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!