Monday, May 15, 2017

Will the Purple Line die, too?

You are confused about Maryland's transit policies? You saw Governor Hogan and Secretary Rahn describe the Baltimore Red Line as a boondoggle and took the project off the table in spite of promised federal funding and over a quarter billion in engineering cost that had gone into it in an over 10 year planning period? You who saw the State chop its contributions to the DC area Purple Line to a fraction of its original size? You saw the Governor bash federal judges for not accelerating his finding about the Purple Line? This article will try to explain.
Proposed Purple Line Bethesda Station rendering
The Purple Line is a light-rail line which will circle and connect the region’s core communities inside the Capital Beltway, linking the spokes of the Metrorail system and connecting to Amtrak and MARC.The 16-mile light rail line will connect Bethesda in Montgomery County to New Carrollton in Prince George’s County, with intermediate stops in Chevy Chase, Silver Spring, Takoma Park, Langley Park, Riverdale, and the University of Maryland. Nearly half of the cost will be provided by a $874.6 million TIFIA loan from USDOT. It is one of the largest public-private partnerships in American history at $1.99 billion.(Coalition for Smarter Growth)
Amazingly the same two officials now speak up forcefully for the Washington area Purple Line. In a letter to Maryland's Attorney Brian Frosh: [We]“have both concluded that it is necessary, on behalf of the citizens of Maryland, to take action to force U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon to make a decision in the Purple Line litigation pending before him.”  The Governor then stepped up his pro-transit rhetoric by accusing a federal judge of being partial because of his residence and his wife. The Washington Post quoted Hogan:
“We made the decision to move forward. . . . we committed the funding. Now there’s a judge who happens to live at the country club that the thing runs through that’s making the decision to hold it up. ...Right now, even with federal funding, we can’t move forward because of a judge who lives at Chevy Chase Country Club.”
Washington Rail Plan with circumferential Purple Line
Mr. Frosh has since filed a petition for a “writ of mandamus” asking the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to mandate that U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon rule on a government motion to dismiss the 2014 lawsuit filed by Purple Line opponents. Frosh's petition says that the delays have “brought this project to the brink of cancellation.” The petition further states that if there is no ruling by June 1, the state won’t have enough money to continue pre-construction work, and the state “likely” would direct contractors to stop design and engineering work on the light-rail project. Suspending that work, the filing says, would add significant costs and could result in the 16-mile project being canceled. “The fate of the Purple Line hangs in the balance,” the attorney general  says.

[The fate of the Purple line project] "should be determined by policy makers responsible for the project and accountable to the public — or, if by a court, on the merits of the claim — rather than as a side-effect of inaction by the district court.”
What's behind all those strong words? The exchange about the law suit goes back to August 4 of last year a federal judge ruled that the environmental impact assessment should be redone because it didn't properly account for declining Metro ridership. The ruling came only four days before Maryland was set to sign the  P3 (public-private-partnership) agreement to build the Purple Line. Stewart Schwartz Executive Director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth commented last year:
“Yes, Metrorail is facing challenges over the next few years, but the Purple Line is a long-term investment and ridership forecasts are for 2040, by which time the Metro system will have completed major rehabilitation. Therefore, there is not a ‘substantial change’ in information related to the decision to advance the Purple Line,” 
Federal transit officials confirmed that view last December when they stated that further analysis had shown that Metro would have no significant impact on the Purple Line. After which the plaintiffs pivoted to other motives by saying that  Metro’s potential impacts are just one reason the light-rail line should be stopped and cited cost and environmental impacts as others.
Even though the Purple Line had its detractors from the beginning, it was widely attributed with having better organized support than Baltimore's Red Line.
Silver Spring library with Purple Line passageway (montage)

Supporters once worried about what the newly elected Governor would do about the Purple Line are now fighting side by side with him, if not physically, then at least with similar arguments. A coalition of 45 business leaders wrote to Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao last week, urging her to finalize the Purple Line’s $900 million New Starts grant as soon as the project’s Record of Decision is reinstated by U.S. District Judge Richard Leon.The letter was signed by developers with projects in the Purple Line corridor, including the Bozzuto Group, Marriott International, which plans new headquarters in an “urban campus” in downtown Bethesda and by business organizations like the Greater Washington Board of Trade and the Montgomery and Prince George’s Chambers of Commerce. Regardless of the federal judge's decision, the federal commitments are by no means certain in President Trump's proposed federal budget.

In face of the challenge proponents of the transit line held a press conference on May 2 in a building passageway in Silver Spring that was built specifically for the Purple Line. Invited participants were Congressman Jamie Raskin, Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett, Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker, Montgomery County Council President Roger Berliner, Prince George's County Council Chairman Derrick Davis, state and congressional representatives, Union members and others in which also Baltimore's Transit Equity Coalition's Samuel Jordan participated. The coalition demands the reinstatement of the Baltimore Red Line. 
Transit proponents support the Purple Line on May 2
(Samuel Jordan with hat)

Purple Line Now President Ralph Bennett, an architect and emeritus professor at the University of Maryland concluded: 
“The people of Maryland have waited far too long for the Purple Line to be built, and construction would have finally begun months ago were it not for a frivolous lawsuit filed by a group of Chevy Chase opponents who misuse the legal system to advance their own narrow self interest. Businesses know that the Purple Line is an investment in our region’s future that will pay off many times over in increased incomes, property values, and quality of life.” 
No matter how confusing the reversed roles of State officials may be when comparing the Red and Purple Lines, Baltimore area residents shouldn't rejoice that the Purple Line may be on the chopping block as well. Maryland as a State and the entire Baltimore Washington region will only remain strong and competitive if the entire region has fast and equitable transit and not the type of transit Jayne Miller  aired in a WBAL report last week. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Maryland Gov. Hogan seeks court order to compel federal judge to rule in Purple Line lawsuit
Md. attorney general seeks court order to force judge to decide Purple Line case
WBAL transit report on their local news last week

The book, Baltimore: Reinventing an Industrial Legacy City is my take on the post industrial American city and Baltimore after the unrest. 
The book is now for sale and can be ordered online directly from the publisher or from any of the bookstores. (Amazon)