Guest Column: The Purple Line's opponents have a numbers problem.

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By Ben Ross:

The Purple Line's opponents have a numbers problem.

While the new Hogan administration wants to hear their point of view, it will not put saving trees in Chevy Chase ahead of the state's future prosperity.  So the case against the transit line must rise or fall on economics.

The problem for the opponents is the obvious value of a quick connection between the growing job centers of Bethesda, Silver Spring, College Park, and New Carrollton.  Planners predict 74,000 riders a day by 2040 -- many more than light rail lines with similar price tags elsewhere.

Even more important, the inner-suburb town centers it runs through are the sweet spot in real estate today.  With the Purple Line, they will be what the market now demands and can rarely find -- places that are accessible from all directions without worry about traffic jams, yet have the advantages of suburban living close by.

For an answer to these points, which supporters of the project have made for years, the opponents turned to Randal O'Toole of the Cato Foundation.  O'Toole, who has spent years studying (and criticizing) light rail projects around the country, made his case in an article posted on the foundation's website.   But O'Toole, whose arguments have been pitched heavily to the Hogan administration, simply doesn't get the facts right.

The errors are best taken one-by-one:

       final EIS... ridership projection: 46,000 riders per day in 2030

The Final EIS predicts 69,300 riders per day in 2030.

       the draft EIS ... projecting the line would carry more than 36,000 trips each weekday in 2030.

The route the state later chose is a hybrid of DEIS alternatives with forecasted ridership of 62,600 and 68,100.

       really no major job centers.  

Bethesda had 77,000 jobs in 2005 and has more now.  This compares to 79,000 in downtown San Diego and 88,000 in downtown St. Louis.

       the only cities with significant transit ridership have job centers with 80,000 or more jobs (from a subsequent blog comment)

The Jersey City waterfront district, with just over 40,000 jobs, has transit mode shares of 70% for residents and 42% for workers

       those job centers have to be at the center of hub-and-spoke transit systems (from blog comment)

The Purple Line will create hubs where it crosses Metro lines in Bethesda, Silver Spring, College Park, and New Carrollton

       urban Montgomery County’s 3,500 people per square mile

This number is the population density of the county's "urbanized area" -- its entire built-up area including even Germantown, Olney, and Damascus. The areas where the Purple Line will stop, such as Silver Spring and downtown Bethesda, are much denser. 

       The traffic analysis for the FEIS... makes it appear that the rail line is reducing congestion.  A careful reading reveals this isn’t true.

The cited report is not about the Purple Line's overall effect on traffic congestion.  It is about whether trains will interfere with traffic at grade crossings.  It doesn't look at the Beltway, other parallel roads, or anyplace west of Rock Creek.

       Though the university [of Maryland] is on the proposed Purple Line, the campus covers 1,250 acres, which means many students and employees will not work or have classes within easy walking distance of the rail stations.

A quick look at the campus map shows that the great majority of buildings are within half a mile of Campus Drive, where the Purple Line will run.  Outlying portions of the campus are largely devoted to athletics, parking, golf course, etc.

       Considering the huge demographic differences between Boston, Los Angeles, and Montgomery County, Maryland,

Demographics based on city and county boundaries are irrelevant; what matters primarily is the corridor where the transit lines run and secondarily the entire metropolitan area.

       If measured by trips per station or mile of rail line, only the light-rail systems in Boston and Los Angeles carry more riders than the FEIS projected for the purple line...   it isn’t credible to think that the Purple Line’s performance will approach Boston and L.A. rail lines.

What isn't credible is O'Toole's cursory dismissal of detailed state studies on the basis of an apples-to-oranges comparison.  A careful examination shows that the Purple Line will probably exceed  forecasts because the forecasts grossly undercount student riders. 

If this is the best Purple Line opponents can come up with, it only shows the weakness of the case they are trying to make.  


Ben Ross is a long-time Purple Line advocate and author of the book Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism (Oxford University Press, 2014)

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