Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Rich Madaleno's Testimony on the Purple Line

The following statement from Senator Rich Madaleno (D-18) was read by his aide, Scott Tsikerdanos, at last night's state Purple Line hearing in Chevy Chase.

Statement by Sen. Richard S. Madaleno, Jr.
Presented at AA/DEIS Purple Line Hearing
November 18, 2008

During the course of my 20 years in and around the General Assembly, I have seen and heard all of the arguments for and against the Purple Line. After many years of discussion, planning, and community outreach, I still have very serious reservations about this project, from a fiscal standpoint, from an operational standpoint, and with regards to the effects it will have on the communities in our region.

It is no secret that our state, like every other, is facing a severe economic downturn from the global financial crisis. With the end of this crisis nowhere in sight, our state will have to make some very serious decisions on our transportation priorities. Our transportation infrastructure across the state requires serious attention and dwindling gas tax and titling tax revenues, combined with this economic downturn, will severely restrict our spending on many worthwhile projects.

Quite frankly, the state does not have the resources to pay for any of the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) or Light Rail Transit (LRT) options. Over the past decade, the only major new construction projects the state has moved forward with have been funded primarily with toll-backed revenue bonds. There are no alternative funding mechanisms available for this project. As a member of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, I feel confident in reporting that no new revenue options appear politically feasible in the foreseeable future.

Because there are, at best, limited state funds available for this project, the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) assumes a local contribution but does not suggest what shape or size that it may be. I think it is irresponsible for the state to propose this project without informing either local county government of what its share might be. I would also note that no local government in the Baltimore region has been asked to make a direct contribution towards the construction or maintenance of their light rail system. Questions about the state’s ability to pay should alone prevent the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) from allowing this project to move forward.

It was only a little over a year ago that the state of Minnesota saw a major bridge collapse during the evening rush hour, killing 13 people. This summer, a serious accident on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge led to the discovery of corrosion on the bridge’s steel reinforcements, requiring emergency repair. It is clear that other bridges, overpasses, and tunnels in our state will require expensive maintenance in the future.

From a statewide perspective, this transportation project would take the lion’s share of transportation investment money for the foreseeable future. The estimated price tag on the high investment light rail transit is nearly $2 billion. Even with very optimistic ridership numbers, the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) is estimating a daily load of 34,000 round trip riders, of which, 27,200 – 80 percent – will be drawn from some other form of mass transit. Are the remaining 6,800 new riders enough to justify the cost of the system, which at nearly $2 billion, works out to roughly $294,000 per rider new to mass transit? It would be cheaper to buy these 6,800 people new residences closer to their jobs.

The communities that will be impacted by this project, in whatever form it takes, will also undoubtedly be changed forever. As a frequent patron and supporter of the Capital Crescent Trail, I am disturbed by the potential impact a light rail line would have on this tract of parkland. MTA has provided many artists’ renderings of what the trail would look like with the rail line, but has avoided the most glaring part of this equation: most of the trees and accompanying tree canopy would have to be removed to accommodate a large set of wires. The trail would be never be the same and would never be able to thrive as it does now.

Personally, I find MTA’s comments about the trail highly disingenuous. The construction of the LRT alternatives will devastate the trail. It is clear that light rail and heavy forestation do not work well together. Ironically, today’s Baltimore Sun reports that the northern half of the Baltimore light rail system has been shutdown indefinitely as falling leaves are creating unsafe conditions on the tracks. The Sun reports that this problem is on the section of the line that “follows a narrow, old railroad right of way along the Jones Falls Expressway through forested parkland.” The same design problems exist here. To limit potential tree and leaf damage to both the overhead wires and tracks, MTA will have to continually trim the trees that border the right-of-way. A once green and enjoyable park facility will be irreparably destroyed. While this point alone may not be reason enough to stop the LRT or BRT alternatives, the government should be upfront with its citizens about the impact of this decision. Trivializing the impacts along the trail has done immeasurable harm to the reputation of this proposed project.

Beyond today’s operating problems caused by leaves, MTA has a checkered history planning and operating light rail. The Baltimore system, after nearly 20 years of operation, has realized less than half of the ridership MTA estimated during construction. The light rail line has become a money pit with the state having to subsidize roughly 75% of its operating costs. The MTA Administrator during the Glendening Administration once testified that he would close it if it were not for the capital costs already sunk in it. The Baltimore light rail line does not attract riders because it is not interchangeable with the pre-existing heavy rail line and moves slowly along city streets. Yet, MTA is proposing making the same billion dollar mistake again. Light rail is not currently a part of the highly successful Washington Metro system. LRT will require new cars, new maintenance facilities, and new mechanics that can never be integrated with our existing system unlike the new rail extension currently under construction in Northern Virginia. And, in many places along the proposed LRT alignment, the trains will be slowed by operation on roads. This will not be an effective or efficient use of federal, state, or local taxpayers’ money.

With little chance to expand on the current heavy rail system, I think it is clear that buses are the future of transit expansion in this metropolitan region. While the state includes new and denser development as a potential benefit of the LRT alternatives, there is no guarantee any of this development would occur. Decades after opening, many of the existing Metro stations lack new or dense development. Building it will not, as they say, ensure that “they will come.”

Greatly improved and expanded bus service will best serve the development and commuter patterns of our region. On this point I would note that the TSM alternative provides more than a third of the benefit with less than a tenth of the cost of the high investment LRT. For decades we have overlooked and under-invested in bus transit in our region. With roughly half of the cost of the state’s share in the LRT alternatives, we could probably divert more single occupancy vehicle (SOV) trips than estimated in the DEIS. My colleagues and I have focused too much time and attention on high-profile potential rail projects and not enough on sensible bus improvements. An investment in new vehicles and new technology could makes buses much more attractive to commuters. We need to expand bus transit into less dense existing and growing communities outside the Beltway more than we need to sink billions into transit to support a dreamlike vision of future high-density communities.

In the headquarters of the Baltimore Jewish Charities is a sign proclaiming “Our parents built for us; we build for our children.” This sentiment briefly but profoundly summarizes the feelings most of us have about our wonderful community and region. We were granted a world-class subway system by our farsighted “parents”- the leaders and activists of the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s. We now wish to leave our children with a similar legacy. While many understandably believe this Purple Line proposal is worthy of this goal, I believe it has too many shortcomings, too many unanswered questions, and too many optimistic assumptions to move forward. In the end, I fear its only legacy will be yet one more unpaid bill left to our children. Instead, we should leave them a flexible, efficient, user-friendly, and affordable bus network that can more easily adjust to future needs and challenges.