Friday, October 05, 2007

Purple Line Focus Group

On Monday night, the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) held a focus group meeting on the Purple Line at B-CC High School. Mike Madden, the Project Manager, was accompanied by Lead Engineer Joe Romanowski, Engineer Harriet Levine, Engineer Deirdre Smith, and Public Outreach Person Kacie Levy.

Representatives of a number of different groups were there. In addition to the ACT, other pro-development and pro-Purple people included the MoCo Chamber and the Bethesda Urban Partnership (BUP). Community representatives came from the Town of Chevy Chase (Councilwoman Kathy Strom), East Bethesda, and the Riviera, and the Greater Bethesda-Chevy Chase Coalition--a group in favor of protecting the existing trail.

Although they are still officially assessing which route is best and whether any Purple Line route is justified, the tone of the meeting was that MTA firmly believes in the light-rail option along the Capital Crescent Trail and the ridership numbers will back them up. The official MTA Purple Line website reinforces this conclusion as it has a section on benefits but does not weigh them against potential costs of the light rail system.

The ridership study attracted a lot of attention at the start of the meeting. The BUP representative expressed concern that the ridership study would underestimate use because people are increasingly willing to walk more than 15 minutes to ride it. MTA expressed some sympathy with this view but ultimately made clear that they intended to estimate use based on surveys. My own sense that the willingness to ride naturally drops with distance and rapidly beyond a 15-minute walk.

The MTA representatives explained that they did not know much about ridership estimates--the experts on this topic were not at the meeting. However, they made clear their firm belief that BRAC (the base realignment process) would generate relatively few additional trips to Medical Center and not make a high-speed bus route along Jones Bridge Rd. more sensible than the light-rail route along the Capital Crescent Trail.

There was a fair amount of confusion when I asked whether the ridership would be based on existing development or development generated by the Purple Line. Building a light-rail system would permit and result in much higher development in Bethesda, Chevy Chase Lake, and Silver Spring under current law which links development to transportation.

At the end of the meeting, I was unclear on how fast the Purple Line would go. At one point, it was stated that it would run at an average speed of around 30-35mph. However, I also thought I heard that it would run around 40-45mph. MTA outlined that the speed of trips is critical to attracting ridership which made me wonder how many would ride outside of rush hour as one can drive as fast and to the exact location instead of a stop.

No mention or claim was made for traffic reduction by MTA which seems wise since its potential to take cars off the road appears dubious. After all, it is unclear how many will leave the roads for the light rail. Moreover, the new development permitted by the light rail will dump additional traffic onto roads near the stops (e.g. Connecticut Ave). The light rail appears to be less of an attack on existing traffic and more part of a smart growth strategy to promote greater density and public transit use within already developed areas.

MTA explained that they had to adhere to the Council of Governments (COG) model for future growth in estimating ridership order to have a shot at winning federal funds. Clearly, both supporters and opponents will be looking closing at the ridership numbers when they are released at their Fall meeting.

The trail was another issue discussed at the meeting. At one point before the meeting officially started, Mike Madden objected to calling the trail between Chevy Chase and Silver Spring part of the Capital Crescent Trail. However, the maps produced by MTA actually use the same name. MTA explained that within the tunnel under Wisconsin Ave., the trail would run above the proposed light-rail system. The floor to ceiling space would be as small as eight feet which MTA conceded was tight. Outside, the trail will be about 11 feet from the light rail and separated by some sort of fence outside.

Trees were also a matter of concern. MTA says that they want to avoid destroying any more trees than are necessary. They explained that the width of the right-of-way varies along the route from Bethesda to Silver Spring and that the full right-of-way was not needed for much of the way. Of course, they acknowledge that thousands of trees will have to go if the light rail is built. In the portion near Chevy Chase, the right-of-way is the minimum size needed so it will not be possible to replant trees alongside either the new trail or the light rail there.

MTA presented information a grass track option for the Purple Line. The group was shown appealing photos from light rail systems in France with grass instead of the conventional stones along the track. In addition to the obvious benefit of being more attractive, Mike Madden said that it could also help reduce noise. MTA had no information on the initial cost or the maintenance costs.

At one point in the meeting, it was candidly stated that it was unclear if grass tracks were feasible since the short and long-term costs are not known. However, Mike Madden later said in response to my query that they would not have presented it if they did not think it would be feasible but that positive community support would be needed to make it happen. Your gentle correspondent encouraged MTA to develop numbers on the cost.

Mike Madden expressed a direct willingness to work with communities on dealing with a variety of issues such as safety, noise, and access to the trail. Kathy Strom and I brought up the issue of people, especially kids, needing to be protected from the light rail. In the Town of Chevy Chase, the light rail would directly adjoin the Town with the trail being on the other side.

In general, the overall cost remains an interesting issue. No information is available on the cost of flying the Purple Line and the trail over Connecticut Ave. among other fixes needed to make it work. Mike Madden stated that he still intends to run the light rail at grade through the University of Maryland though the Chancellor of the University has publicly opposed this idea.

The State would be wise to gather independent estimates on cost. MTA favors the project and knows it needs to keep the estimated cost low in order to qualify for federal funds which naturally creates pressures for lower, albeit plausible, cost estimates. I imagine this is why so many public projects like this tend to cost far more than expected (visit the "Big Dig" in Boston for a prime example) to the detriment of public budgets.