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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.

Transit


Hogan will build the Purple Line, not the Red Line

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan announced today the state will build the Purple Line, but cancel the Baltimore Red Line.


Photo from the State of Maryland.

Hogan announced his decision to build the light rail line at a press conference at 2:30 this afternoon.

To reduce costs, trains on the Purple Line will come every seven and half minutes rather than every six. The state will not change the alignment, nor the number or location of stations.

The longer headways mean there need to be fewer trains, saving money, and also cutting out the need for one staging area. Hogan also announced that the state would now pay only $168 million, rather than, he said, the original $700 million (but the state's future contribution had only been $333 million). Montgomery and Prince George's would have to pay more, though the exact amount, and whether they can do so, was not yet clear.

The Purple Line has been on the books for decades, and enjoys wide support in Maryland's urban and suburban communities surrounding DC. It was primed to begin construction this year, but Hogan has been threatening to cut it since entering office.

Our neighbors in Baltimore are not so lucky. At the same presser, Hogan announced the Baltimore Red Line will not move forward as currently conceived. Hogan said the line is not cost-effective, and specifically singled out the $1 billion tunnel through downtown. He said the administration is still considering ways to change the project and left the door open to building some sort of transit in Baltimore in the future.

The savings will instead go toward nearly $2 billion in road and bridge projects all across the state, including widening Route 404 on the Eastern Shore, some unspecified "congestion reduction" on I-270, and new ramps to and from the Greeenbelt Metro to accommodate a future FBI headquarters.

This post has been updated and expanded.

Transit


Maryland's governor thinks the Purple Line is too expensive, but wants to build a $10 billion maglev. Huh?

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan campaigned on cutting costs. Since taking office, however, he's expressed interest in throwing big money at numerous transportation programs—just not the transit lines that actually work and which businesses and residents want. His latest big spending idea: A $10 billion maglev between DC and Baltimore.


Shanghai's maglev. Photo by Rob Faulkner on Flickr.

Hogan is in Japan right now on a trade mission, and according to WAMU's Martin di Caro, has agreed to work with Japan and seek federal funds for a study of what it'd take to build a maglev line here at home.

The Federal Railroad Administration has $27.8 million available for a maglev study, but Maryland is the only state in the nation that's interested in seeking the money. Japan is offering $5 billion in loans to help make the line happen, but that money would still have to be paid back.

The maglev line could run over 300 miles per hour and, di Caro reports, possibly go from DC to Baltimore in 15 minutes (though time estimates for transportation facilities often are rosier, before the gritty details come in).

However, to run that fast, the tracks would have to be very straight. There's no place to put very straight tracks right through the mostly-suburban area in between; instead, maglev supporters expect the line to be mostly in a tunnel. According to contributor and maglev supporter Peter Dovak, Japan's maglev (which is different from its well-known "Shinkansen" high-speed trains) will run in a tunnel for 85% of its length.

That makes it very expensive.

If money is no object, hey, knock yourself out

We shouldn't necessarily sneer at spending big bucks on transit. It's not like the United States doesn't spend far more money on all kinds of things—liberals might point to military hardware, while conservatives might point to aid to the poor.

But it's hard to make the case that maglev is a better investment than the raft of projects already in the pipeline.

The obvious big ones are the Purple Line and Baltimore Red Line, which Hogan has said are "too expensive." His administration has dismissed studies that purport to show big economic benefits from building the Purple Line, instead focusing entirely on the cost.

But you can't focus on the cost of the Purple Line and not the cost of a maglev. This graph shows the amount Maryland, counties, and the private sector would all have to pay to build the Purple Line, not counting federal money already pledged and money already spent. On the right is the expected maglev cost.

In a press release, the Action Committee for Transit noted that Governor Hogan has still not been willing to tour the Purple Line route with local leaders. Meanwhile, he want to Japan, rode their maglev, and said, "seeing is believing."

There are other, clear priorities

Besides the Purple and Red Lines, there are plenty of ways to spend less money that have immediate, clear benefit. Di Caro points to additional 7000 series railcars that could expand Metro trains to eight cars and add capacity.

There's also the MARC train, which has grown ridership by 3.5% per year over the last 15 years even though service remains infrequent. MARC could be so much more—an all-day, two-way, frequent railroad that connects Baltimore, DC, Frederick, Aberdeen, BWI, and many places in between, and even goes to Crystal City and Alexandria to get Marylanders to federal jobs there.

Maryland has a long-term plan to grow MARC with more tracks (so trains don't get stuck behind freight trains), more trains, more service, more parking, new stations, and much more. It's worth funding that.


Build this first, Hogan. Image by Peter Dovak and David Alpert.

Between DC and New York, Amtrak needs to put in computerized train control (to avoid more crashes like the recent one), repair its infrastructure, and speed up trains. In Maryland, the B&P tunnels in Baltimore need to be replaced, and so do the bridges over the Susquehanna, Bush, and Gunpowder Rivers. The catenary wires need replacement and upgrades.

Amtrak trains are full and expensive, but remain a much more dependable way to travel between Northeast Corridor cities than cars or intercity buses, all of which get stuck in traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike (recent widening didn't include any bus or HOV lanes, for instance).

Amtrak could speed up its Acela trains from 135 to 160 mph with catenary and signal upgrades, saving a lot of time.

Think big, but not only big

Even with all this, if Governor Hogan were eager to invest in these projects and also wanted to study maglev, fine. Let's think about exciting future possibilities. Daniel Burnham did so famously say, "make no little plans." He meant, make big plans. He didn't mean, make big plans and then refuse to fund all of the other little plans too.

Hogan wants to build roads. But the road system grew, and still grows, by incremental new projects that add capacity or missing links in the network. Hogan would be laughed out of the room if he proposed cutting all road maintenance and canceling every small, local road expansion, and instead pouring all of the state's money into a new car tunnel from Cumberland to Annapolis which has no exits in between.

(That's more like former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell's Route 460, a truck highway that would have paralleled a non-congested existing highway. Virginia canceled the project amid widespread ridicule and ended up wasting $256 million, getting nothing.)

If Hogan announces he wants to build the Purple and Red Lines, invest in the MARC plan and Maryland's share of Amtrak upgrades, and buy more railcars for WMATA, I don't really have a problem with also looking at maglev. But if he cancels one of the light rail lines which already have federal money, big business support, widespread resident support, and private companies ready and waiting to bid; if his administration pleads poverty on funding new railcars for WMATA... then he has absolutely no business talking up a totally-new $10 billion project.

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