Category Archives: purple line

Purple Line Moving Forward

Surprising many, Gov. Larry Hogan announced that he plans to move forward with the Purple Line. Before analyzing this decision, I want to congratulate my many friends who have supported the project on this major step forward. While it’s not a done deal, my assumption at this point is that it will get built.

Politically Astute
Gov. Hogan has set this up nicely to flummox his opponents. He will tell his supporters that he has substantially reduced the cost and made heavily Democratic Montgomery and Prince George’s pay more for it. If they cannot come up with the money, he can shift the blame for Purple Line failure on to them.

Cost Down Less and Borrowing Up More Than Advertised
The Governor has adopted the Orwellian speak surrounding the project of referring to the money that the concessionaire (i.e. the project builders) will spend as the “private sector contribution.” Of course, it’s not a contribution but money that the State will be paying back with interest for many, many years.

A sizable chunk of the cost reductions touted by the Governor are not really reductions but additional money being put on the Giant Purple Credit Card. It’s analogous to claiming that you saved money on buying your house because you took out a bigger mortgage.

Prince George’s County Negotiates
While Montgomery seems happy to pony up another $50 million for the Purple Line, Prince George’s has been much more hesitant. But Prince George’s response looks less like a flat no than the savvy opening gambit in a negotiation.

In their eagerness for the project, Montgomery officials may have left the County in an exposed position in which we’ll end up paying a lot more than our neighbors. Is Montgomery willing to raise its contribution further? If so, how much? If others stand firm, will Prince George’s pay?

Montgomery County Pays–But How?
How does Montgomery plan to find the extra $50 million? County Executive Leggett and Councilmember Floreen said that we could issue bonds but bonds have to be paid back. As County borrowing capacity is limited, at least if it wants to maintain its credit rating, this will reduce our ability to borrow for other purposes.

As a result, Montgomery will have to cut spending in other areas. What will the cuts be? Will the County maintain its commitment to build the bike path next to the Purple Line? Alternatively, will the County try to raise taxes even though income taxes are at the legal max and raising the property tax above the Charter limit would require a unanimous Council vote?

The County could create a special taxing district on new development in the Purple Line area. It will be interesting to see if the Chevy Chase Land Company is willing to start paying substantial sums towards this project which will benefit it immensely. Or will it continue to shift costs on to the rest of us.

Who Pay for Cost Increases?
If costs rise after the contract is awarded to the concessionaire–either due to changes requested by the State or provisions within the contract with price flexibility (e.g. related to energy prices)–who will pay for the inevitable cost increases? Will it fall on the State or on Montgomery and Prince George’s County?

These are tough questions, which is why many smart proponents of the project have been more cautiously celebratory than might be expected and carefully sorting through the Governor’s new proposal. And now that the project is moving forward, County officials will have to begin really answering them.

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Rahn Weakens Hogan’s Hand on Purple Line

Robert McCartney in the Washington Post broke the story on Wednesday that Secretary of Transportation Pete Rahn has recommend building the Purple Line:

Rahn urged his boss to go ahead with the light-rail project in the Washington suburbs providing that the price tag is trimmed by about $300 million from the estimated $2.45 billion cost and that Montgomery and Prince George’s counties pay a bigger share, one of the officials said. Both spoke on the condition of anonymity because while they have been briefed on Rahn’s action, they were not authorized to speak publicly about it.

I tend to give credence to the story because of the response from the Governor’s office:

Hogan spokesman Doug Mayer said he could not confirm that Rahn had urged the governor to back a less-costly version of the project, rather than postpone it or kill it outright.

“As far as I know, no final recommendations have been made to the governor,” Mayer said. He declined to say whether Rahn had delivered a preliminary judgment.

If Rahn had yet to deliver his judgement or it was negative, wouldn’t Hogan’s spokesman issue a flat denial instead of a “no comment” in response to these questions?

Assuming that’s the case, the story places Hogan in an awkward position. If Hogan moves forward with the project, he looks weak and pushed into it by Rahn, despite the strong opposition of many Republicans. Alternatively, if Hogan nixes it, he looks like he has ignored the advice of the Secretary he charged with it and transit advocates will beat him over the head about it.

Either way, Hogan doesn’t look good. Rahn also cannot be happy that the press got a hold of this story. It portrays him as the indiscreet member of administration that has had strong message discipline. It also doesn’t aid his future job prospects, as people don’t want to hire someone who speaks out of school.

Side Note: Was Montgomery Council President George Leventhal, quoted later in the article as confirming the story, the source of the leak despite his protestations that:

I really like the secretary, and I hope I haven’t said anything that gets him in trouble. He was abundantly clear that he supports the project, he wants to build the project, and he was getting ready to make his recommendation.”

After all, it wouldn’t be the first time that someone was quoted as confirming their own “anonymous” leak.

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Hogan Approves Purple Line

In a surprise move, Gov. Larry Hogan announced that he is ready to move full-speed ahead on the light-rail Purple Line that will travel from Bethesda to New Carrollton in suburban Washington. The Baltimore Sun reported:

“Working closely with Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn, we have discovered the means to reduce costs substantially,” said Gov. Hogan at an early morning press conference. “If we eliminate frills, I am now confident that it can be built in a cost-effective manner that will bring business to Maryland.”

Hogan explained that a major barrier has always been the price of the light-rail cars, which are expensive and have to be imported from Ostrava in the Czech Republic:

We have cut unnecessary extras. Seats provide no benefit to the taxpayer, so they have been eliminated from the redesigned trains. Indeed, we have now also done away with walls and the ceiling to go with a sleek, modern flatbed design.

Purple Line Project Manager Mike Madden applauded the move:

I appreciate the governor’s support and leadership on the project. Eliminating not just doors but walls will make it easier to board and to exit the train, thus reducing time spent at stations and increasing speed, resulting in an estimated increase in ridership of 31.7%.

When asked for the documentation on the increased ridership, Madden described the information as “proprietary” but also reassured the public on their accuracy: “They were calculated by the same high-quality experts who designed the Silver Spring Transit Center that will open later this year.”

Hogan’s decision to simplify cars was hailed by former Action Committee for Transit President Ben Ross:

This new design is in touch with the simplified lifestyle preferred by Millennials. Let’s face it: seats are emblematic of the bourgeois Lexus lifestyle. I’m glad that Maryland and Montgomery County have said “yes” to our smart growth future by embracing open plan light-rail.

Similarly, Montgomery Council President George Leventhal congratulated Hogan on WAMU for “finally following his lead” and said “The open plan is an excellent forward-thinking idea. I think of it as a moving Capital Crescent Trail. It will be a first-class system.”

Not all of Leventhal’s colleagues were so sanguine. Council Vice Chair Nancy Floreen said to the Washington Post:

Heck, I never thought the Governor would invest so much money in areas that will never vote for him. Now, I’ll have to come up with all the money that Montgomery County promised when I’m Council President next year. I don’t see why I shouldn’t just run for Congress instead.

But Robert Thomson, better known as Dr. Gridlock, reassured the public in an online Post discussion: “I have every confidence that the Purple Line will light a fire under small business in Langley Park just as the DC Streetcar has sparked long quiet H Street.”

Former Carroll County Commissioner Republican Robin Frazier denounced the move. Appearing at a “Help Save Maryland” rally, she said that it would only help “homosexuals and illegal aliens get around so that they can use bathrooms in more places.”

 

 

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Kay Says Connecticut Ave. Overpass Could Be on Chopping Block

ChevyChaseLakeTraffic

Where the Purple Line Would Cross Connecticut

In a meeting with the Montgomery County delegation to the House of Delegates, MTA Executive Director of Transit Development and Delivery Henry Kay cited the Connecticut Avenue overpass as an example of the type of cuts that a bidder for the project might make in order to reduce costs.

Gov. Larry Hogan has asked the bidders for the project to find ways to reduce the cost of the proposed light-rail project. However, the directions exclude cutting the length of the line or converting it to a bus-rapid transit (BRT) system. As a result, expensive features like the overpass remain one of the few ways to cut costs.

The change would greatly worsen traffic on Connecticut Ave., already bumper-to-bumper during rush hour. Massive new development slated around the stop at Chevy Chase Lake would exacerbate the problem, as the great majority of new residents along with visitors to commercial properties would still drive.

The change would represent a major loss for the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, which has lobbied heavily against any plan to eliminate the overpass in favor of an at-grade crossing. WABA sold the Purple Line to its membership as improving bike travel. The change would mean that not only would there be no fast crossing at Connecticut. Additionally, the current underground bike crossing at Wisconsin Ave. will be eliminated even though the rail line will remain below ground.

 

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MTA Financial Fail

This one is going to cost us way more than Charlie’s proverbial nickel. The Baltimore Sun reports:

The Maryland Transit Administration failed to verify the accuracy of millions of dollars in contractor-submitted architectural and engineering costs for the Red and Purple light rail lines, according to a state audit released Monday.

The unverified labor bills from four contractor groups hired to work on the two pending transit lines, scheduled for Baltimore and the Washington suburbs, respectively, account for or relate to $232.8 million in overall costs under the multibillion-dollar projects, the audit found.

And we ought to be concerned that the accuracy of expenditures were not verified because:

The joint ventures were originally awarded contracts not to exceed $280 million, but the value of those contracts was increased in July 2013 to $547.1 million, the audit found.

The lack of checks on expenditures has led to waste such as:

• $10 million in overpayments to Mobility Paratransit Program vendors for fuel.

• Nearly $500,000 in payments of excise tax on fuel that the agency is exempt from paying.

This no worries attitude is especially shocking because one of the major firms involved in the project–Parsons Brinckerhoff–also played a key role in designing the fiasco known as the Silver Spring Transit Center.

Failing Disabled Marylanders

The audit further legitimated claims by disability rights advocates that MTA is failing them::

The audit also found the agency failed to properly oversee eligibility for its mobility program, something advocates for people with disabilities also alleged in a lawsuit recently filed against the agency.

MTA does not contest the audit’s results.

Accountability

Who in MTA is responsible? Will anyone be held accountable for this two-fold scandal–not just waste of public funds but failure even to keep track of how they are being spent?

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Catching Fire–Just Not in the Good Way

streetcaronfire

DC Streetcar on Fire, Source: @willsommer (aka Loose Lips)

This was not a good weekend for public transit in Washington be it streetcar, light-rail, or Metro.

Metro is Smokin’

Here is a summary of this weekend’s record, though I’m not sure I caught all of the incidents:

  • Woodley Park evacuated after faulty brakes filled station with smoke;
  • Foggy Bottom smoke blamed on “maintenance issue” resulted in deployment of firefighters;
  • Smoke in L’Enfant Plaza after a Green Line train experienced a “mechanical issue.”

Fortunately, no one was hurt in these incidents. As usual, @unsuckdcmetro has absolutely the last word with his tweet: “Metro should vape instead.”

But the Streetcar is on Fire. Literally.

On Saturday, the DC streetcar and a car parked a foot from the curb had a close encounter. Think car mirror meets streetcar exterior and neither is better for the experience. Apparently, this was not its only collision that day.

But that turned out to be small beans compared to the fire on the DC streetcar.  Still in its prolonged working out the kinks phase, the streetcar experienced an “unexplained” flash fire on top of the car.

Again, no one was injured.

Purple Line Repudiated by Guy who Named It

In a letter to the Gazette, the guy who named the Purple Line says the project is a mistake:

There are many problems with the Purple Line that give Mr. Hogan pause. It should have been part of Metro. A trip from one end to the other takes too long. It cost too much and its benefits are too small.

The most important cost, though, isn’t in dollars it would take from better transit projects, but the destruction of a priceless pedestrian/bicycle connection between Bethesda, Rock Creek Park and Silver Spring. Maryland and Montgomery transit officials have been obsessed with claiming the Georgetown Branch for their own, regardless of the lack of benefit and destruction it would cause.

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Independent Transit Authority Proposed for MoCo

At the request of Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett, the County’s legislative delegation has filed a bill (MC 24-15) to allow the County to create a new, independent Transit Authority. The bill is already generating controversy and an online petition against it on change.org (or, in this case, don’t change.org).

If passed, the bill would permit (read again: permit, not require) Montgomery County to create a Transit Authority. The new authority could potentially run anything from the current Ride-On system to a new BRT (bus-rapid transit) system to parking lots and roads around the County.

The County Executive would appoint the members of the Transit Authority board subject to confirmation by the County Council. This independent body would then carry out independently a transit program as passed by the Council. This program could be relatively narrow (e.g. take over the existing Ride-On system) or broader (e.g. construct and operate a new BRT system).

Taxes and Finances

As written, the bill would allow (again: allow, not mandate) the County to pass a property tax that is designated to raise funds specifically for the Transit Authority. These monies would not count toward the County Charter limit.

Additionally, if transportation expenditures (e.g. Ride-On) are moved over from the County budget, the County could reduce taxes  or spend the money on other needs because they would no longer be counted as within the Charter limit.

Less Different Than You Think

The County already has the power to do much of this through special taxing districts that have the power to construct transit (i.e. make capital expenditures) and raise funds outside the Charter limit. However, special taxing districts cannot operate transit.

Though the Transit Authority might spend monies on building and operating new systems, it would also likely realize some savings elsewhere. For example, a new transit line would likely result in needing to spend less on Ride-On buses.

Advantages

The clear advantage of this proposal is that it would allow Montgomery to take greater control its transportation future. Monies raised in Montgomery would stay in Montgomery. The County could choose to build projects that the State is not ready or able to fund. Ideally, the County would adopt a program that would help reduce traffic and help Montgomery grow.

Ironically, it might conceivably save money at the State level by reducing the need to construct another project elsewhere in the State in order to build the political support needed. Unlike the Montgomery-Prince George’s Purple Line and the Baltimore Red Line, Transit Authority projects would not need to move in tandem with other projects to gain support.

Disadvantages

No one likes seeing their taxes go up. While some would be willing to pay to see the money spent here in Montgomery on transportation, other will undoubtedly oppose anything that allows the County to increase its taxation authority.

Other may view the Transit Authority’s greatest strength–its ability to operate more insulated from politics–as its greatest weakness, perceiving it as less accountable to the public. Tradeoffs like these often exist in government. The Federal Reserve Board operates infinitely better for being independent of Congress and the President but it is also less responsive to the vicissitudes of public opinion.

County Executive and Council influence over transportation would simultaneously increase and decline. It would increase because they could fund and mandate new projects, giving the County much more muscular authority over transit. But the independent authority would be more independent once a funding mechanism is in place and a program adopted.

To Build What

A new Transit Authority would likely be able to move forward with the widely supported Corridor Cities Transitway (CCT) and additional bus-rapid transit lines gradually for the County. BRT is much less costly than light rail (Purple Line) or heavy rail (Metro).

It would almost certainly not be enough to move forward with the Purple Line because that project is just so expensive ($2.4 billion and rising). I am hearing that the Transit Authority would not be intended to build the Purple Line but to move forward with the CCT and other transit improvements.

Of course, I’d like to see numbers so I could figure out what is possible and what is not. This is impossible for the simple reason that the taxation rates and general program of any Transit Authority would be up to the County Council.

Preliminary Thoughts

My initial reaction is that the Transit Authority may well be a good idea. Montgomery County has major transportation needs that should be more broadly addressed. The Authority would provide both the means and the opportunity to do so. Councilmember Nancy Floreen, a former Council President, said that the idea had “a certain amount of sense” when I spoke with her.

People certainly should be interested and make their views known regarding the proposal. But I am concerned that the petition and emails circulating suggest large tax increases that simply are not realistically in the cards. This is a critical issue and we should use the bill as an opportunity to discuss our future–not dismiss it out of hand.

The proposed Transit Authority may well allow Montgomery to  tackle its transportation needs much as similar tax increases in northern Virginia have aided road and transit construction south of the Potomac. No doubt people will want more information. The County Executive should tell us more about why he requested that this bill be filed. At the same time, there is a limit on what can be provided as the County has not begun to debate publicly if and how it would use its new power.

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George Leventhal’s Double Standard

Nobody does high dudgeon quite like Montgomery County Council President George Leventhal. The Washington Post reported that his latest expression of outrage was in response to the Council having to approve another $21.2 million for the Silver Spring Transit Center:

General Services director David Dise, lead county official overseeing the project, offered no specific opening date but said repairs would be complete “by late May, certainly in the spring.”

Dise’s forecast drew a stiff response from Council President George Leventhal (D-At Large), who said some county taxpayers are so deeply frustrated with the delay that they advocate tearing down the building.

“Mr. Dise, a growing number of my constituents don’t believe anything you say anymore,” Leventhal said. “And I’m hearing from constituents that they think the promises are covering up a structurally-flawed building that ought to be torn down, that we ought to declare a loss and give up.”

County residents are rightly upset about the management of this project. The Transit Center was supposed to open four years ago and is massively more expensive than originally intended:

Silver Spring Transit Center 2

While pungent responses towards people testifying before the Council are nothing new for George Leventhal, his views on cost increases here contrast sharply with his stance regarding far greater increases on another transportation project.

Purple Line Double Standard

George is a lot more bothered by some cost increases than others. A huge fan of the Purple Line, he seems unconcerned about its rising cost and argues vociferously against anyone who opposes the project. And the costs have doubled to $2.4 billion (table below from the Washington Post), an increase that makes the spike in the Transit Center’s cost look piddling.

PL CostsIndeed, the latest cost increase of $220 million was more than the entire price of the Silver Spring Transit Center. The consistent increases in costs suggest manipulation as costs should sometimes go down if estimates are randomly off. Moreover, costs have increased even though the promised quality of the project continues to decline. The Bethesda Terminus has been downgraded and the tunnel for the Capital Crescent Trail under Wisconsin Ave. shelved.

Yet George will brook no opposition to his pet project. The contrast is especially striking as Parsons Brinckerhoff has been involved heavily in the design of both the Transit Center and the Purple Line. Despite the Transit Center fiasco, MTA remains unwilling to disclose how Parsons calculated ridership figures for the proposed light rail project.

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ACT Sees Purple Line Dream Fade; MCDOT Follows 7S

The Action Committee for Transit (ACT) sees its Purple Line dreams moving out of reach and has sent out an email trying to rally support:

The Purple Line is again in grave danger — at the very moment when it is about to begin construction.

ACT’s definition of “about to begin construction” is different from most. While this phrase invokes visions of bulldozers ready to go, no federal funding has been awarded and the State has yet to receive–let alone evaluate–proposals from concessionaires (i.e. contractors) for the public private partnership (P3) who would still need to design the system.

Social Justice Out, Jobs Program In

The reasons that ACT believes we need to save the Purple Line have altered in focus:

Maryland will lose thousands of jobs in construction and future growth if we don’t build the Purple Line now.

Here, ACT has jettisoned its social justice rhetoric, formerly at the center of Purple Line appeals, so easily that it should give pause to those who support the Purple Line Compact to protect residents and businesses likely to be displaced by it. It’s now (and probably always was) all about something else.

Interestingly, the new front-and-center focus is on construction jobs. A temporary jobs program requiring massive public spending seems an odd way to appeal to our Governor-Elect and shows a tin ear in an attempt to bootstrap synchronicity with Hogan’s values by former Brown supporters.

Still Confusing Purple Line with Metro

Not all ACT rhetoric has changed:

The new Silver Line has four stations in Tysons Corner because Virginia understood the economic importance of rail transit; Maryland must not fall behind. Businesses and commuters are counting on the state to keep the commitments it has made and go forward with the Purple Line.

ACT  continues to equate the building of the light rail Purple Line, which will not be part of the Metro system, with the heavy rail Silver Line, which is integrated into Metro and will terminate at Dulles Airport. This effort to obfuscate the differences through the use of a color name similar to Metro lines has long been one of the most clever parts of ACT’s communications strategy. Light rail and heavy rail are quite different–the former is more similar to bus-rapid transit systems (RTS), though RTS is far less expensive.

Give to Aid the Land Company Now

ACT’s email closes with the traditional fundraising appeal:

If you can do one more thing for the Purple Line, ACT needs your financial help to continue our campaign. Please make a special contribution now.

By allowing for increased development, Purple Line proponents argue that it will raise land values around stations. Indeed, that is the goal. For example, the wealthy Chevy Chase Land Company is keen to see the Purple Line built–they’re organizing a letter to Hogan arguing for the pricey project–because it will increase the value of their holdings in that area. Yet we are asked to pay for the privilege of aiding the Land Company by donating to ACT.

Ironically, virtually all of the development over the short and medium terms will occur at Chevy Chase Lake without the Purple Line. The revised sector plan added 1.7 million square feet that will move forward with construction even if the Purple Line isn’t built. This will include about 700 apartments and 70 town houses, a hotel and over 250,000 square feet of commercial development. This is more than than the 1.3 million square feet that would be built much later on condition of Purple Line construction.

New Twitter Follower

I am happy to welcome the Montgomery County Department of Transportation Director’s Office as a follower to @theseventhstate.

Correction: Earlier version had MDOT instead of MCDOT. Apologies for the Error.

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The Giant Purple Credit Card, Part III: Is Pro-Purple Anti-Transit?

Opportunity Costs

The choice to spend vast sums of money on one project requires foregoing other choices. The tangled finances for the Purple and Red Lines (see also here) render it especially obvious. When the fares from Baltimore’s public transit system are needed as a backstop in case Purple Line fares are lower than hoped, the use of the Transportation Trust Fund (TTF) for non-Purple purposes is obviously going to be quite limited.

The plans to move ahead also with Baltimore’s Red Line should further assure that the TTF is tied up for literally decades. Indeed, the two projects have been closely tied together in order to build political support. It is hard to imagine moving ahead with one project without the other, as legislators in one metro area are unlikely to want to fund an incredibly expensive project in the other unless their constituents share in the benefits.

Existing Transit Needs

Montgomery and Prince George’s County already have an extensive public transit system. Both are integrated into WMATA’s Metro and Metrobus system. Each operates its own bus system: RideOn and TheBus. Both are also tied into the MARC system.

All parts of the system have suffered from cutbacks and need investment in infrastructure. Metro, the lungs of Washington’s transit system, remains in particularly dire need of money to maintain and to upgrade its infrastructure. Placing so many chips on the Purple Line will constrain the ability of the State to aid Metro–Montgomery and Prince George’s cannot expect to get all of Maryland’s transportation funding.

Less widely heralded in Montgomery in the face of perennial Metro problems–endless single tracking, escalators that don’t work, overly crowded trains at rush hour despite stagnating ridership–have been the cutbacks to MARC and Ride-On. Oddly, we reduced transit service designed to connect to the Purple Line even as we move forward with building it.

Foregoing Other Transit Opportunities

Some key supporters of the Purple Line recognize these implicit tradeoffs even if they don’t advertise them. In the at-large County Council debate in Chevy Chase, new Council President George Leventhal derided Councilmember Hans Riemer’s support for additional Ride-On service. He and other Purple Line supporters have also expressed great skepticism about the proposed countywide bus-Rapid Transit System (RTS).

The irony here is that for the cost of building the Purple Line, we could build a RTS that would serve all parts of the County. Indeed, a Purple Line incorporated into an RTS would accomplish most of the goal at far less cost than the proposed light-rail system even according to MTA’s own analysis (see also here).

Purple Line supporters like to accuse opponents of being anti-transit–it’s a good simple communication meme that boils down a complex decision to good versus bad. Except that wanting to spend transportation dollars wisely and get the most for our tax dollars is pro-transit. Opposition to expanding bus service and continued negativity regarding an RTS that could serve the whole county sure doesn’t sound pro-transit.

The Bottom Line

We shouldn’t starve our existing transit system and forego future opportunities in order to build the Purple Line and the Red Line. Ironically, we could build cheaper RTS versions of both that would save the State billions–not chump change–and allow for additional transit and road improvements that would truly aid economic development and the ability of all Marylanders to reach jobs far more broadly. Now that’s smart growth.

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