the park spaces and trail network within Charlotte. The Rail Trail will be a part of that overall network but keep its own identity as a place with a lot of activity.

Still, there are challenges to improving the trail from what it is today (here, you can check out the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy's report on common hurdles for projects like this all over the country). Finding the space necessary to develop the Rail Trail in the face of intense real estate pressure has been a constant challenge. Despite its popularity and use, the trail does not have any dedicated funding and is largely improved with small grants.

And while working with developers has yielded great results it has also led to piecemeal improvements. Gaps in the trail do persist, especially when it comes to getting to the trail itself. Local streets and the trail are not always at the same elevation and paths between the two can be inadequate.

Trails like Charlotte's help spur positive growth

Our region is certainly no stranger to trails that run along right of ways from other forms of transportation. The Metropolitan Branch Trail and Custis Trail run right along railroads and highways. One big feature of the Purple Line in Maryland will be its running alongside the Georgetown Branch Trail between Bethesda and Silver Spring.

We should keep Charlotte's Rail Trail and the excitement it has created in mind when we hear opposition to the Purple Line that says a train next to a trail will keep people from enjoying the area. I asked Gillespie if there had been any local opposition to developing the trail the way it has been, and she struggled to think of concerted efforts to put a stop to things.

She added that the smooth process might be because a lot of the work to build up the trail was done before South End really got comfortable in its identity as a residential neighborhood. There was never a chance for people to hold onto their vision of the neighborhood the way Chevy Chase has with the Purple Line.

The need for space and to negotiate with developers is also reminiscent of NoMa and its struggles to find park space for one of Washington's most rapidly growing neighborhoods. In Charlotte, the Center City BID has been able to help a lot by coordinating and managing all of the stakeholders that have in interest in the city's redevelopment. NoMa is working to do that as well but the big pay off has yet to arrive.

Charlotte is by no means done with redefining itself as one of America's urban places. A rail trail extension is slated to open next year and the Blue Line is getting its own extension as well. Gillespie said she's excited about these improvements because it will mean more people will get to experience the Rail Trail and help cement the path's reputation as one of Charlottean's favorite spots.

If you have recently visited Charlotte and traveled along rail trail tell us what you think in the comments.


Scarred by urban renewal, Silver Spring's Lyttonsville neighborhood gets a second chance

Silver Spring's Lyttonsville neighborhood has a rich history, but urban renewal nearly destroyed it. With the Purple Line coming, this historically-black community could get a second chance, but not everybody looks forward to it.

Urban renewal nearly destroyed Lyttonsville in the 1970s. Photo by Alan Bowser.

Located west of the Red Line tracks from downtown Silver Spring, Lyttonsville is one of Montgomery County's oldest neighborhoods, founded in 1853 by freed slave Samuel Lytton. The area could soon be home to a Purple Line station if the light-rail line between Bethesda and New Carrollton opens as scheduled in 2022.

Over the past two years, Montgomery County planners crafted a vision for a small town center around the future Lyttonsville station, bringing affordable housing and retail options the community lacks. Some residents are deeply skeptical of what's called the Greater Lyttonsville Sector Plan, though it could restore the town center Lyttonsville lost long ago.

A rough history

During the early 20th century, a thriving main street developed along Brookville Road, including schools, churches, and a cemetery. As surrounding areas became suburban neighborhoods exclusively for white residents, the black Lyttonsville community lacked public services like running water and paved roads. For decades, its only connection to Silver Spring was a wooden, one-lane bridge that remains today.

In the 1970s, the county seized much of the area, destroying Lyttonsville's main street and replacing much of it with an industrial park, a Ride On bus lot, and storage for the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission. Many of the older homes were replaced with large garden apartment complexes.

This wooden bridge was once the only way in and out of Lyttonsville. Photo by the author.

Today, Lyttonsville is a racially diverse community, and sought-after for its location between Silver Spring and Bethesda and being in the vaunted Bethesda-Chevy Chase school catchment. But one out of ten residents lives in poverty, compared to 6.9% of residents countywide. Lyttonsville is hard to access by any form of transportation, isolating its residents from nearby jobs.

Some residents claim the county's plan will continue a legacy of destructive planning decisions. They're worried about traffic and density, about getting redistricted out of the B-CC cluster, and that the area's affordable apartments could get replaced with luxury housing. Others are wary of the Purple Line after fighting off plans to locate a storage yard in the neighborhood.

Charlotte Coffield, who grew up in Lyttonsville during segregation and whose sister Gwendolyn fought to bring services to the area (the local community center is named for her), has emerged as one of the biggest critics. "All [Purple Line] stations do not need to be town centers," she wrote in a letter to the county planning board. "The proposed density would destroy the stable character and balance of our ethnically diverse neighborhood." Last week, the Lyttonsville Community Civic Association, where she is president, voted to accept no more than 400 new homes in the area.

New development in Lyttonsville

Bethesda-based developer EYA, which is currently building townhomes next to the future Chevy Chase Lake Purple Line station, has an alternate proposal for Lyttonsville that could address residents' concerns. The biggest land parcels in the area are owned by several different property owners, including multiple government agencies, each with their own plans. Some want to build lots of new homes, while WSSC has a large site that they intend to leave alone.

EYA's vision for Lyttonsville.

EYA has reached out to several landowners about coordinating, allowing development on a combined 33-acre site to happen together. First, they would partner with WSSC to build several hundred affordable apartments and townhomes on their property. Residents of existing apartments could move there first without getting displaced. Then, EYA would partner with the two non-profits who own the affordable apartments to redevelop them with market-rate townhomes. The county would restrict building heights to 70 feet.

Next to the Lyttonsville station itself, EYA envisions a plaza surrounded by market-rate apartments, 30,000 square feet of retail space (about half the size of a Giant supermarket), and a small business incubator modeled on Baltimore's Open Works that would offer job training to local residents.

Public art would promote the area's history, while Rosemary Hills Park would get a small addition. Local streets where drivers speed today would get traffic calming and new pedestrian and bicycle connections.

The $500 million proposal addresses most of the neighbors' concerns. EYA seeks to build 1200 new homes on the land, compared to the nearly 1700 the county would allow there. (What Montgomery County wants to allow in Lyttonsville is still less dense than plans for other Purple Line stations, including Long Branch and Chevy Chase Lake.) One-third of the new homes would be set aside for low-income households, and every existing affordable apartment would be replaced.

Lyttonsville's future Purple Line station. Image from MTA.

"The county can leave a legacy for how you can build Smart Growth," says Evan Goldman, VP of Land Acquisition and Development at EYA, stressing that the private development could help pay for the public amenities neighbors want. "There's only so much [public benefits] this can afford," he adds. "If you reduce the units so you can't pay for the benefits, the public benefits won't come."

Can the proposal actually work?

Residents I've spoken to like EYA's proposal, but are skeptical if it can happen. This project could have a transformative effect on Lyttonsville, but only if all of these partners agree to it. Recent experience in Shady Grove suggests finding new locations for the Ride On bus lot or WSSC's facility may be difficult.

"If EYA can execute its plan, there are more upsides," says resident Abe Saffer, "but since they don't have any letters of intent or partnerships firmly in place, I remain nervous."

The Montgomery County Council will hold two public hearings on the Lyttonsville Sector Plan next week in Rockville. Here's where you can sign up. If the plan is approved, the county would then have to approve EYA's proposal, which could then start construction in 2020 and take 10 to 15 years to get built.


What's so great about the Purple Line, anyway?

With a recent court decision from a group of opponents delaying the Purple Line once again, it's easy to forget how many people support it, from local environmental groups to Governor Hogan. Let's remember why they fight for this project, and why it will get built one day.

This will get built. Image from Montgomery County.

The Purple Line will be a 16-mile light rail line between Bethesda and New Carrollton. It'll connect three Metro lines, all three MARC commuter rail lines, and Amtrak, as well as hundreds of local bus routes. It'll serve two of the region's biggest job centers, Bethesda and Silver Spring, as well as Maryland's flagship university. It'll give Montgomery and Prince George's counties a fast, reliable alternative to current bus service and Beltway traffic.

However, it'll do a lot more than that.

1) It'll make walking and bicycling a lot easier and safer. The Purple Line project includes rebuilding or extending trails across Montgomery and Prince George's counties, building on the area's growing bike network.

The Capital Crescent Trail, which ends two miles outside of Silver Spring, will get fully paved and extended to the Silver Spring Metro station, where it'll connect to the Metropolitan Branch Trail. The trail will get a new bridge at Connecticut Avenue and new underpasses at Jones Bridge Road, and 16th Street, so trail users won't have to cross those busy streets.

Wayne Avenue in Silver Spring will get a new trail. Photo by the author.

Streets in other parts of the corridor will get rebuilt with new sidewalks and bike lanes. University Boulevard in Langley Park will get a road diet. Wayne Avenue in Silver Spring will get a new, extended Green Trail.

2) It will let more people live and work near transit more affordably. Metro has its problems, but people still value living in walkable, transit-served neighborhoods. As a result, communities with Metro stations can be very expensive. The Purple Line puts more neighborhoods and more homes near transit, as well as more opportunities to build new homes near transit, helping meet demand and fighting spikes in home prices.

How far you can get by transit from Riverdale today and after the Purple Line is built.

3) It will improve commutes far beyond Bethesda to New Carrollton. The Purple Line will dramatically improve transportation access for people who live or work near one of its 21 stations. But even those whose homes or jobs aren't near the Purple Line may travel through the corridor, getting a faster, more reliable trip.

Right now, a bus trip between Silver Spring and Bethesda can take 20 minutes at rush hour (though in reality it takes much longer due to traffic). On the Purple Line, that trip would take just nine minutes. That's a time savings for anyone passing through the Purple Line corridor, like if you were going from Riverdale (which will have a station) to Rock Spring Business Park in Bethesda (which won't).

4) It's finally bringing investment to some of our most disadvantaged neighborhoods. Communities like Long Branch, Langley Park, and Riverdale have long awaited the kind of amenities more affluent communities take for granted. When Maryland and the federal government agreed to fund the Purple Line, people took notice. Long Branch businesses formed an association.

Riverdale residents and business owners are pushing for a more attractive station. A few blocks away, this ad for a new house being built lists exactly one feature: "located within steps of purple metro line's Beacon Heights Station (officially approved by state of Maryland for 5.6 billion)."

While the Purple Line can help meet the demand for transit-served housing, there are real concerns that home prices may still rise, resulting in gentrification and displacement. That's why residents, business owners, and the University of Maryland partnered on the Purple Line Community Compact, which creates a plan for ensuring that people can afford to stay.

5) We actually don't know everything the Purple Line will do. Transportation planners can estimate how many people will use a transit line, but we can't predict how it will affect people's decisions about where to live, work, shop, or do other things. That's the most exciting part.

Metro helped revitalize Silver Spring. The Purple Line can do this for more communities. Photo by the author.

Metro helped make 14th Street a nightlife destination. It turned Arlington into an economic powerhouse. It transformed Merrifield's warehouses into townhouses. Those changes weren't guaranteed, but as a region we took the risk and it paid off.

We're poised to do the same thing for a new generation of neighborhoods along the Purple Line.

While a recent lawsuit from a group of Chevy Chase residents will has halted the project, transportation officials seem hopeful that this will be a temporary delay. The facts remain that this is a strong project that has major benefits for Maryland.

That's why everyone from environmental groups to neighborhood groups to business groups support this project. That's why Governor Hogan agreed to build it, even if he did make some changes to save money.

And that's why, despite a small but vocal opposition, it will get built.


"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.


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.


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.

Support Us
DC Maryland Virginia Arlington Alexandria Montgomery Prince George's Fairfax Charles Prince William Loudoun Howard Anne Arundel Frederick Tysons Corner Baltimore Falls Church Fairfax City