Friday, March 21, 2014

Purple Line LRT: Suburban harbinger

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Even rail supporters often overlook the importance of Maryland's proposed 16-mile Purple Line to future U.S. development, efficiency, competitiveness, lifestyle. I see it as a game changer.

The light rail transit (LRT) project seems basic enough, in some ways, running roughly east-west and spanning Washington, D.C.'s northern Maryland suburbs. And there's the key: It runs through and serves suburbs first if not foremost, an arrangement that should (but often doesn't) spark curiosity even among pro-rail folk.

But consider: The Purple Line does not directly serve, nor directly go to or through, a "major city," and that's meant as no offense to any Maryland municipality. At least in terms of LRT and the Northeast Corridor, "major city" might mean nearby D.C. (population about 646,000), or Baltimore (population 621,000) – or at least Jersey City, N.J. (population 254,000), the largest municipality served by Hudson-Bergen Light Rail.

The Purple Line breaks population shackles or "limits" imposed on LRT by experts relying overmuch on the big population cluster. It offers intrasuburban options to a classic U.S. postwar sprawl landscape choking on its own inefficiency—a phenomenon now slowly but surely rearing its ugly head in myriad ways too numerous to delve into here. The Purple Line's subdued promise goes further: It serves as a circumferential LRT line marrying Washington, D.C.'s Metrorail's radial pattern of rapid transit to allow not just travel to the center city, but real and valid and convenient travel options from that city center to the numerous smaller transit-accessible centers Maryland's suburbia will have – and must have more of – for any meaningful future.

Indeed, that makes the relatively small population centers of Montgomery and Prince George's counties much stronger in the aggregate. Bethesda's 60,000-plus, combined with New Carrollton's 12,000, are just the endpoints on a line that also includes Takoma Park's 37,000 residents, College Park's 31,000 residents, and (some double-counting probable, but still) the average annual student body of the University of Maryland's main campus, estimated at 37,000.

The Purple Line's role as a feeder/distributor doesn't stop with Metrorail. It opens up public transit (rail) access from the line's suburban customers to Maryland MARC regional rail service, and to Amtrak intercity service. It can (and will) pass any customer utility test, and then some, in the years ahead. So yes, the "big city" gets plugged in -- just not as the primary player. Win-win.

Some Maryland locales and vested interests have been merely slow to see the merits of modal diversity, the value of choice offered by the line. The University of Maryland's administrative staff comes to mind, though eventually the elders caught up with their students (and much of the faculty) to support LRT.

Others, slower still, continue to oppose the Purple Line, with Chevy Chase, Md., continuing to snipe at the project in ever-fainter hopes of stopping it – hopes dealt another blow March 20 by the Record of Decision issued by the Federal Transit Administration, virtually approving the project to proceed.

Not that Chevy Chase's strategy and tactics have been foolish; anti-rail partisans nationwide have used the fear-uncertainty-doubt (FUD) elixir, which at its weakest stalls a project and makes it harder to defend, especially when those delays begin to generate additional costs (see? The project is even more of a "boondoggle"), so that even if a Phase 1 is achieved, future phases become problematic. (That scenario is being played out now a bit further north in New Jersey and Hudson-Bergen Light Rail.)

purpleline mapSome sort of east-west cross-Maryland transit has been sought since the 1970s, with the current version of the Purple Line forming into shape in late 2008 or early 2009, according to Purple Line Now!, the diligent pro-rail advocacy group that's skillfully steered the effort at the (true) grass-roots level. That's anywhere from five to 40 years of delay, of doubt, of confusion, which Chevy Chase anti-rail folks can continue to leverage with at least some lingering effect.

But it begins to look like they'll lose – and paradoxically, that they'll actually win despite their intentions, if the first truly intrasuburban LRT line, married to other existing rail options (as shown in map above), comes into play. Chevy Chase and other Maryland 'burbs, to their initial surprise, might find themselves models of suburban survival, indeed of suburban attractiveness, as the realities of congestion, pollution, inefficiency, and infrastructure renewal costs begin to crash down on so much of post-WWII development – much of it shoddy to begin with – and discerning citizens begin actively choosing winners and losers in the U.S. suburban housing market.

Because the suburbs are now getting old, physically and psychologically (and demographically) old. There's an aging of American infrastructure no longer confined to the big, bad cities, and the cost of addressing the suburban network will be steep, with transit only one component of the overarching entropy.

As I crafted this piece, an email message from a columnist from Bergen County, N.J's newspaper, The Record, came up seeking input from readers on mobility. It noted in part:

"Mobility for the elderly is a big issue in North Jersey, so I'm writing about programs that offer rides to seniors who no longer drive. Unless you're fond of taking cabs, suburban Bergen and Passaic counties aren't the easiest places to navigate without a car, so the need seems to be pretty clear. Although there are some programs, they appear to be limited and funding and staffing are always big challenges."

Those programs, be it noted, don't involve LRT or passenger rail of any kind, at least not yet, and it's unlikely Bergen County, asleep at the switch until extremely recently, will be able or willing to apply its own version of the Purple Line for intracounty needs. Like some of their Maryland counties counterparts, farseeing Bergen County dwellers pondered the need for east-west public transit way back in the 1970s (I myself, a high school student, could not yet quite see it). Unlike Maryland's counties, Bergen County, N.J. still hasn't moved to redress that. Montgomery and Prince George's counties, by contrast, are trying to do just that.

They'll succeed more than they might know. Assuming no political surprises, Maryland's Purple Line, when it opens in the next decade, will be a new kind of LRT outlier. My hope is its role also will catch on across the U.S. and Canada in the same way modern LRT (and, currently, streetcars) have done.

Remember, Edmonton, Calgary, and San Diego were LRT outliers between 1978 and 1981; now they're just one of many LRT systems growing across North America. Still, most of them peg most of their (very useful; no dispute) fortunes on suburb-to-city travel, a workable formula as U.S. (and Canadian) cities rebound and recover.

But right now, in 2014, the Purple Line's true importance, its variants of utility, aren't yet grasped, even by some of its staunch allies and proponents. That's OK. They'll first be gratified when it opens to success. They'll then be astonished at how successful the line likely will be.

Douglas John Bowen

Douglas John Bowen is Managing Editor of RAILWAY AGE. He also served as Editor of Intermodal Age from 1989 to 1991, and has held various positions at Inbound Logistics magazine, High Speed Transport News, The Journal of Commerce, and CNN/Money. Bowen began his journalism career at the Asbury Park Press, a New Jersey daily newspaper. A graduate of Rutgers University, Bowen resides in Hoboken, N.J. He served as president of the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers (NJ-ARP) from 1987 to 2000 and again from 2004 to 2010, serving on the NJ-ARP board from 1984 until 2012; he remains a member of the statewide organization.