Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Mike Madden and His Purple Crayon

Mike Madden (pictured left) and the Purple Line Roadshow came to B-CC High School last night. No presentation just lots of posters and a grab bag of experts. I spoke with a number of consultants on hand. Some gave excellent and informative answers--once you could find the right person who knew about the topic which concerned. Others were, um, less impressive.

Let's start with the information. The ridership numbers are up though the data behind them still haven't been released so no one can really assess the quality of the estimates. Apparently, the data will remain a state secret until Spring. A photo of the ridership estimates (click on it for a more readable verson) is below though you can also see them over at the Silver Spring Penguin.

If you look closely, you can see that the estimate for Alternative 2: TSM is "N/A". In case you took Spanish or French in high school instead of MTA, "Alternative 2: TSM" is code for enhanced regular bus service. While these estimates were not presented, the ridership estimates for simply amped up bus service are around 18,000 according to the MTA expert. The capital investment is also much lower--just 6 to 9% of the cost of light rail according to MTA's own numbers.

Light rail would carry more people, between 38,000 and 47,000 more depending on the version according to the numbers released by MTA. This is an improvement of 20,000 to 29,000 over enhanced regular bus but at a substantially higher cost. Real questions remain as to whether the substantial investment in light-rail is justified by the cost improvement.

As I've reported before, the numbers give much stronger traction to the rapid-bus option. When pressed, Mike Madden grudgingly admitted that rapid-bus was the most "cost efficient" option. In a shift from previous meetings at which he constantly emphasized the importance of presenting the a competitive proposal, he said that presenting a competitive proposal was only one factor in deciding which option to present to the feds.

Other MTA experts were more forthcoming and stated without reservation that rapid-bus was clearly the superior option from a cost perspective. I'm still curious to know if supporters of the light-rail like the Action Committee for Transit would be willing to get behind rapid-bus since it seems like a clearly more cost efficient alternative. (Webb Smedley never replied when I asked this question in response to a comment he posted here.) While rapid-bus is also far more expensive than enhanced regular bus service (4 to 13 times more expensive), the gap is not as large as for light-rail (11 to 17 times more expensive).

I spoke with one MTA expert who said he played a major role in determining the location of the stops. He told me that a good share of the ridership was driven by people traveling relatively short distances within "wedges". In other words, many people are expected to use it to travel from one Silver Spring stop to another--or the equivalent within another wedge. Of course, others will travel between wedges.

Now for the aggravating part of the evening. Near the slide show of light-rail systems around the world stood the "I don't know" woman who gave that response to a great majority of the questions I saw asked. While candid about her knowledge gaps, this expert didn't appear pleased when one woman asked acidly "where are the houses in the pictures?" referring to the close proximity of some homes to the proposed route.

The same woman didn't know whether any of their examples were of light-rail systems linking separate urban hubs. Most of the existing light-rail systems which I've ridden connect people within dense urban areas. Another woman chimed in that St. Louis has a great one to the airport but that doesn't seem too relevant to the Purple Line. However, another consultant stated that this was definitely a unique sort of project--something between Metro and conventional light rail.

After I left the meeting, Mike Madden was overheard making the risible claim that the light-rail system would not undermine the property values of a "single home". While I suspect most homes would not see a decline in value, surely the presence of a light-rail system in one's backyard is less desirable than a trail lined with trees. Not a credible claim.

Meanwhile, I remained amazed that the posters presented at the session had not been placed on the web which would easy to do. When I queried one set of MTA presenters, they repeated the MTA canards that the data are "preliminary", there have been many meetings showing the information, and people can respond based on what they see.

The incomplete ridership information is totally new so it has not been presented at repeated meetings. Moreover, the idea that people can give better feedback on this complex topic spontaneously rather than with some thought is ludicrous. I couldn't help imagining applying this approach to college education. "Now students, please don't do any reading. You'll learn much better if you haven't given this topic any thought whatsoever."

However, that's MTA's story and they're sticking to it. One imagines that the final estimates might be more accurate if preliminary estimates are subjected to criticism from all sides. I've heard claims by both supporters and opponents that the numbers are off. Let's hope that MTA is more forthcoming and holds another round of meetings where more meaningful consultation can occur before they finalize the information and are unwilling to make further changes. I've been told that the presentation will go up on the web when this round of meetings is done. Let's hope so.

Both supporters of the current trail (above right) and of the light-rail system (left) set up booths outside the hall. No doubt the conversation and the debate will continue.