Tag Archives: MTA

Federal Court Rules Against Purple Line

Today, D.C. District Court Judge Richard Leon issued his opinion in the case challenging the Environmental Impact Study (EIS) for the Purple Line light-rail project. The nub of the ruling is that the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) was “arbitrary and capricious” in its failure to demand a reexamination of the impact of declining Metro ridership on projections of future Purple Line ridership.

In plainer English, the judge thinks that Metro’s continuing failures could well mean that the Purple Line will carry significantly fewer people than projected–a claim difficult to examine as the State has kept the methodology for estimating ridership a closely held secret.

In the legal battle, the State argued unconvincingly that the Purple Line is unaffected by Metro as it is a different mode even as it claimed in the EIS that the Purple Line is needed to connect people to Metro. Seriously, this was the State’s claim (see p. 6 of the opinion).

The ruling was a surprise because winning a case under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) is difficult.  As the Court mentioned in the opinion, the scope of review is “narrow” and “a court is not to substitute its judgment for that of the agency.”

According to the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA), this result should delay the Purple Line:

[D]uring a June 15 hearing in the case, lawyers for the MTA and federal government said redoing the ridership forecasts would push back the project by six months and could unravel its $5.6-billion, 36-year public-private partnership.

In a subsequent court filing, lawyers for the Maryland Attorney General’s Office said having to redo the ridership forecasts “would be profoundly disruptive and could jeopardize the Purple Line project” because it could “have cascading consequences on the project schedule and financing arrangements.”

As MTA has so many times, I suspect it will change its tune in light of the decision and come up with an SEIS more quickly, so I doubt very much it will kill the project. Nevertheless, the irony remains that the proponents favor the project on environmental grounds. Yet the Court has delayed the Purple Line for failure to comply with environmental law.

To be continued.

 

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.

 

Mediocre Bethesda Terminus

The Bethesda Master Plan Appendix provided a blunt assessment of the need to redevelop the Apex Building beyond the desirability of the tunnel under Wisconsin Ave and the substantially reduced likelihood of the Apex Building ever being redeveloped:

Ventilation Tower in Bethesda’s Heart
The area in front of Barnes and Noble at Woodmont and Bethesda Ave. is the epicenter of Bethesda. Without redeveloping the Apex Building, there will need to be a ventilation tower right across the street in Woodmont Plaza that will be “40 feet wide by 18 feet long by 90 feet high.” But it could be incorporated into a redeveloped Apex building.

Longer Tail Track in Bethesda’s Heart
In his responses to my questions about the tail track, Mike Madden did not mention that the failure to tear down the Apex Building will result in a much longer tail track. According to the Master Plan Appendix, “the Purple Line tracks would extend 100 feet into the plaza.”

These tail tracks would be right next to Mon Ami Gabi, the movie theaters, and the restaurants in the new development. But if the Apex building is redeveloped, the tail tracks “would extend only about 30 feet into the plaza.”

It’s hard to see how a ventilation tower and tail tracks right smack dab in the middle of Bethesda comport with the desire to promote new development–a major Purple Line goal. It also will hardly aid the County’s effort to promote a vibrant nightlife.

Worse Purple Line Platform
Purple Line Project Manger Mike Madden says that the platform will now have 7 columns but the Master Plan Appendix indicates that “12 support columns for the Apex Building would be located on the platform” unless the building is redeveloped. I don’t know whose information is accurate. It gets worse:

The platform is on a slight curve so there would be small gap between the train and the platform. The estimated pedestrian level of service at this station is the lowest along the alignment under current plans.

No Bicycle Storage
As the Bethesda Master Plan Appendix explains:

With the redevelopment of the Apex Building site it is possible to reserve space for a full-service bicycle storage facility that is adjacent to the Capital Crescent Trail, the Red Line station entrance, and the Purple Line platform. A bicycle storage facility . . . is important to provide access to and from transit and for commuters to Bethesda.

Worse Red Line Entrance and Pedestrian Access
Mike Madden says sidewalk space will be preserved by eating further into Elm Street where the elevators will be installed. But the Master Plan Appendix states:

These elevators have a visual presence on Elm Street and provide a circulation area that is adequate but not ideal. . . . The elevators could be incorporated into the redeveloped Apex Building with additional space for pedestrian circulation. This would reduce the cost of the high-speed elevators by approximately $10 million (emphasis added).

Vision Fail
The failure of vision and to provide infrastructure needed to support a project designed to aid the County’s economic development and long-term growth is an increasingly typical mistake in Montgomery County. It also seems part of a bait-and-switch tactic that Bethesda residents should expect as the Council moves forward with its current Master Plan review.

Purple Line Station Downgrade, No Tunnel Under Wisc. Ave.

In closed session yesterday, the Montgomery County Council concurred with the recommendation of County Executive Ike Leggett and decided not to go move forward with the funding to facilitate redevelopment of the APEX building and a much improved Purple Line stop in Bethesda.

The Council had already greatly expanded the size of the building that could be built on the spot in the hopes of enticing the owner to redevelop or to sell to a developer. However, they balked at agreement with the roughly $70 million in costs to the County to facilitate the deal and make it economically feasible.

There are three major effects of this decision:

Less Well-Designed Purple Line Station

The Maryland Transportation Administration (MTA) had pressed the County to move forward with the APEX acquisition to allow construction of a well-designed Purple Line station. While the State now claims that the new station, projected to handle around 24,000 trips per day, will still be adequate, the failure to acquire the building requires major changes.

Passengers will need to cross the tracks–something MTA previously described as problematic but now says will be alright. Additionally, one of the platforms will have to be much smaller and the ease of accessibility to the system will decline. There will still be elevator banks for direct Purple to Red Line connections, though the entrances will need to be moved.

No Tunnel under Wisconsin Avenue

People wanting to continue on the much-used Capital Crescent Trail will have to make their crossing of Wisconsin Ave. at grade. Currently, there is a wide tunnel under the Air Rights Building that facilitates bike trips under Wisconsin Ave.

The original plans promised a new smaller tunnel under the Air Rights Building in tandem with the new Purple Line. This promise  evaporated after the project had moved on to a later stage when it became deemed to expensive.

Hope for the tunnel reemerged with the redevelopment of the APEX building. Indeed, Montgomery County government leaders expressed greater enthusiasm for the tunnel, most recently at a publicly televised debate before the Democratic primary.

The lack of a grade separated bicycle crossing will also likely anger area bicyclists concerned not just about ease of travel but public safety. The Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA),  has predicated its strong support on grade-separated crossings of major thoroughfares along the trail.

Less Development at APEX Site

One of the major goals of the construction of the Purple Line has been to stimulate development and economic growth, crucial to expanding the County’s tax base to pay to maintain infrastructure and services.

It will be more difficult and therefore much more expensive to tear down and construct a new larger building on the APEX site after the construction of the new Purple Line stop. As a result, it may never happen. Any redevelopment would be pushed much further into the future until (if ever) it become a profitable venture.

Conclusion

The developers working to arrange the deal (i.e. the purchase of the building from the current owners and money need to render its redevelopment economically feasible) could come back with a better set of numbers. So maybe it will all work out.

Right now, however, the County will be left will a Purple Line stop described to me as “adequate” or “functional” at best at its critical terminus and economic engine in Bethesda. It does nothing for trust in government, due to repeated broken promises from both MTA and the County over the tunnel and the politically convenient timing of these decisions.

Why Do Light Rail Costs Only Go Up?

The Washington Post reports that cost estimates for the Purple Line in the DC suburbs have risen by $56 million while the Red Line in Baltimore now is estimated to cost another $220 million. Total cost estimates for the Purple Line are now $2.43 billion–more than double the original cost estimates. As with the previous increase, the State must foot the entire bill for the change.

MTA decided not to publicize the cost increase:

Henry Kay, who heads transit project development for the state, said the MTA didn’t publicize the increase because it was considered a “minor adjustment” on such a large, complex project. He said the additional costs came from refined estimates based on more detailed engineering and still-rising real estate prices.

“It doesn’t reflect some faulty approach” to cost estimating, Kay said. “It’s just the nature of a mega-project being developed over a number of years.”

Except that, as recently as March, Henry Kay also claimed that ““We have a high level of confidence” when they released their previous estimates. Moreover, as I pointed out in a previous post, the continual errors in one direction are highly suspicious:

The excuse that cost estimates have risen because the earlier estimates were only rough estimates is suspicious if only because cost estimates have always increased. They never decline. If the estimates are unbiased, the errors shouldn’t be off only in one direction.

Put more bluntly, if MTA is being straight with us, why have the costs continually risen instead of sometimes going down instead of up? And these changes have occurred even as they have tended to take out expensive features, such as the promised continuation of the Capital Crescent Trail through the Purple Line tunnel.

It would be useful to hear the Montgomery and Prince George’s County Councils debate what project they would give up to pay for the latest increase in costs even as they figure out how to pay for their share of the project. The Montgomery County Council still has to figure out how to pay for the trail–whose costs have also doubled to $95 million.

The County Council also to convince the owner of the APEX building in Bethesda to tear down the building so the station can be built there–something the County is rightly working hard to accomplish (it’s the right place) but will also take money.

Will the next increase break $2.5 billion? One question we should’ve asked long ago: at what point does this project in the form of light rail become too expensive, especially since (1) the CCT has already been transmuted from the previously promised light rail into BRT; (2) Montgomery County is planning a countywide BRT system; (3) MTA’s own estimates showed BRT as much more cost effective; and (4) we have many pressing transportation needs, including other public transit investments and the maintenance of existing infrastructure (e.g. Metro and MARC) to make.

MCDOT Tries to Eliminate Grade Separated Crossing on the CCT

The Washington Area Bicyclists Association blog reports:

After years of public input and agreement on the design for the future Capital Crescent trail, the Montgomery County Department of Transportation (MCDOT) just moved unilaterally to eliminate the long-promised grade-separated crossing of busy Jones Mill Rd.

The grade separation makes the trail safer, and safety is vital to ensuring this heavily travelled trail remains a viable transportation option. Through thousands of hours of meetings on the future of the Capital Crescent Trail, County officials have promised safe crossings of major roadways that don’t leave bicyclists competing with cars or pressing “Walk” buttons and waiting for minutes.

Good news, however. MCDOT has suspended its previous orders to MTA and is reviewing the situation. They now promise to consult the community in advance of a final decision.

This is part of a history of broken promises regarding the Capital Crescent Trail. For example, after repeated assurances that the Trail could be run through the same tunnel under the Air Rights Building as the Purple Line under Wisconsin despite outside claims to the contrary, that was deemed too expensive and removed from the current plan.

The County is now trying to persuade the owner of the building over the best location for the proposed Purple Line station to redevelop so that the station, and hopefully a different tunnel, could be built. The building’s owner, unsurprisingly, is holding out for an even better offer since they have the County over a barrel.

Purple Line ROD Signed

From Purple Line Now:

The MTA just announced that the Record of Decision for the Purple Line has been signed. Formal announcement to follow next week.

As the Maryland Transit Administration’s (MTA) website explains, the Record of Decision is:

The final approval of an Environmental Impact Statement which will be issued by Federal Transit Administration. It is a public document that explains the reasons for a project decision and summarizes any mitigation measures that will be incorporated in the project. Obtaining the ROD is the last step in the NEPA process. After a ROD is received, permits and right-of-way can be acquired.

Up and Down Week for the Purple Line

The Purple Line received some good news the other day when the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) recommended both the Purple Line and Red Line for a full funding grant agreement. Both are included in President Obama’s budget with $100 million budgeted for the Purple Line.

The president’s proposal is a long way from a final budget–if Congress can even agree on a budget in this election year. But it is a step forward for the Purple Line, as federal funding is vital to the planned light-rail line. Proponents of the project are understandably pleased with this announcement.

The next day, however, the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) revealed that Purple Line costs had risen yet again to $2.37 billion, as this graph from the Washington Post demonstrates:

PL Costs

The latest increase amounts to $126 million. MTA Project Development Head Henry Kay explained:

the initial $1.2 billion estimate in 2001 probably was based on broad assumptions, such as the average cost per mile for rail construction nationally. As the state has refined the Purple Line design, he said, engineers have found more “challenges” that add costs. . . .

“The [cost estimate] number at that time [in 2001] would have been based on lines on a map,” Kay said.

About 30 percent of the project has been designed, he said, enough to form more precise cost projections.

The excuse that cost estimates have risen because the earlier estimates were only rough estimates is suspicious if only because cost estimates have always increased. They never decline. If the estimates are unbiased, the errors shouldn’t be off only in one direction.

The State also doesn’t mention that Maryland foots the entire bill for every increase. FTA has recommended $900 million in funding. That amount will not increase and may decline. So the amount that the State is on the hook for the project just increased from $1.34 billion to $1.47 billion–a 10% increase.

And that means $126 million less for all other transportation projects in the State of Maryland. It also means that Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties will receive less for other projects since more funds dedicated to this part of the State will have to go to pay for the Purple Line.

One might expect further cost increases if only because Parsons Brinckerhoff is involved. This is the same firm that engineered the botched and way over budget Silver Spring Transit Center. The Center is supposed to accommodate the new Purple Line.

Henry Kay says he has “a high level of confidence” that the new cost estimates are accurate. If so, that would be good news for the State and the future of the Purple Line project.