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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.

Transit


Will the Purple Line appear on the Metro map?

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 might 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 who operates the system, 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


The Baltimore Red Line does need a tunnel, despite its cost

Last week, Maryland governor Larry Hogan announced the state will not move forward with the Baltimore Red Line. He argued building it would be too expensive, particularly the tunnel that would have run through downtown. Was the tunnel necessary?


A part of what Baltimore's transit map could look like with the Red Line. Image by Peter Dovak.

The proposed Red Line would have been a light rail line from the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services west of Baltimore through West Baltimore, the Inner Harbor, the growing Fell's Point and Canton areas, to Johns Hopkins' Bayview campus.

It would have connected MARC commuter rail stations on both sides of the city, the existing light rail, and the city's Metro line. There would have been two segments in tunnels: a short one under Cooks Lane near the county line and a longer, four-mile one under downtown.

Following the cancellation, a common question is whether the line still happen without the tunnels. Building a tunnel preserves a lot of roadway for cars, but what if Maryland didn't worry about impacts to drivers and dedicated road lanes for the Red Line's exclusive use?

Unfortunately, running the Red Line on the surface, even if nobody minded inconveniencing drivers, wouldn't work as well as one might imagine.


Portion of the Red Line route map. The dashed line denotes the tunnel.

Where the blocks are small, dedicated lanes have limits

Pratt and Lombard Streets in downtown Baltimore are each four-lane, one-way streets. The Purple Line will take two of University Boulevard's six lanes in Langley Park. What's the difference?

The difference is intersection spacing. Without a tunnel, a light rail line still will have to stop at many intersections for cross traffic.

In Downtown Baltimore, intersections are extremely closely spaced, and virtually all of them are signal controlled as part of the grid of street lights. On University Boulevard in Langley Park, the superblock rules, and many streets that intersect do not cross the median. That allows much more flexibility in the design of the Purple Line, and means the train isn't stopping every 600 feet, even if it is stopping at every light (which, hopefully it won't be).

Additionally, it's much easier to synchronize signals for transit in a suburban environment, where most of the volume is on one street (like University). In a central city, the demand is spread out much more evenly and there's no peak demand direction. Everyone is going every which way.

It's very difficult to pre-empt signals for transit without causing gridlock nearby. This is essentially the reason the current Baltimore Light Rail line doesn't have that feature. And without it, the line is painfully slow in the central city.

In announcing why he was canceling the Red Line, Hogan criticized Baltimore's current light rail system as being among the least popular in the country. In part, that's because it bypassed major jobs an population centers in an effort to make the line cheaper to build. It's also because downtown, the line is slower than molasses on a cold day because it runs in a transit mall and does not have transit signal priority.

Some streets are narrow

Other streets along the Red Line corridor aren't wide enough to dedicate lanes to transit, like Fleet Street in Fell's Point, which is just one lane each way plus parking.

Ben Ross explained why there couldn't be a shorter tunnel segment:

The tunnel goes through downtown at a track elevation of approximately 80 feet below sea level in order to bore through competent bedrock and avoid the cost and disruption of cut-and-cover construction and the need to relocate utilities under a street whose width wouldn't leave much room for them (Lombard Street). This requires a substantial length of tunnel to slope down to the final depth.

Then there is a substantial portal zone where the tracks slope down but the top of the train is still above street level. This needs to be located where the blockage of cross traffic by vehicles and pedestrians will not be a major problem. Both of these factors push you to move the tunnel entrance away from downtown.

It's important for the line to go through these older neighborhoods with narrow streets because a lot of potential riders live or work there.

It's easier for the Purple Line

Between Bethesda and Silver Spring, the line is essentially grade separated now. There's only one crossing in the stretch (at least in the most recent proposal; we have no idea what the governor has cut), so trains won't have to fight their way through traffic.

In Baltimore, where there's no easy right-of-way to use for the Red Line, the subway was the only way to give trains a quick way through downtown. That wasn't a "fatal flaw," as Governor Hogan put it, it was one of the best features of the line.

The Red Line's Alternative Analysis showed that a surface alignment for the Red Line would require 13 minutes for trains to cross downtown. With the tunnel, trains would be able to cover the distance in just five minutes.

Other transit systems do the same

The most successful light rail systems in the country all have grade-separated sections in their downtowns. They include systems in Charlotte, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Seattle, and St. Louis.

The Red Line needs to have a tunnel through downtown, and honestly, so does the north-south light rail line. It could be possible, if a new tunnel for CSX is constructed, to convert the Howard Street Tunnel into a light rail subway (as Saint Louis did). Or perhaps a new subway alignment for the north-south line could be built in a parallel corridor.

It's worth looking at costs on a project like the Red Line, but the teams that considered alternatives and chose this one did in fact study the costs and benefits of a tunnel. They had good reasons to choose what they did.

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