SEABROOK – Although federal funding has finally been secured for the Purple Line, questions still linger about how the planned light rail line will impact the existing Metrorail system.
The Purple Line is a 16-mile light rail line proposed to run between New Carrollton Metro station in Prince George’s County and Bethesda station in Montgomery County. Although it will connect to Metrorail in four locations, the line will be operated by the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA), not the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Administration (WMATA).
The agencies are collaborating closely on the project, but public documents and some critics of the Purple Line argue that although the agencies are working together to make the project a success, WMATA’s financial situation could be made worse if riders have another mass transit option. On the other hand, supporters see the Purple Line as a potential boon for the struggling rail system.
“While the Purple Line is capable of providing excellent service by itself, it derives much of its value by connecting to WMATA,” said Ralph Bennett, president of the Purple Line Now advocacy group.
Bennett says the region’s mass transit system can be envisioned like a bicycle wheel. The existing Metrorail system forms the spokes, and the Purple Line will provide the rim to “complete the system,” he said.
“If you try to take a trip from Silver Spring to Bethesda, you have to go into D.C. and back out using the Red Line,” he said. “Now, with the Purple Line, you can just take a trip along the short side of the triangle.”
But opponents of the project argue that increased connectivity comes at a cost. The state of Maryland pledged $160 million to the line’s construction and $150 million total in yearly subsidies to Purple Line Transit Partners (PLTP), the private entity awarded the $5.6 billion contract to build the line and operate it until 2052. After that, MTA will operate the Purple Line itself. While billed as a public-private partnership, the contract is not truly a partnership, opponents argue, because the state’s taxpayers are at more financial risk than the private company.
“The main performance criterion when you’re building and operating something like the Purple Line is, well, what’s the ridership? That’s a criterion which the private partner is not held responsible for under the contract,” said Christine Real de Azua, who is one of the plaintiffs on a federal lawsuit challenging the Purple Line. “Maryland taxpayers and people who contribute through their ridership dollars, those are the ones who are left holding the bag. Even if nobody shows up.”
The state’s payment to PLTP is not contingent on ridership of the line, per the terms of the contract – which is the largest in Maryland’s history. The private consortium, which is made up of development firm Star America, financing company Meridiam and engineering/construction company Fluor, agreed to chip in $1 billion of construction costs, assuming the risk of construction costs overruns while the state assumes the risk of ridership failures. MTA official Jeff Ensor told a Maryland Senate committee last April the deal was structured this way to give the state control over Purple Line fares.
State officials have also said the state’s costs will be funded partially through MARC commuter rail revenues (until Purple Line fares can pay for the system around the 15-year mark) paid into a dedicated fund. This decision was made so the state doesn’t exceed its capital debt limits, Treasurer Nancy Kopp said during the Board of Public Works meeting on April 6, 2016, when the contract was approved.
“It will require significant monitoring, I believe, because we want to make sure it goes through to this trust and is not part of the TTF (Transportation Trust Fund) because it then may be state funds and have a significant impact and we are not allowed to approve the project,” she said.
Secretary of Transportation Pete Rahn has made repeated assurances that Purple Line financing will not detract from the state’s yearly monetary commitment to WMATA. But Real de Azua and her co-plaintiff John Fitzgerald question whether permanently tying up some of the state’s funds to another transit project when the Metrorail system is in dire need of repair is the right move.
“It’s common sense, practical advice not to rob Peter to pay Paul,” Fitzgerald said. “This isn’t just money. It’s resources in terms of technical expertise – engineering know-how for rail systems, electrical – all those are in relatively short supply, and if you try to build another element of this sort of larger system at the same time you’re trying to rebuild Metro, you’re going to be basically robbing the Metro system and the MARC train system and all that of the same sort of expertise that Metro so desperately needs.”
Opponents of the Purple Line argue it will take resources away from Metro in another way: by taking riders. In the process of evaluating the Purple Line project, the state produced a Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS), which includes the results of technical analysis and modeling to determine the effects of the line on communities, the environment and other transit systems as compared to a no-build condition. The FEIS predicted 802,619 daily regional work trips on Metrorail by 2040 if the Purple Line were not constructed, but only 800,235 such Metrorail trips with the Purple Line in place. Metro’s maximum fare for rail travel during the peak period is $6 per passenger, meaning Metro could lose up to $14,304 per weekday, or about $3.7 million a year. That’s on top of lost revenues from weekend and non-work trips, and bus riders who switch to the Purple Line.
“Metro has estimated it is $25-50 billion short over the next 10 years to conduct repairs needed to get to safety and reliability,” Fitzgerald said. “If, on top of that, you were to lose millions a year, then you’re even further in the hole. You can’t bleed a system like that that’s already sick without basically killing it.”
Metro itself acknowledges the potential loss of ridership. WMATA Spokesman Richard Jordan said bus customers who usually use the J lines would have a choice to use the Purple Line instead. And in its comments during the FEIS process, submitted as a letter dated Jan. 12, 2009, from Nat Bottigheimer, assistant general manager for planning and joint development at WMATA, the agency noted, “By allowing for direct intra-suburban trips on high-quality rapid transit, the project will like carry some transit trips that otherwise would have travelled through the core of the Metrorail system either on the Red Line or to transfer to the Green Line or Orange Line.”
Still, Metro remains supportive of the project.
“Metro welcomes efforts that improve the region's East-West mobility. The proposed Purple Line route would bring transit relief for residents on that front,” Jordan said.
He also highlighted the benefits for Metro riders from the station improvements being made at places like Bethesda and Silver Spring to make way for the line.
“Improvements at the Bethesda and Silver Spring stations will enhance transit, particularly for those who transfer between modes, and increase accessibility for those who are currently just beyond walking distance from these stations,” he said.
While the FEIS predicted Metrorail and bus would lose ridership to the Purple Line, it also found total use of transit in the region would rise by 19,700 trips per day, 9 percent more than the amount transit trips would grow without the line. With about 13 percent of Purple Line riders connecting to the light rail via Metrorail, Metro thinks it could serve as a plus for WMATA by making it easier for people who live further away from stations to reach them. Bennett also said there was “no question” the SmarTrip cards would be compatible with the Purple Line fare system for ease of transition between the two.
At the Purple Line groundbreaking ceremony Aug. 28, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan assured, “It will integrate seamlessly with our current transit systems including Amtrak, MARC and Metro.”
County and state leaders are also counting on development projects around planned Purple Line stations to increase tax revenues, providing more resources which could potentially be funneled into Metro through the jurisdictional subsidy. While the FEIS said the predicted development around the stations that share facilities with Metrorail is spurred by Metrorail itself, it notes, “In the other station areas of Chevy Chase Lake, Lyttonsville, Woodside/16th Street, Long Branch, Piney Branch Road, Takoma/Langley Transit Center, Riggs Road, Adelphi Road/West Campus, M Square, Riverdale Park, Beacon Heights and Annapolis Road/Glenridge, the Purple Line would have the potential to induce development.”
However, the ridership equation goes both ways. Real de Azua and Fitzgerald’s lawsuit included several concerns about the line’s impact on endangered arthropods in Montgomery County, but Judge Richard Leon agreed with just one of their arguments: Metro’s falling ridership numbers should change the ridership calculations for the Purple Line. He ruled that a supplementary environmental impact statement must be done with new Metro data before the line could proceed.
“The Purple Line was designed to feed off of four different Metro transit stops, and provide ridership back and forth. And the more people seek alternatives to Metro, the more they’re going to be disinclined to use the Purple Line,” Fitzgerald said.
The state appealed the decision, and the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals granted a stay to Leon’s ruling on July 19, which restored federal approval pending appeal and paved the way for a full-funding agreement with the federal government, solidifying its $900 million contribution to the project. President Donald Trump campaigned on using public-private partnerships for infrastructure projects, and the Purple Line is an example of the state doing just that.
Politics has never been far removed from the Purple Line saga. Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley enthusiastically embraced the idea of a new mass-transit connection in the east-west corridor of the D.C. metro area in 2009, setting aside funding for the studies that came to produce the FEIS for the Purple Line in 2013. But current Republican Gov. Hogan campaigned against both the Purple Line and Baltimore’s Red Line light rail. However, when state costs for the Purple Line were reduced by $550 million through measures such as reducing headways and the number of maintenance facilities to be constructed, Hogan changed his mind and supported the project – so long as Prince George’s and Montgomery counties contributed more money.
For now, the Purple Line’s future remains uncertain, pending the results of the state’s appeal. Opponents maintain that the questions about Metro’s future are too pressing to allow the project to move ahead without answers.
“What does the decline – and that’s part of what the supplemental environmental impact statement is supposed to elucidate – what is the impact of the decline of the Metro system on the ridership projections for the Purple Line? So you have this double negative spiral, potentially,” Real de Azua said.
But Metro, the state and county governments and Purple Line supporters like Bennett say the light rail project’s benefits outweigh the costs. Bennett says he thinks light rail will eventually encircle the entire region.
“It will provide much-needed connections,” he said. “What’s clear is we have to rely less on cars, because we have no more room for them.”