Light Rail Line Hangs By a Thread as Maryland Goes to the Polls

With Election Day fast approaching, Streetsblog Capitol Hill is turning our attention this week to key governor’s races. As Ya-Ting Liu of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign recently wrote (and as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has made painfully clear), “decisions by state and local elected officials ultimately determine whether federal transportation policies become instruments of reform or tools to be abused.” Today we look at the gubernatorial election in Maryland.

One of the key races for transit advocates to watch next week will be Maryland’s vote for governor. The election will determine the future of a light rail line designed to link the northern suburbs of Washington, DC, providing an alternative to driving along the notoriously congested Washington beltway.

Governor O'Malley announcing the decision to build the Purple Line as light rail - Photo from Washington Post via ## for Transit##
Governor O'Malley announcing the decision to build the Purple Line as light rail - Photo from Washington Post via ## for Transit##
Governor Ehrlich raising campaign funds at Columbia Country Club- Photo by Patricia Metzger via ## for Transit##
Governor Ehrlich raising campaign funds at Columbia Country Club- Photo by Patricia Metzger via ## for Transit##

The Purple Line has been under consideration since 1987. Incumbent Democrat Martin O’Malley is a staunch supporter of the light rail line and has been instrumental in advancing plans to build it. Republican challenger Bob Ehrlich (who served as governor before losing to O’Malley in 2006) has pushed to turn the Purple Line into a bus rapid transit corridor. And during his term as governor, he pushed through a new highway, the Intercounty Connector.

Opposition to the Purple Line has largely been organized by members of an exclusive country club, which the line will pass through. Other neighbors have campaigned against the line by claiming (untruthfully) that it will narrow the Capital Crescent Trail, one of the most popular bike/ped trails in the Washington area, and diminish its wooded nature by cutting down the trees alongside it.

In fact, area bike groups from the Washington Area Bicyclist Association to Silver Spring Trails strongly support the building of the Purple Line as light rail. “It is important that bicyclists reject the assertions that the trail and transit are incompatible,” WABA said in an alert. In fact, the plans for the Purple Line include the completion of unfinished portions of the Capital Crescent.

Still, Ehrlich has made clear his preference for a BRT alternative, which is estimated to cost $386 million to $1 billion, compared to $1.68 billion for light rail. A state analysis found that light rail would be faster and would attract more riders than BRT. (Meanwhile, a study by the World Resources Institute favored BRT, saying it would “cost less, offer similar services, and fight global warming better than light-rail cars.”) Light rail is expected to attract more development along the corridor.

The state has already spent eight years and about $40 million planning the Purple Line. While Ehrlich didn’t put an end to the plans while he was governor, he did “obfuscate, alter, study and delay” it, according to his own appointee to the Metro board.

O’Malley also champions the construction of a light rail line in Baltimore, known as the Red Line, which Ehrlich opposes.

The candidates’ views on light rail were the deciding factor in the surprising decision by the Greater Washington Board of Trade to endorse O’Malley, after supporting Ehrlich in his two previous bids for governor.

Both candidates have supported the Intercounty Connector, a $2.56 billion highway which Ehrlich pushed as governor. Greater Greater Washington noted in its endorsement of O’Malley, “Unfortunately, Governor O’Malley did nothing to halt its construction early in his term. The political will was not there at the local level… Mr. O’Malley instead used his political capital to move the Purple and Red Lines forward.”

Neither Ehrlich nor O’Malley supports a hike in the state’s gas tax to pay for their respective transportation priorities. “[O’Malley’s] newly proposed transportation budget for 2011 through 2017 adds $48 million in new money for the Purple Line – enough, when matched with federal funding, to cover the entire cost of engineering and designing the new rail line,” according to the website for the Action Committee for Transit.

Current polls show O’Malley with a 14-point lead, but some political analysts still rate the race a toss-up.

12 thoughts on Light Rail Line Hangs By a Thread as Maryland Goes to the Polls

  1. “Current polls show O’Malley with a slight lead, but the race is still rated a toss-up.”

    What current polls? The most recent polls by the Washington Post and the Baltimore Sun both indicate that O’Malley is commanding a secure 14 point lead over Ehrlich amongst likely voters

  2. the purple line connects a few semi-sprawling suburbs in dc. the red line on the other hand, links some of the most important areas of baltimore, including canton and fell’s point which are currently underserved by transit despite the large # of jobs, homes, entertainment and commercial venues.

  3. @ brian:
    “The Purple Line connects a few semi-sprawling suburbs…”

    The ridership on the Purple Line is projected to be 68,000 per day – more than enough to make it extremely competitive with any other light rail project in the country.

  4. $1,680,000,000/68,000 weekday riders = $25,000/rider. More expensive projects have been built, but not in countries that give a crap about cost-effectiveness.

    Not that the BRT option is much better – the lower initial capital cost per rider comes at the expense of operating efficiency. Higher service level means higher costs should be acceptable because the operating costs will be lower and the service will last longer. $25,000/rider may be cancel-it-yesterday unaffordable for LRT, but for a subway it’s merely high; in the other direction, for BRT it’s beyond cancel-it-yesterday, and approaching tar-and-feather-the-planners.

  5. Anyone believing any poll by the Post or Sun is nuts! The Sun has hijacked many elections before with their far-left opinions and politics (Schmoke vs. Burns, Lee vs. Hughes, O’Malley vs. Ehrlich). The Post is not much better.

  6. brian g: Please. You seem to have zero understanding of DC geography. The suburbs along the Purple Line are neither “semi-sprawling” nor sprawling whatsoever. They are, in most cases, the innermost urban suburbs bordering DC which have existed for quite a long time. Bethesda and Silver Spring are extremely urban extensions of the DC core, and Hyattsville, College Park, and New Carrollton are located where there should be urban districts given their location, demographics and Metro stations. These are some of the absolute most important population and urban centers in all of Maryland.

  7. Alon claims that the Purple Line will cost $1,680,000,000 = $25,000/rider.

    How about the $2.56 billion Intercounty Connector? It probably costs about the same per driver.

    Also, the Purple line will carry passengers on the weekend as well, especially since it serves the denser suburbs, so the actual capital cost per rider will be substantially lower.

  8. I never meant to propose that the purple line isn’t worthwhile to be built. It is, I was just saying that the red line is a better litmus test for the 2 gubernatorial candidates since it is arguably the more important project. while both lines have similar ridership, baltimore stands to gain a lot more in terms of economic (re)development. No one can really argue that Baltimore is less impoverished than Bethesda or Silver Springs. And while those regions may be fairly dense (at least by beltline standards) they are already far more prosperous than many of the regions that the red line will serve. also, in terms of redevelopment baltimore is like a powder keg given the sheer multitudes of abandoned/vacant row homes. Add on top of that the fact that the Red Line will connect some of the most important commercial centers in the city and I think that it’s fair to say the Red Line is a far more important project.

    Also, Eric, you can disagree with someone without being rude and condescending.

  9. First, what makes you think I support the Intercounty Connector? If only one of the two can be canceled, I’d much rather keep the Purple Line and lose the Connector. But ideally both projects should be scrapped.

    Second, adding weekend riders actually makes the cost look higher: there are fewer riders per day than per weekday, so the cost per daily rider is higher than the cost per weekday rider.

    But the point is not that $25,000 is by itself a bad number. It’s still better than the ROI on highways. But it’s awful by the standards of non-US transit lines. Subways usually top in the 20s, and LRT almost never goes above $10,000.

  10. Please re-think the Purple Line. It is not worth it as planned.
    The ridership numbers are coincidentally what the Feds require for this thing to move forward. Orignial estimates were 40K until that was determined it wouldn’t get the project funded.
    Next, for a realistic view of the cost estimate please see
    Of course this is just the costs to build, this does not include the cost to operate and maintain. And it is common knowledge that no rail system in the US pays for itself – they are usually subsidized at the tune of 70%.
    I’d like to ask the Governor to come up with an efficient transportation plan – not a way to build this boondoggle.

  11. AB,

    Adjusting the numbers is a trick that the Fed doesn’t allow. They’ve rejected many a proposal for funny numbers. And the Fed even collects the numbers from the existing services so as to know what’s realistic and what’s not.

    Regarding the costs, it is common knowledge that no rail system pays for itself. However, it’s not common knowledge that roads also don’t pay for themselves. The drivers in this country fail to pay fully for the roads via the fuel taxes and require a subsidy from everyone. Same with the airlines too, they wouldn’t be flying without public subsidies. So subsidies are no reason to reject rail.

    Especially when rail is the cheapest form of public transportation. On average in this country it costs 40 cents to move 1 person 1 mile on commuter rail & heavy rail (subways & El’s). To do the same job with light rail costs 60 cents per passenger mile.

    Put that person on a bus and it costs 80 cents to move them 1 mile. And that doesn’t include the costs of fixing the damage that the buses cause to our roads. That latter expense falls totally on taxpayer shoulders.

    So as a taxpayer with no choice but to fund public transportation, wouldn’t you rather fund the cheaper form? I would!

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