Purple Line Myths: Facts and fiction

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Richard Parsons explained last week “Why the Purple Line makes sense.” Here Lewis Leibowitz of Chevy Chase explains why it doesn’t. The Hogan administration is currently reviewing the plans for this light-rail line in the D.C. suburbs along with the Red Line in Baltimore. A decision whether to move forward or not will come later this year.

By Lewis Leibowitz

In an opinion piece last week, Richard Parsons tried to defend the Purple Line, but he illustrated the weakness of the Purple Line case.

Simply put, the Purple Line fails the basic test of balancing costs and benefits.  The costs are substantially understated and the benefits are very meager.  The Purple Line will not result in substantial economic development along the Purple Line corridor, and clearly will not ease traffic congestion.

The backers of the Purple Line mention real estate development almost exclusively, but most of the projects they mention have already been authorized, whether the train is built or not.

Nor is the Purple Line likely to ease traffic congestion.  At best, the train will only slow the worsening of congestion at certain intersections.  At worst, especially west of Silver Spring, it will make traffic congestion worse than if it were not built.  In fact, not a single intersection west of Silver Spring benefits from the Purple Line according to the studies. The train would squeeze out more practical approaches for improving traffic flow and saving energy.

Ridership on the Purple Line is likely to fall well short of the 69,300 trips per day predicted for the “horizon” year of 2040. But even if the ridership numbers were accurate, the costs of the train would dwarf the benefits.

Let’s look at the “facts” Mr. Parsons cites in his opinion piece, which are largely myths rather than facts.

  1. Myth:  The Purple Line is at the end of a “marathon” federal approval process. 

The federal approval process is not finished.  In fact, it has a long way to go.  The Purple Line and the Red Line in Baltimore are two of eight “New Start” light rail projects nationwide being considered by the DOT’s Federal Transit Administration (FTA).  They do not have a “full funding grant agreement” that is essential to securing federal funding.  The $900 million in federal money is not in the bag.  Budgets are tight, and federal funding for transit is set to run out in about two months.

This project should proceed only after the state, which must pay the money the federal government does not come up with, determines that it makes sense for in light of all state priorities. The governor is spearheading just such an analysis, which has not been done up to now.

  1. Myth: The Purple Line’s cancellation would undermine future public-private partnerships

Parsons is correct that this project represents the first major foray of the state of Maryland in public private partnerships (P3s) for transit.  But he mischaracterizes the P3 concept as applied to the Purple Line.  Private money does not diminish the state’s responsibility to pay—it only postpones the day or reckoning.

The project depends for construction funds about $500 million in direct state money, $900 million in federal funds and about $1 billion in “private” money from the P3 private partners.

However, the $1 billion in “private” money is in reality a state obligation, because the state must make an “availability payment” every year for at least 30 years to repay the private partners for their design, construction and operation of the Purple Line.

Because the state will have to pay the private investors back by means of the availability payment, in reality the P3 in this instance is basically a loan from the private investors to the state.  It is inaccurate and indeed dishonest to claim that the private investors are taking over the state’s obligation to pay for the train.

The state’s taxpayers will be responsible for the debt that the state would incur, whether the train is worth the money or not.  We are back to the fundamental point—is the Purple Line worth what it costs?

  1. Myth: The benefits of the Purple Line are “compelling.”

The benefits of the Purple Line are quite modest.  Many studies have been done on light rail and its benefits and, while every locality is unique in some ways, we can discern principles from national and global experience.

One conclusion we can draw is that light rail does not create economic development.  It can concentrate development around stations, but in most cases the development would occur anyway.  In the Purple Line corridor, we cannot reasonably expect auto assembly plants or steel mills.  Job growth will be small.  High-density development will occur if the market demands it with or without this minor addition to the transit network.

A second conclusion is that ridership will fall short of estimates.  Parsons claims, without evidence, that the ridership number is too low.

Even assuming ridership projections are accurate, each ride on the Purple Line would cost over $10.  (See the excellent analysis published by Frank Lysy in 2014). The fare revenue for the state on each ride would be less than $1, after fares are shared with Metro.  Taxpayers would be responsible for the remainder.  It is a bad deal for the state.

Perhaps the biggest myth is that the Purple Line would reduce traffic congestion. In fact, it will not.  The Purple Line studies acknowledge that traffic congestion would not be significantly reduced. Only about 6 hundredths of one percent of vehicle trips would be saved by the proponents’ own admission.  Based on the Purple Line cost projections, each trip saved would cost about $21.

The total cost of the Purple Line, including operating and maintenance costs over 30 years, will exceed $6 billion.  Is it prudent to pay that much to achieve such modest gains?

There are cost-effective alternatives to building a train through the suburbs, such as modern and clean buses (electric or powered by natural gas) in dedicated or shared lanes especially during rush hour.  The beauty of buses is that the routes can change as traffic patterns change.  The enormous expansion of NIH and the Bethesda Naval Hospital are examples of these trends.  In a real sense, the Purple Line goes in the wrong direction and literally misses the target for workers at these huge federal installations.

  1. Myth:  The Purple Line saves time for riders

Parsons accuses opponents of ignoring data about saving time on the Purple Line.  Consider:  A rider on the Purple Line from end to end (New Carrollton to Bethesda) would spend more time riding the Purple Line than riding on existing Metro (proponents of the Purple Line claim a time saving even end to end, but this is not correct or even plausible).  Parsons also cites a “time saving” for a ride from Silver Spring to Bethesda compared to Metro. But that four-mile section of track would cost taxpayers over $600 million to build and millions more to operate to save a few minutes in travel time.  It’s not worth the money.

We can save more time and a lot more money connecting Silver Spring and Bethesda with modern and cost-effective approaches that involve buses, vans and cars that would be much more cost-effective and more flexible than a train.

  1. A Reality:  The Purple Line is incredibly expensive

We all need to focus on the bottom line.  The Purple Line is very expensive, especially when compared with the benefits and the alternatives. Parsons avoided discussion of the costs and benefits and we cannot afford to do that.

Ignoring these facts is not only expensive but destructive, because it will foreclose other, better uses for the money.  Other priorities should not be sacrificed to a misguided train.

Lewis Leibowitz can be reached at lewis.leibowitz@gmail.com.

3 thoughts on “Purple Line Myths: Facts and fiction

  • April 4, 2015 at 6:21 AM

    The Purple Line is a retrofit and a crapshoot. If it were a widget, no one would buy stock in it. There aren’t enough truths to back it up.

  • April 3, 2015 at 4:37 PM

    one of the major misconceptions and claimed advantage of buses of any kind is actually it’s greatest weakness. bus proponents always like te emphisize the “Flexibility” of buses, That is a fatal flaw, people get jobs, buy or rent homes go to schools counting on that transit route to be there. if it can “suddenly vanish” the entire reason for being is lost. if one cannot “depend” on the transit line being there what good is it. “flexibiliity” is just another way to say, !! gone !! when I need it most.

    the pretty picture of the BRT bus shows it on exclusize right of way, maybe the bus should run exclusively on the Georgetown branch right of way, exclusively

    no the opponents aren’t opposed to light rail, they are opposed to losing their private path that was bought by the state for light rail. if the light rail is not built, the trail should be closed and fenced off. NIMBY is how it is spelled

  • April 3, 2015 at 12:34 PM

    This is ludicrous and it’s obvious from the first point alone. The FY2015 federal budget includes $100M for the Purple Line and Sec. Rahn has expressed no concerns on that end. The second point entirely elides the fact that “availability payments” mean the concessionaire only gets paid back once the line is operational. The end to end point is silly, people will largely be doing shorter hops, Bethesda to Silver Spring is only 9 minutes on the Purple Line, getting to College park is similarly faster. The ridership estimates are based on trips where the Purple Line is faster, which are numerous because you don’t have to go through DC.

    The economic benefit also comes from jobs, you can ask the CEO of Marriott or the former CEO of Lockheed Martin and both will tell you that transit is key to where employers set up shop.


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