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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Convince Me To Support the Purple Line

I like the idea of connecting all the Metro Lines in Maryland. I think it's a brilliant idea that will serve smart growth well, greatly reduce automobile reliance, and I think it will economically benefit the city as well as the suburbs.

But are we doing it right?

I haven't heard anyone from Langley Park or Riverdale complain like the whiny NIMBYs of Chevy Chase and Bethesda, who, in my opinion, are doing the entire region a disservice by allowing a Country Club to exist in an area that could be more served with some sort of denser development that serves the larger community and not just a few wealthy people that are accepted by this private club. Move that nonsense out into the country. Or better yet, get rid of Columbia Country Club. We have plenty of golf courses in Montgomery County. At the very least, the club needs to relinquish the 84' of 100' right-of-way that it currently fences off from the general public.

Those whining about the Capital Crescent Trail being harmed are in my opinion selfish. This project will undoubtedly change the character of portions the CCT, but it will extend the path into Silver Spring, connecting it to other hiker biker trails in Montgomery County. Furthermore, this rail right-of-way was purchased to serve the needs of the county, not to serve as a park for the residents of affluent Chevy Chase. I fail to see how the decreased aesthetics of the trail outweigh the increased functionality of the trail.

Then there's the occasional "I won't want a train that close to my house" by people who perhaps aren't familiar with light rail, in which case I can understand their concerns but don't believe their argument has the clout to block the initiative. In my experience, light rail is quieter, cleaner, and safer than buses running up and down the street. The only thing they lose is street parking, which ought not be a birth right in denser areas anyway.

This proposal has a lot of support, and it's generally more organized and informed than the opposition. So I'm not in anyway a NIMBY here. I think this transit link needs to happen. But I want the good people out there who read Imagine, DC to convince me that the current plan is a good idea. I'm leaning that way, but I want more information.

How is this line going to be integrated with the Metro Rail? Sure, it's going to drop people off at Bethesda, Silver Spring, College Park, and New Carrollton... but what's the deal? Is it going to be like a bus route? Or is it going to be fully integrated into Metro with seamless transfers? I've heard that it will be integrated with SmarTrip. That's good, but it's not good enough if it is not treated as part of the existing heavy rail system. It seems to me that would just be a glorified bus route, especially if it winds up as a BRT. Convince me otherwise. Otherwise, change the name, because "Purple Line" implies a seamless integration with Metro that won't exist.

I am not a statistician. But even the most optimistic ridership numbers seem painfully low to me. Gas isn't getting any cheaper. I would use that line 3-4 times a week if it existed, and I don't even commute along that route. 67,000? No way. I think ridership will be much, much higher than that if the line gets built, and that's before the ensuing transit oriented development pops up around Langley Park and wherever else. Is a light rail going to be able to handle those numbers? 5 years after it opens, will it be able to handle double those numbers? Triple?

Considering the large percentage of the route that will be sharing traffic lanes, how do we know it's not going to get stuck in gridlock along Wayne Avenue, University Boulevard, Kenilworth Avenue, or Riverdale Road? Will it have dedicated lanes on those corridors? Will those roads be losing traffic lanes or will additional right-of-way be constructed?

What incentives does the region have to continue this line? I know there have been talks about pushing it further in PG County to Largo. What about Branch Avenue? Will it serve FedEx Field?Andrews Air Force Base? National Harbor? I think a Purple Line ought to be a full loop running all around the city. Eventually, it ought to run through Tyson's Corner, Annandale, Bailey's Crossroads, and Alexandria. Is this feasible with this project?

Trolleys are a great idea. I think they ought to blanket this region by the time I retire, or sooner. But the Purple Line ought to be more than just a simple trolley. Montgomery and Prince George's counties' combined population is pushing two million, mostly concentrated around the regions where this vital transitway will be constructed. Whatever gets build should have been built 10 years ago, and this region has failed us terribly by not providing this transit link.

Again, I WANT fixed rail along this corridor, whatever it takes. I think the only reason I'm not a full fledged Purple Line supporter is because I don't know where to find the answers to these questions. Help me and any passers-by who want more information understand why this proposal should be supported.

I'm asking every pro-transit reader to convince me to come down off the fence onto the side of pro-Purple Line. Don't tell me this is the best idea for the money that has been alotted for this project; tell me this is the best idea for the people of the DC region who want to get around the dense built up (and up-and-coming) towns hugging our Nation's Capital. If there's not enough money for what we ought to have, let's find more. We need the Purple Line, and we need it done right.


Cavan said...

I'll start by directing you to the state's Purple Line site. Here is a link to a detailed description of the alternatives.

Look at the "high investment" choice. It has things like complete grade separation between Silver Spring and Bethesda Metro. It also has fenced off lanes on University Blvd., overpasses, and small tunnels in Silver Spring.

The state can't mention designs as a way to spur smart growth along the line, even though it is an unofficial aim of the project. In time, that will also increase ridership. They can't mention it in their formal releases because the FTA only cares about riders and cost and time.

The grade separated section between Silver Spring and Bethesda are projected to be 10 mins, similar to a heavy rail line. The high investment rail line projected to have 25 mins between UMD and Bethesda. Not too shabby and definately better than sitting on the beltway.
As far as integration with the existing Metro... the MTA views this project as an extension of the Washington region Metro system. Montgomery Co. has already set aside funding for a Purple Line platform that will be in tunnel between the Red Line and the Surface. The Silver Spring station will be integrated to the Silver Spring Metro/bus station. The plans for College Park and New Carrolton Metros involve a light rail station right in front of the entrance for the Green/Orange Line stations.

The state is currently working on primarily engineering issues in such a way that it passes the FTA's metrics (in my unofficial opinion for the high investment light rail) this fall under the Bush Administration. Otherwise, it will have to get to the back of the line and re-engineer the whole thing and resubmit it years from now. Consequently, they are not as far along with issues that you and I care about such as look and feel of being a part of the Metro and fare structure. Light rail trains can be boarded from the street so that alone changes the dynamics of fare collection. SmarTrip use is a no-brainer. However, the state and WMATA are only in preliminary talks about who will run it and how to integrate it into the existing Metro's distance based fare structure.

Remember that this project is a real project, not an ideal one from someone's fantasy land. Therefore, it must contend with real world political and fiscal issues. That's why it plays by the FTA's rules. That's just the political reality. I think we all would like ideally to have a circumferential heavy rail line but it's just not feasible under current political and fiscal conditions. However, building this line will make it much easier to eventually finish the job. It'll be much easier to build the line down to Suitland and then Alexandria if it already goes to New Carrolton.

It's important to remember that this project must go before the FTA this fall for funding. Therefore, it has to play by the FTA's guidelines. The 68k number was arrived at using the FTA's metrics. Since the FTA has been under the Bush Administration for over seven years, you are probably correct about the lowball figure.

I hope this helps you get behind this project. I am a member of a group that is member of the Coalition to Build the Purple Line and I encourage you to check out our website: and the coalition's website:

Dave Murphy said...


I have checked out both of those sites. in fact, this post linked to both of them. But thenk you for the detailed description of the alternatives. I never would have found that.

What are the chances that money will be put towards high advancement? This seems like the only truly viable option to me for most of the route.

Why does street pick up have to affect the fare structure? It doesn't on Boston's Green Line, which has light rail street pickup and seamless transfer to the other three lines downtown.

I'm also still concerned about the 68k ridership numbers. Assuming this administration is probably grossly underestimating the numbers, how do we know this system won't be completely overwhelmed within a couple years of becoming operational?

You addressed a lot of the questions I asked, thank you. Can anyone answer the rest?

Cavan said...

The probability is quite high (off the record, due to FTA politics) that the high investment light rail option will be selected. It has the highest projections of all options. Remember, the Bush Admin. FTA only cares about ridership numbers (according to their metrics), time, and cost.
As far as line capacity... you have to remember that ridership projection models and actual built capacity are very different things. Just because the ridership is projected to by 68,000 (using the FTA's lowball metrics), doesn't mean that's what the engineers are designing for. Remember, the Metro isn't anywhere near capacity, especially considering that most trains only use six cars, for example. Same with the Purple Line Metro addition. Light rail technology allows for different car configurations and different headways. Capacity will not be an issue for a long time. After that happens (think really long term here), our descendents will have to consider their options.
If something does happen and it gets to capacity quickly, we're going to be scrounging for funds for something... Let's fight on getting this thing built. It'll be a lot easier to upgrade (politically and fiscally) once it's working and considered vital infrastructure, like the current Metro.

Gaithersburger said...

I strongly agree with the point about the need to integrate the Purple Line with the wider metro system. I moved to Gaithersburg from Silicon Valley where there were multiple systems working, sometimes overlapping, but they were different systems.

Here's a recent article I dug up from someone describing the frustration I experienced when trying to move between rail (BART), light rail (VTA) and buses (SamTrans) through Silicon Valley.

In terms of overwhelming the system, cavan has it right. Rail has much higher capacity potential than is usually utilized. If anything, the real threat is underutilization, when one of the best points of rail (not relying on time tables) begins to disappear because trains are spaced 20 minutes or more.

Some recommendations I would make to the Purple Line planners, whoever you may be and if you are reading this comment:

1) tickets, obviously. enough said about that...
2) station look: a lot of metro stations have this awning that tells you from far away that there is a legitimate station here: integrate that look and people will know that it's part of the "Metro" system

3. add the electronic signs telling you how long the wait is until the next train: part of the beauty of subways is not looking at time tables; keep that capability if possible... if I see that I have 20 minutes I'm going to spend time getting breakfast or a paper...

4. at transfer points from Purple Line to subway, make it absolutely obvious and easy (i.e. not crossing streets) to make that transfer

5. and this is my last one: OPERATE THE SAME DAYS AND HOURS

I got screwed up more than once in Silicon Valley when the hours of one system end at 10pm, for example, and another ends at 1am. Those experiences were really expensive (long taxi rides) and really turned me off to using the system because I and my wife, both with Master's degrees in technical fields, could not navigate between these multiple systems for a night on the town.

So I'm a proponent of the Purple Line, especially in it's light rail form. I love bicycle commuting and I think that this line would serve a lot of people who can walk or bike to a Purple Line stop to get to their jobs. To me it's only a shame that we're spending $2B for the ICC when we could, for instance, expand the Purple Line like Imagine, DC suggest to encircle more of the current Metro.

I happen to think that gas prices are moving toward a new long-term equilibrium, and TOD + mass transit has to be the answer for metro areas. The DC area has so many good, legitimate satellite cities: we have to plug them together. The standard model of one downtown surrounded by suburbs does not hold true for much of DC. (That was a happy surprise to me when I moved here...) There are so many large employers strung out in these satellite cities and so many legitimate downtowns in other cities that I anticipate that the Purple Line is the beginning of better integration across these satellite cities. But lets get it right, and really integrate it.

Cavan said...

First off, I have to say welcome to the Washington region. In my opinion, we're the best kept secret in the United States. The Europeans are starting to hear how nice are region is and taking care of cheap (due to currency) travel expenses and checking out our city rather than just the massive theme park of the National Mall.
Much of what you see has only been in place this decade. It was a direct result of the completion of the Metro. According to people who have lived here longer than I have, the region was getting more decentralized until the Metro. Arlington, Montgomery County and DC proper did a lot of planning and strategy to get those "legitimate satellite cities" up off the ground. You'll notice that those "legitimate satellite cities" are clustered around Metro stations. That's on purpose, obviously. However, you need to know that in Bethesda, and the Orange Line in Arlington Co., VA, those dense walkable neighborhoods only exist because of the Metro. In the case of Rockville, Silver Spring, and Wheaton, there has been significant revitalization as a result of the County taking advantage of the existing Metro stations. I recommend reading "Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro" by Schrag. It'll tell you more than I can in this blog comment space.
After that book, I suggest Christopher Leinberger's "Option of Urbanism" where he describes what has been going on here. To put it simply, having the Metro, with its dense city subway characteristics in the core of Washington, combined with its commuter rail aspect, has not just transformed and altered the trajectory of the development patterns and preferences and land values in our region, it has turned us into the model (although the rest of the country might not know that they're going to be like us) of future growth in our nation. I can't think of a greater gift that our 1960's and 1970's Washingtonian forebears could have given us. The primary planners and construction managers were "greatest generation" WWII vets. Their children, the boomers, got to use it as a way to get to work without sitting in traffic. Their great-grandchildren, the X-ers and us milennials/echo-boomers have gotten to enjoy its benefits of a beautiful, walkable, cosmopolitan, alive, fun city. I moved here in fall 1999 to go to college at the University of Maryland and absolutely love how everything has just sprouted. It continues, despite the housing bubble popping. Just look at the land near NY Ave Metro. That station was only built in 2004.
Anyway, I'm off topic

Cavan said...

... back to the Purple Line...

As I mentioned in a previous post, the MTA considers it to be a future addition to the Metro system. They intend to work out the "look and feel" and fare structure with WMATA once they get the engineering and funding done. In the Washington region, we don't really have competing transit agencies like you say they do in the Bay Area. We have WMATA and the suburban bus systems (like RideOn) are meant to supplement and serve routes that WMATA does not serve. Plus, they all accept SmarTrip and each other's transfers.
The transers will be either above/below, or right next to the existing Metro heavy rail stations. They're thinking about that in the design. Remember, they have to boost ridership projections according to the FTA's metrics. One way is to make sure the Light Rail Purple Line stops are integrated with the existing Metro stops. As I said above, the designers see this project as an addition to the existing Metro system, not as its own thing. That's it's called "Purple Line". It uses the same color coded scheme that the existing five Metro lines use (just like the planned Silver Line in Virginia).
I'm sorry if I've gone over material you already knew. I figured too much is better than too little.

Dave Murphy said...


I really appreciate all this information. My last (and one of my biggest) concerns is fare structure. You stated:

"Light rail trains can be boarded from the street so that alone changes the dynamics of fare collection."

Boston's Green line picks up passengers on the street, but they can transfer to the Red, Blue, and Orange lines without leaving the station or going through another turnstile. I think this is absolutely vital if this project is going to be called "The Purple Line". Different mode, but otherwise just like every other Metro line.

Otherwise, I think you've singlehandedly won my support for the Purple Line. Even if we don't get seamless transfers at first,t hat's something that can certainly come with time, once the line is built.


Welcome to DC. I believe you'll find the Metro much more straightforward. I can't make the same assurances for the MTA in Baltimore. Use with caution.

Cavan said...

Remember that the T system in Boston has a fare structure like the NYC Subway: flat rate per trip charge. As you know, our system is newer and is outfitted with a distance based fare strutcture. It's one of the main reasons why WMATA gets between 60 and 75% of its operating costs from the farebox and the MTA in NYC only gets about 50%. While it's true that our existing distance based structure is feasible, it is challenging because the Metro currently allows a passenger to use SmarTrip or paper farecards. As you know, these machines are also what you use to put more money on your SmarTrip. Is it a good idea to put farecard dispensing machines at every Purple Line stop, exposed to the elements? Those things are really expensive and need at least protection from rain and snow. I suppose it's possible. I personally would love it. It would be familiar and would further say "I'm a part of the Metro system!" But that's part of the discussion that the State of Maryland MTA is in the early stages of having with WMATA.
As I already mentioned, due to practical reasons (politics at the FTA and funding at the FTA) the engineering is a higher priority presently.

Gaithersburger said...

Thanks for the leads on the books. I have "Great Society Subway" on reserve at the library; I'll read it over the next couple of weeks.

Regarding fare collection: I've tried a (admittedly shallow) search for distance-based pricing for light rail. I know that this was/has been an active debate in Montreal and Chicago to switch to a distance-based approach.

In the Chicago link, in particular, there is a commenter remarking, "I can't believe they didn't build in exit gates with the smart card system when they installed it."

I appreciate the need to start engineering before all the details are ironed out (since I'm an engineer myself). My concern is only: is there a mitigation approach to make sure that an engineering solution cannot reduce our options on fare systems? Could early engineering paint us into a corner where it's hard to do distance-based pricing? I only ask because cavan seems very familiar with the current state of system development.

Last question: Has anybody brought up the concept of RFIDs? They could be integrated into paper fare cards and SmartCards alike, and readers could be integrated into the Purple Line cars (and into Anacostia Street Cars, and every future street car for that matter, as well as the entrance/exit gates at the Metro stops.)

Cavan said...

The engineering is done first out of purely practical considerations, such as politics (FTA funding) and funding (FTA funding).
As for RFID's... have you tried the already existing WMATA SmarTrip card? (available at Metro stations around the region!). As for fare systems, I can assure that the state will hammer that one out at a table, with lots of activist and general citizen input. Look at the state's Purple Line website ( for upcoming meetings this fall where you will be able to provide input.
Glad to hear you have the book on reserve. It's exceptional and fun to read.