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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.

Events


Events roundup: The weather outside is frightful

But you won't hate going out in the storm for any of this week's events!


Photo by omarali.md on Flickr.

Delightful discussion on DC education: Our friends at Greater Greater Education are hosting a forum with Councilmember David Catania tonight, Monday December 9, to discuss all things pertinent to public education in DC.

Come by the Hill Center, located at 921 Pennsylvania Avenue SE, tonight at 6:30 pm to ask a question or to listen to a good discussion. You can register here. Head over to GGE for more information about this event.

After the jump: Streetsblog hosts a happy hour, Maryland's candidates for governor talk about transportation, and see a film about how to design cities for people.

We've many places to go!: Purple Line NOW! is hosting a transportation forum with Maryland's gubernatorial candidates. All three Democratic nominees, Lieutenant Governor Anthony Brown, Delegate Heather Mizeur, and Delegate Jolene Ivey speaking on behalf of Attorney General Doug Gansler, will attend, as well as Republican candidate Delegate Ron George.

The forum is tomorrow, Tuesday, December 10, from 7 to 9:30 pm at the Montgomery College Cultural Arts Center, located at 7995 Georgia Avenue in Silver Spring. Reserve your seat(s) here.

All the way home you'll be warm: Join Streetsblog DC readers tonight, December 9, for a happy hour at the Passenger, DC's transportation-themed bar. The happy hour starts at 5:30 at 1021 7th Street NW. You can RSVP here.

As long as you love transportation so: Also tonight, DC's Transportation Plan Advisory Committee (TPAC) meets from 6 to 8 pm. TPAC is comprised of DC residents who advise moveDC, the District Department of Transportation's effort to plan the city's future transportation network.

This public meeting is at the Frank D. Reeves Municipal Center, located at 2000 14th Street NW, in the second floor public meeting room. Please bring your state-issued ID to enter the building.

The lights are turned way down low: On Thursday, the Inter-American Development Bank hosts a screening of the film "The Human Scale - Bringing Cities to Life," about Danish architect and urban planner Jan Gehl. Afterwards, there will be a panel discussion with Jeff Risom, partner at Gehl Architects in Copenhagen, who will talk about designing cities for people.

The screening is on December 11 from 6:30 to 8:30 pm at the bank's Enrique Iglesias Auditorium, located at 1330 New York Avenue NW. For more info, check out the event description.

Transit


Purple Line pulls into Silver Spring Thanksgiving parade

It may be a few years until the Purple Line arrives in Silver Spring, but this past Saturday the Action Committee for Transit offered a fun preview by dressing up as a light-rail train in the Montgomery County Thanksgiving Parade.


Photo by Daniel Dancis.

ACT members and supporters marched in the 16th annual parade wearing Purple Line train costumes and blowing train whistles. Barbara Ditzler of Silver Spring designed a six-person Purple Line train costume, complete with Styrofoam plate wheels. And a fifth-grader at Clearspring Elementary School in Damascus made a train costume for her and her family out of painted cardboard boxes.


Dressing up as the Purple Line. Photo by Ralph Bennett.


ACT members and supporters march on Ellsworth Drive. Photo by Ralph Bennett.

The group already has big plans for next year's parade, including even more train costumes and possibly a dance routine. If you have a costume or song in mind, feel free to visit ACT's website and get in touch with us. We have only 12 months to prepare for the 2014 parade!

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