Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Purple Line is Not What Prince George’s Needs

Image adapted by author; original from MTA
With 15 Metrorail stations and 8 MARC stations, Prince George’s County already has substantial rail transit infrastructure to facilitate tremendous economic growth, walkable urban development, and regional connectivity. Yet, virtually all of these station areas have remained underdeveloped and poorly utilized for decades.

The solutions to this predicament are multifold, but they certainly do not include introducing 11 new Purple Line light rail stations to the county mix. Instead, the county should invest in a more robust local bus system and in its exiting rail transit station areas.

The Purple Line is a 16-mile, 21-station light rail project proposed by the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) to provide more direct east-west connections between Bethesda, Silver Spring, College Park, and New Carrollton. Ten of the stations would be in Montgomery County, and eleven would be in Prince George’s. The light rail system would connect to WMATA’s Red, Green, and Orange Metrorail lines, but would not be owned or operated by Washington’s regional transit authority.

Last August and again earlier this month, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) could not move forward with awarding federal funds to the Purple Line until the agency conducts the requisite study to prepare a supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS). Senior U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon’s orders provide that the SEIS must address what impacts WMATA’s continuing ridership decline (including this year) and ongoing safety issues might have on the Purple Line.

Move Beyond the “Purple Haze”

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, MTA, and many public officials and citizens in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties were outraged by the court’s rulings, and they fear that the Purple Line project may well be permanently derailed by the delays that an SEIS would cause.

Yesterday, Maryland appealed Judge Leon's decisions to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. No one knows yet how quickly the appellate court will rule or whether the state's appeal will ultimately be successful.

If the Purple Line is indeed dead, perhaps that is a blessing in disguise for Prince George’s County. The Purple Line has always been more of a “purple haze”—an extravagance and distraction that the county does not need and that diverts essential public resources and attention away from the real solutions to the county’s transit and economic development inadequacies.

Image adapted by author; original by Michael Phams 
This is not to say that light rail is never an appropriate transit solution. Indeed, I have previously enthusiastically supported light rail expansion in my childhood hometown region. But adding a multibillion dollar light rail system in this particular area of northern Prince George’s County—which is already quite well served by WMATA heavy rail, MTA commuter rail, and regional and local buses—is an imprudent use of public resources.

(The nonprofit group Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail and others have offered many reasons why the Purple Line also may not be a good deal for Montgomery County, the bi-county region, and the State of Maryland as a whole; but this post is focused specifically on Prince George’s County.)

Fund a Better County Bus System

If Prince George’s officials are genuinely concerned with improving transit access in the county, the first thing they should do is improve the county’s anemic local bus system. Local and express buses have the capacity to serve even the most densely populated areas in the county that are not already within a half-mile of an existing Metrorail or MARC station. Indeed, buses are better equipped to reach the county’s current scattered population.

Currently, Prince George’s “TheBus” system has only 28 routes to serve its 487-square-mile area. It generates a meager 3.7 million trips per year, or 4 trips per capita, and does not operate in the late evenings or on weekends.

By contrast, in similarly-sized and -populated Montgomery County, the local “Ride On” bus system has 78 routes serving its 494-square-mile area, and generates an impressive 26 million trips per year (with 86,000 trips on a typical weekday), or 27 trips per capita. Even in tiny Arlington County, the “ART” local bus system has 17 routes covering its 26-square-mile area, and generates 2.8 million trips annually, or 13 trips per capita.


Prince George’s annual operating budget for bus transit services is approximately $25 million, as compared to Montgomery’s $125 million. Over the next six years, Prince George’s plans to spend only about $2.1 million in capital expenditures on bus transit, as compared to the $98.2 million that Montgomery plans to spend on buses and bus stops alone over that same period.

Meanwhile, Prince George’s has agreed to pay $120 million over the next six years toward the construction of the Purple Line, which will run only in a small sliver of the comparatively affluent northern part of the county.

Stated another way, over the next six years, Prince George’s County is planning to spend less than two percent of its planned capital investment in the Purple Line on countywide bus transit. This shocking inequity in transit expenditures should have true transit advocates picketing in droves at the County Administration Building in Upper Marlboro.

Image by Ben Schumin
It’s also worth noting that federal funding for buses and related infrastructure is available from FTA, at the same 80% match rate as light rail funding. Thus, if Prince George’s focused more of its attention on developing a robust local bus system, it would likely find a willing partner in the federal government.

Purple Line supporters may rightly argue, “Why can’t we just do both—have the Purple Line and improve our bus system?” Well…we could, in theory. But there hasn’t been much political will over the years to improve the county’s bus infrastructure, so it is hard to see how that resolve would magically appear after the county shells out $120 million for the Purple Line. The better strategy would be to take care of the longstanding countywide need for more and better buses first and then evaluate whether the Purple Line still makes sense.

Manage Sprawl and Strategically Invest in Existing Station Areas

Similarly, with so many underdeveloped rail transit stations around the county (including in the Purple Line corridor), it strains credulity for officials to suggest that the county needs light rail in order to spur economic development. In fact, according to the county itself, the opposite is true: the Purple Line could actually harm Prince George’s economic growth prospects.

The county’s current comprehensive plan, Plan Prince George’s 2035, discusses the somewhat enviable dilemma the county currently faces by having too many mixed use activity “centers,” most of which are located near existing Metrorail stations. The plan contends that having too many centers can actually “undermine economic growth” by spurring scattered development that will make it difficult “to achieve the density, intensity, and form necessary to support successful mixed-use, walkable communities and economic generators” at any one center.

Image by M-NCPPC
Already, without the Purple Line, the county has 28 designated centers, 19 of which are located at existing Metrorail and MARC stations. The county predicts that it will not have enough projected growth over the next 20 years to develop all of those stations. So logic dictates that building 11 new Purple Line stations is actually contrary to the county’s stated land use and growth policies.

One thing the county could and should do to improve its ability to grow its exiting transit station areas is to reduce its pipeline of dead sprawl projects and redirect some of that projected growth capacity to its existing Metro station areas. The county should also take more of a leading role (including financially) in redeveloping and revitalizing its neighborhood-scaled gateway station areas near the District of Columbia border.

Prince George’s future transit prosperity begins not with light rail, but with more local buses—running frequently, on time, seven days a week, and connecting citizens countywide to important county destinations and to the 23 Metrorail and MARC stations already constructed in the county. Likewise, Prince George’s economic development potential does not depend on new light rail transit stations, but rather lies in its existing Metrorail and MARC stations. So instead of brooding over the possible demise of the Purple Line, let's rise up and fight like hell for the county’s true transit and economic development priorities!

Monday, January 30, 2017

Prince George’s New Planning Director Is Not Actually a Planner

M. Andree Green
In a curious move, somewhat reminiscent of President Trump’s recent cabinet appointments, the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC) has selected someone with no formal training or professional experience in planning to serve as the director of the Prince George’s County Planning Department. No other jurisdiction in the Washington region has made such a choice, and for good reason: such a decision defies common sense, and it likely contravenes Maryland law.

Attorney M. Andree Green (Checkley), of Upper Marlboro, began her tenure as Planning Director on January 18. She replaces Dr. Fern V. Piret, who retired after serving 26 years in that position. For the past six years, Green worked as the County Attorney for Prince George’s. Before that, she worked for approximately eleven years in the legal department of M-NCPPC, the quasi-independent state agency responsible for planning, zoning, parks, and recreation in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.

Without question, Green is an experienced government lawyer, with nearly two decades of experience working in Prince George’s County. But Green is not a planner. She has never worked as a planner as has no educational background in planning. So how and why is she now being paid $192,000 a year to be the county’s Planning Director?

Green is Unqualified for the Planning Director Position

The Prince George’s County Planning Director is supposed to be an experienced planning professional. The position description for the job, which we obtained from M-NCPPC, states that the minimum qualifications are “at least 12 years of progressively responsible and broad-ranged planning experience that includes four years of planning experience at the managerial level, preferably five years at the department manager level.”

Green has zero years of professional planning experience, either at the managerial or non-managerial level. The American Planning Association’s American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP) is the national body that verifies and certifies the professional qualifications of planners. According to AICP standards, Green lacks even the minimum level of professional planning experience to be eligible to take the certification exam.

Thus, Green did not meet the minimum qualifications for the job when she was hired. Indeed, Green does not even meet the minimum qualifications for the currently-posted position for Deputy Planning Director, which requires 10 years of professional planning experience and preferably two years at the managerial level.

By contrast, nearly all of the other planning directors in the Washington metropolitan area had more than 15 years of prior management-level experience in planning before assuming their respective positions, and most are AICP-certified. [UPDATE: For a comparison of the qualifications of the region's planning directors, see this chart.]

M-NCPPC Likely Violated State Law By Hiring Green

The state law creating M-NCPPC specifically provides that the Planning Director and Deputy Planning Director in Prince George’s County “shall have education or professional experience in a field relevant to the responsibilities of that department.” As judged by the agency’s own criteria, as set out in the job descriptions, Green does not possess the requisite education or professional experience for either position. Therefore, M-NCPPC’s hiring of Green was arguably arbitrary, capricious, and contrary to Maryland law.

M-NCPPC spokeswoman Andrea Davey stated that the Planning Director position was posted on a variety of websites for approximately three months, from August 2–October 31, 2016, and that a total of four candidates were selected for interview. The agency would not disclose the identity of the other three candidates, citing confidentiality laws. However, Davey did indicate that the agency “did not deem it necessary to employ an executive search firm” in connection with this position.

Dorothy Bailey, Vice-Chair of M-NCPPC’s Prince George’s County Planning Board and a member of the selection committee, stated that Green was “second-to-none in her commitment to Prince George’s County, and in her know-how of the critical nuts and bolts involved in the planning process.” Board chairwoman Elizabeth M. Hewlett also cited favorably to Green’s “proven managerial experience and keen legal acumen.”

Green may well be a committed public servant, and she certainly has relevant legal knowledge and managerial experience. But she lacks any prior professional experience or training in planning—and that makes her selection as Planning Director untenable, and possibly unlawful.

How Can M-NCPPC Fix This?

Green’s employment contract is for two years, and it contains a “sweetheart” severance provision requiring the agency to pay her 12 full months of salary ($192,000) if it breaks the contract without cause. However, M-NCPPC could likely still void the contract without penalty, since Green did not have the requisite experience for the job to begin with. Additionally, the severance provision could itself be unlawful, since state law requires that the Planning Director and Deputy Planning Director shall “serve at the pleasure of the Prince George's County Planning Board.”

Ideally, M-NCPPC should consider reopening the Planning Director position and conducting a national search for a truly qualified and experienced professional planner with a proven track record in leading a large urban planning department. If possible, Green could be offered another position within the agency that meets with her actual qualifications and experience (e.g., a position in the legal department or in intergovernmental affairs).

Perhaps more than any other jurisdiction in the Washington region, Prince George’s County needs an experienced and innovative professional planner to lead its planning department—someone who can advocate effectively against the county’s overdependence on outer-Beltway sprawl development, help develop a workable plan for transit-oriented development and revitalization around the neighborhood gateway Metro stations near DC’s border, and oversee the implementation of a new 21st century zoning ordinance, among other priorities. Let’s hope M-NCPPC will make that happen.