Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Purple Line agreement signed today: The tale of two rail transit lines

The Baltimore Red Line was famously the rejected stepsister when it came to Maryland's new rail transit siblings. The Washington area Purple Line was the one chosen by the "prince". Whether the Red Line will get one day a late redemption still remains to be seen. But one kind of redemption happened already this Tuesday when the Purple Line project celebrated with great fanfare an element pioneered by the Red Line: The Community Compact.
One of the Community Compact goals of the Purple Line
(Photo: Philipsen)

Gathering at the brandnew "University Hotel" on the slowly urbanizing segment of route 1 that figures, both as College Park's "main street", and the university's college-town strip, one dignitary after the other praised the community involvement and equity that the Purple Line project is supposed to bring to the areas between Bethesda and Silver Spring, the two Metro spokes to be connected through the new 16 mile light rail line.

The $2.4 billion Purple Line, under construction since August under a public-private -partnership agreement (P3) that will cost the State ultimately $5.6 billion, didn't have smooth sailing all the way. There were times when the project almost derailed, for example when the president of the University of Maryland was against the line traversing his campus, except underground. But when the new President, Dr. Wallace Loh was inaugurated in 2011, he soon understood that transportation and land use are intertwined and that the well-being of the communities around the campus was a precondition to the well being of the university and that both were inextricably tied to functional transportation.
"It is certainly a moral obligation, it is an institutional obligation to make sure that the community and economic benefits of the Purple Line spread throughout the whole region." UM President Dr Wallace Loh)
At the signing ceremony Loh spoke about his insights that he attributed to three specific conversations at the beginning of his time at the helm of the university: With the MDOT Secretary (who told him a tunnel under the campus was too costly), with Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker and with Gerritt  Knaap who heads up the National Center for Smart Growth. Of course, there is a new MDOT Secretary now (who didn't come to the event). But the other former conversation partners were present and confirmed what Loh had recounted. Baker, then also new in office had told Loh over a "three hour dinner" that “this university is not engaged with the community“. Knapp had told him that the Purple Line was "not just about transportation but also development.” They both praised Loh for having listened and become an ardent promoter of the rail project, a pivotal turning point for the project.
The brand-new University Hotel on Baltimore Avenue
in College Park  (Photo: Philipsen)

The four objectives of the Compact include protecting small businesses in the corridor as well as workforce development and jobs as well as housing opportunities and vibrant communities. David Bowers of Enterprise Community Partners made the housing point with much passion:
"There are 10,000 low income households in the corridor... there will be billions of dollars been invested in this shiny new thing that is the new transit line. This is good. But the question is, who will be living in the corridor when the project is done?“ he asked. “There is plenty of money in the area. Do we have the heart to ensure that everyone who wants to stay has the opportunity to do so?...We need a comprehensive housing action plan”. 
In a short conversation Bowers explained that only 1960 of those existing low income units are currently "protected" (i.e. can't be converted to market rate units) and that the first step of the Compact efforts has been a mapping of those units. The goal, he said, must be to have "no net losses of affordable units". How exactly this can be achieved will have to be worked out as of yet. "We are talking with owners and landlords", he said. Montgomery County masterplans mandate affordable units, in the case of downtown Bethesday 15% of each project that is larger than 20 units.

Gustavo Torres of  Casa Maryland addressed "the longstanding inequalities in transportation and workforce development” and stated that the Purple Line is expected to create 425 permanent jobs. One of the stations will serve Langley Park, a predoinantetly low income Latino community.
The late transit advocate Harry Sanders 

Executive Baker also spoke about equity when he mentioned the U-Street corridor in DC and its transformation through the Green Line and that "a lot was lost", even though U Street is an economic success and the Green line had also set out with the goal of protecting the vulnerable populations. Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggitt spoke about lessons learned from the revitalization of Silver Spring and how he now sees how more should have been done to protect the existing small merchants and businesses.
"Keep in mind this is not a legally binding agreement. It rests upon the will, it rests upon the motivations and attitudes of the people who want to see this happen. ...Even if you were against the Purple Line you should be for this [benefits] agreement. (Isiah Leggitt)
Everybody praised the National Center for Smart Growth that in the words of PG County Councilwoman Danielle Glaros "anchored us all together“.
The Community Development Agreement for the Purple Line Corridor was created through an open, transparent stakeholder engagement process, led by PLCC over several years, that engaged more than 300 residents, business owners, property owners, nonprofit leaders, public officials, and others to identify specific goals, strategies and actions to support communities across the corridor. (website)
Communities around the 16 stations along the transit line have worked since 2014 on visions for their communities. Purple Line Now chair emphasized that the Purple Line was in many ways the result of one activist: Harry Sanders. "This is Harry Sanders Day", Bennett explained in reference to the late transit advocate who had founded action committees to promote a trolley between Silver Spring and Bethesda as early as 1986.
David Bowers, Enterprise Community Partners
(Photo: Philipsen)

For a visiting Red Line "survivor" the Purple Line event mostly meant one thing: Solid citizen activism combined with leadership from politicians such as the Executives of Princes George's and Montgomery counties, the mayor of College Park, plus the congressional delegation and the support from stakeholders like UM president Loh cannot be killed easily.

But the most important lesson applies to both projects: Building transit is less than half the story, the other half is investment in communities, equity and the creation of access to opportunity.

When it comes to construction, the tale of the two transit lines is only the tale of one. It will remain to be seen if that will stay like that.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Purple Line Corridor Coalition
Purple Line Community Development Fact sheet

Purple Line Corridor map and station areas

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