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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.

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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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Transit


Canceling the Purple Line would cost more than it would save

Governor Larry Hogan says Maryland can't afford the Purple Line. But as this chart shows, canceling the line would throw away billions of dollars, and save only a few million.


Graphic by Gregory Sanders.

The chart illustrates where the money to build the Purple Line comes from. Purple boxes correspond to federal funding, green boxes are the private sector, and yellow boxes are from Montgomery and Prince George's counties. The blue boxes are the only money coming from the State of Maryland.

There are a total of 245.5 boxes on the chart, representing the Purple Line's total cost of $2.45 billion. Out of those 245.5 boxes, only 74 are state-funded blue. And out of those 74 blue boxes, 16 of them are in the far-right column, indicating money that's already spent. Another 22 boxes are half yellow, representing the requested county contribution. That leaves only 33 boxes, representing $333 million in remaining funding that is solely the state's responsibility.

In other words, Governor Hogan is holding Purple Line hostage over 13% of its cost.

And it may be even less than that. If Transportation Secretary Rahn's proposal to cut costs by 10% can become a reality, that would eliminate 23 of the remaining 33 blue state boxes, leaving only 10.

If that happens, Maryland's state cost to build the Purple Line could drop to as low as $100 million.

This is why cancelling a project would be a radical move. It would sacrifice billions of dollars in investment as well as spite both local opinion and the business community just to scavenge less than 23% of its total value.

More detail

This graphic breakdown comes from two primary sources: the Federal Transit Administration's November 2014 Profile and the Maryland Transit Administration's (MTA) Capital Program Summary.

The leftmost column shows the upfront costs to the state and counties. This is money that could theoretically go to other state or county transportation projects.

The second column covers the non-transferable TIFIA loan that a private-sector partner is undertaking with federal assistance. Maryland doesn't get the benefit of this money unless it goes toward the Purple Line.

The last column shows other money Governor Hogan would be walking away from if he cancels the line. That includes a $900 million grant from the federal government, $81 million from the private partner, and $184.7 million already spent in planning and design. It doesn't include the billions in new economic activity that the line would spur. None of this money is transferable to other Maryland project.

In addition, the sunk costs include $26.6 that the federal government has already spent on the Purple Line. The state may be liable for that if Hogan cancels the line.

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Transit


Hogan stalls on the Purple Line, calls it too expensive

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan has still made no decision on the Purple Line (or, if he has, is refusing to announce one) while calling the project's current costs "not acceptable."


Photo by Maryland GovPics on Flickr.

Hogan had been expected to decide around "mid-May," but told the Washington Post Friday that a decision would come "in the next month sometime." This further pushes off the possible schedule for private bids and then construction, which is now totally uncertain.

Hogan did say the cost would have to be "dramatically lower" to convince him to move forward. He said that "two miles of [the line] would fund our entire school construction for the entire state."

This argument about fiscal poverty rings very hollow when Hogan just lowered tolls across the state, costing about $54 million a year.

Since the Purple Line is $153 million per mile (for one-time construction), the school construction Hogan says costs the same as two miles of the line also costs only six years' worth of the foregone tolls. Hogan could have said he'd keep the tolls high for six years to fund school construction.

The line would actually cost the state of Maryland relatively little; the federal government will provide $900 million, Montgomery and Prince George's $220 million, and hundreds of millions from the private bidders. Two miles of the Purple Line cost would only pay for school construction if schools suddenly became eligible for federal transit funding and private bidders offered to foot some of the bill.

But what we're hearing is a sadly common refrain among anti-transit, so-called "fiscally conservative" politicians. They talk big about how important it is to save money, but really mean saving money by cutting things they don't like, usually in particular things that are associated with denser, walkable, perhaps more liberal areas.

Hogan's priorities are apparently, drivers first, then students, then transit riders.

Likewise, Hogan is choosing not to give credence to studies that show significant economic growth benefits for the Purple Line.

Pete Rahn, Hogan's transportation secretary and someone who at least appears to be making some effort to find a path to approval, said after talking with bidders, he believed the project could happen for about ten percent less money. Hogan hasn't said if that is "dramatic" enough for him.

In the Post interview, Hogan also talked about New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, whom Hogan considers a mentor. Christie also came into office and almost immediately canceled a major transit project that had been in the planning stages for many years. New Jersey lost a lot of federal funding, and worse yet, there's now no redundancy for commuter trains coming into Manhattan; shutting down one tunnel at a time for needed repairs will cripple commuting across the Hudson.

Hogan seems poised to make a similarly short-sighted blunder for Maryland. He himself summed it up best to the Post while talking about another matter: "It's challenging to change the mind-sets of folks that believe very strongly in what they're talking about."

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Transit


Purple Line: It's not the cost, it's the country club

Maryland governor Larry Hogan may cancel the Purple Line because he says it's too expensive, but given his sudden announcement last week of lower highway tolls, that's clearly just an excuse. The real obstacle to building the light rail line is the pressure of a few well-placed opponents, chief among them the Columbia Country Club.


Columbia Country Club in 1919

Back when the Purple Line was a new idea, I had the chance to shake hands with then-governor Parris Glendening. I grabbed the opportunity to say a few words about the project. Glendening's answer? "Get the country club to take two strokes off your score if you hit a trolley car, and you've solved the whole problem."

Almost 20 years have gone by since then, and the situation has not changed.

If the Purple Line dies, cost will be the excuse rather than the real reason. The project's current financing plan calls for only $288 million in state outlays during construction. This is a very modest amount of money for a major transportation facility—the price of two highway interchanges. The savings that Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn has identified will make the number even smaller.

Over the six years of construction, Maryland will spend less on the Purple Line than on last week's toll cuts. The toll cuts, targeted to benefit big trucking companies and owners of beach houses, will cost $54 million a year.


The financing plan for the Purple Line. Image by Ronit Dancis.

Everything else in the light rail construction budget is money that the state loses if it doesn't go ahead. $1.6 billion comes from the federal government, $900 million as a grant and $700 million as a low-interest loan under the TIFIA program. The state has already spent more than $200 million, and Montgomery and Prince George's Counties will kick in at least that much.

The loan, of course, will have to be paid back after the trains start to run. At an interest rate of 2.73%—what Fairfax pays on money it borrowed last December for the Silver Line—the payments will be $36 million a year for 30 years. If the Purple Line's private partner gets $12 million a year in profit and return of capital—a generous return on an initial investment of $81 million—the total will be $48 million. This is still less than the ongoing cost of the toll cut giveaway.

So what would make Governor Larry Hogan, whose slogan is "Maryland is open for business," think of canceling a project that business badly wants? It is certainly not the merits of the arguments against it, which have been thoroughly debunked.

In politics, wealth and influence can be more persuasive than facts and logic. Columbia Country Club, whose golf course lies on both sides of the railroad right of way the Purple Line will follow, has long been a favored haunt of Washington power brokers. The club only reluctantly abandoned its 25-year struggle against light rail in 2013, and after last year's election a team of lobbyists was assembled from its membership to renew the fight.

In January, Governor Hogan came to Bethesda for a fundraiser where club members raised $47,000 for his political committee. Three top members of his staff later sat down with the club's golfer-lobbyists to hear their objections. Neither the governor nor his staff have been willing to meet with Purple Line supporters, and—with a decision just days away—the governor has not even bothered to take a look at the Purple Line's route.

Make no mistake about what is happening. No one here is balancing competing public policy priorities. Either Governor Hogan already understands the Purple Line's vast economic benefits, or he doesn't care enough to find out. The decision he makes next week will be a straight-up choice between insider influence and the public good.

Correction: An earlier version of this post had a typo that said $700 billion as a a low-interest loan under the TIFIA program, rather than $700 million. We've fixed it.

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Transit


See the beginnings of the Purple Line in Silver Spring

The Purple Line may still face some hurdles in Annapolis, but Montgomery County is already planning for its arrival. This construction project at the Silver Spring Library is making room for the light rail:


Construction at Silver Spring Library. Photo by Matt Johnson.

The worker on the right is installing a detectable warning surface, which most people know as the bumpy strip that tells a blind person they're about to step into a road or rail line.

Once the surface is complete, it will be very obvious that the space, which connects to a larger public plaza, is part of a transit station.

The station will be one of two in downtown Silver Spring, a major destination for the Purple Line. It will anchor a new mixed-use development going up, which will include a coffee shop, gallery space, and affordable housing for seniors in addition to a new library.


Rendering of the completed station. Image from MTA.

Purple Line rails and trains are still a ways off. Still, it's nice to see the beginnings of such a major project coming together already.

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Transit


The Takoma Langley transit center is rising from the ground

Construction is progressing rapidly at Maryland's Takoma Langley transit center. Take a look:


Construction progress as of Saturday, April 18, 2015. Photos by the author unless noted.

The transit center will feature bus bays and rider amenities, covered under a great curving roof that's sure to become a local landmark.

Fow now, the bright white frame looks more like something out of a sci-fi movie than a bus station.

Here's what it will all look like once construction is done:


Rendering of the final station from the State of Maryland.

Langley Park needs this

Langley Park, at the corner of University Boulevard and New Hampshire Avenue, is the busiest bus transfer location in the Washington region that isn't connected to a Metro station.

Eleven bus routes stop on the side of the street at the busy crossroads, serving 12,000 daily bus riders. That's nearly as many bus riders per day as there are Metrorail riders at Silver Spring Metro, and it's about double the number of Metrorail riders at Takoma station.

Corralling all those bus stops into a single transit center will make transfers vastly easier, faster, and safer for bus riders.

Heavy construction began at the transit center last year, and is scheduled to be complete around December 2015.

If the Purple Line light rail is built, Takoma Langley will become one of its stations, boosting ridership even more. The light rail transitway and station would have to be added later, and would fit snuggly in the median of University Boulevard.


How a Purple Line station would fit. Rendering from the State of Maryland.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

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