Thursday, January 29, 2009

Elrich and Leventhal Debate Purple Line's Impact on the Trail and Traffic

While I think it is well-known that I favor an alternative version of the Purple Line, and I still hope that the State and the federal government will spur us to Rethink the Purple Line, I want to congratulate light rail on the trail supporters on their victory at the County Council the other day. Just Up the Pike has reproduced Purple Line Now's press release and has a number of Purple Line related posts, including debates over burying the segment along Wayne Avenue.

The most lively moment of the County Council meeting was an exchange between Councilmembers Marc Elrich (D-At Large) and George Leventhal (D-At Large) on the impact of the Purple Line on the trail and on traffic. I've done my best to transcribe the key sections of Marc Elrich's testimony and the resulting exchange below.

Councilmember Marc Elrich: How much of the trail for the construction of this are you going to have to clear? People have talked about a 50 or 60 foot swath being cleared for the trail. Is that accurate?

MTA Project Manager Mike Madden: Where the alignment is 66 feet, um, most of that would have to be cleared. I would say pretty much all of it.

Marc Elrich: And will that then have an impact on trees that are in people’s yards?

Mike Madden: That’s an effort we can do to look at, to make sure that the, uh, root systems are preserved. We have landscape architects on board that will look at that to develop a plan to make sure that we minimize the impact to trees outside that right of way.

Marc Elrich: I’m going to wind up voting for this today but I want to make a couple of comments that I think we need to be really clear on. This trail is not going to look anything like the pictures that Roger [Berliner] held up and I think Roger is rightly concerned about that.

If you’re cutting out a 66 foot swath, it’ll be a generation before the trees return to look anything like that and I think there is going to be a severe impact. I think what you’re going to have a trail and the trail will function as a trail because if I pave 12 feet between two points and I can ride on it or walk on it, we can call it a trail but the quality of that trail is going to be radically altered by what we do there.

And I happen to think that BRT is an option. However, I have to be honest, no matter what you do, it’s going to radically alter what happens there. It’s not like there is a good solution to this so I don’t hold that alternative path necessarily as a less destructive path. This is going to be pretty destructive when you do this. And so I’m very concerned about that. It helps my interest in looking at single tracking, not because anybody in Chevy Chase has said we’d be happy if you single tracked because the fact is that anybody whose talked me who doesn’t like this doesn’t like it period. And nobody’s said well, we’d be happy if you did this as a single track.

But I do think that there are opportunities here and I’ve been spending some time doing searches of literature on the web and there’s a lot of discussion about how the Transportation Research Board has a couple of paper that deal in fact with single tracking in small segments. And the conclusion is not that it can’t be done but that it’s possible. . . .

. . . .

I don’t think we should talk about this as a traffic reliever. I think Levin’s memo makes the point that no one’s talking about this as traffic relief anymore and it doesn’t have a significant impact on anything in terms of traffic. What it does do is make a significant difference between people who spend two hours on a mass-transit commute today and will knock it down significantly. And I think there is merit in doing transit projects to cut down on the time many people experience just as there is merit when we do road projects and widen an intersection or add a lane because we’re reducing the time people spend in delay . . .

The last point I’ll make is that I really appreciate the study you did because it is a far cry what was talked about when Mr. Flanagan was sitting in Annapolis or Baltimore or wherever it was that he actually sat [laughter from Mike Madden]. That you actually brought forward a real, genuine BRT alternative that was not what was proposed to the community back in the days of the Ehrlich Administration.

And I think what you showed in your BRT alternative is that given similar rights of way—running on identical settings—that the two things perform identically and that the only difference really is the issue of how much capacity you can add in the future. And what I would say to that is that this is my one disappointment in your report because I’m been mildly obsessed about what people are doing with transit. . . . There are vehicles that could have given the same expandability to a BRT system that you have in this system. . . . It’s not like you can’t do it in another mode.

. . .

Councilmember George Leventhal: I regret the necessity of having to do this but Mr. Elrich said that this would have no effect on traffic . And on p. 4 of the presentation, they say that it’ll be as many 20,000 cars off the road. And in addition, if you are able to reorient bus service because you have a better and faster alternative taking buses off the road if you’ve ever been stuck behind a bus in traffic does make a big difference. This will make traffic better from where it otherwise would be in 2030 and beyond. Is it going to reduce traffic from where it is today? Well, we know the population is likely to grow so it is likely that traffic will get worse. That’s why it is so urgent we provide alternatives to the automobile like this. This will make traffic better. It is not correct to say that it won’t.

And when we are in a public forum like this and when we’re being covered by the press and we’re being broadcast on television and someone who is going to vote for this says that this won’t do anything, it won’t make traffic any better and it’s going to devastate our communities, one has to wonder why would an elected official vote for something like this that was going to have such devastating pointless impacts.

I’m voting for this because I think it will enhance the trail, it will improve quality of life, it will make commutes easier and better for the communities along the trail and throughout the region and it will improve traffic. I just want to make it clear that [pause] perhaps there is disagreement on that point but I didn’t want to let that statement stand. I was very surprised by it.

Marc Elrich: I’d like to answer that. I didn’t say it would devastate communities. I said it would wreck the trail.

George Leventhal: (sarcastically) Thanks for that clarification, Mr. Elrich.

Marc Elrich: I think that we need to be honest about what’s going to happen to that trail. It’s going to be a long time before it is returned to what it is. And I’ve acknowledged that’s true whether it were done the way I might want to do it or whether it’s done this way. But we shouldn’t pretend that it’s not going to do what it’s going to do.

As for traffic, 20,000 cars off the road over an entire day spread out over the length of this entire system is not going to provide major traffic relief and no one has ever suggested it’s going to provide major traffic relief to the Beltway or to East-West Highway. That’s just not what this does. And we shouldn’t say these are reasons to do it. We don’t have to oversell what it does. It’s an important transit link; it serves a vital purpose. It is not the magic bullet.