Monday, January 12, 2009

More Purple Line Debate

Thursday, the Montgomery County Planning Board held a public hearing on the Purple Line. At the meeting 43 people spoke about the transit route, which, when completed, will span the inner ring of northern suburbs from Bethesda and Silver Spring in Montgomery County to College Park and New Carrollton in Prince George's County.

This week, the Board will vote on a resolution deciding which mode and alignment they prefer. The Montgomery County Council will also vote on this at a later date, but ultimately the final decision rests with Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley.
The Issues
At issue right now with the Purple Line in Montgomery are the following:
  • Mode: Bus Rapid Transit or Light Rail
  • Western End: Georgetown Branch ROW or lanes on Jones Bridge Road
  • Bike Facilities: Bike/Ped trail should go through Bethesda tunnel or along Elm Street
  • East Silver Spring: Street running trains/buses along Wayne or in subway
  • Dale Drive: Should the station be deleted or included?

As for mode, Light Rail saves time and will carry more passengers. It mostly gets its own right-of-way in MTA plans and is a familiar technology to them--they operate Baltimore's Light Rail system. On the bus front, BRT would operate along the region's streets, in lanes dedicated for their use in most places. They would most likely be powered using hybrid or CNG technology. Overhead caternary (as is common on the west coast) is not being considered for the buses.

BRT in Ottawa, Ontario

When it comes to the western end of the transitway, all of the light rail alternatives go directly to Bethesda from Silver Spring along the abandoned Georgetown Branch (of the B&O Railroad) ROW. BRT alternatives travel along that right-of-way from Silver Spring to Jones Bridge Road, where they then deviate, traveling along Jones Bridge Road to the National Naval Medical Center before turning south to travel along Wisconsin Avenue to Bethesda.

With regard to the Light Rail option, the current Georgetown Branch Trail (bikeway/pedway) would not share the tunnel under Downtown Bethesda with trains if the medium investment option is selected. Many are calling for it to be included anyway. In this case, the trail would be elevated above trains within the tunnel. If not selected, bikes would detour via Elm Street, rejoining the Capital Crescent Trail at Woodmont Avenue.

Light Rail in Charlotte, North Carolina

Between Silver Spring and University Boulevard, both the BRT and Light Rail options have few options to navigate the suburban development. Planners have called for a route along Wayne Avenue, with a tunnel in the Manchester Place area. The MTA says that tunneling would make the project too expensive, but there has been a lot of opposition to having street-running trains or buses along Wayne.

A station along that segment of the route at Dale Drive would be less than 1/2 mile from stations in either direction. To minimize impact, many have called for its deletion. Passengers from that area would have a walk of about 10 minutes to reach stations at Manchester Place or Fenton Village.

The Hearing
I had the opportunity of attending the Public Hearing last Thursday, and I kept track of what people's comments favored and opposed. I didn't tally everything they said, but I did make note anytime someone mentioned one of the hot-button issues. I only counted a tally if they specifically mentioned one of the issues I was considering. If someone, therefore, supported the "medium investment" light rail alternative, I tallied that as a vote for light rail, but not one for the Georgetown Branch alignment.

It should be pointed out that this is in no way a scientific survey and it does not include comments submitted in writing (but not verbally) to the Planning Board.

Of the 43 commenters, almost everyone spoke in favor of the Purple Line, in some shape or form. One commenter supported it, but did question the wisdom of building it now, with the economy and state finances in shambles. Another person just asked the Planning Board to provide her with studies showing that train vibrations wouldn't cause her house to fall in or result in a takings later. So, despite the divisive debate (dubbed a "war" by some), people are generally in favor of an east-west transitway across Washington's Maryland suburbs.

With regard to the "Trail" alignment between Jones Bridge Road and Bethesda, commenters who opposed that alignment almost uniformly supported BRT. Some 9 commenters spoke against this alignment, while 10 spoke in favor of BRT. They were outnumbered, with 13 speaking in favor of the alignment using the Georgetown Branch Trail right-of-way and 20 speaking in favor of light rail.

Wayne Avenue proved to be less contentious than I had predicted. Comments were evenly split, with 5 people on each side of the debate. Of the 5 opposing street-running trains/buses on Wayne, 4 called for a resolution supporting further study of tunnel options (remind anyone of Tysons?) One person, who supported street-running LRT, incidentally, suggested that further study would only lead to further study and in a decade, he said, we'd still be studying whether to build it above ground or below.

I think that commenters on both sides brought up excellent points. There are a few things worth mentioning here.

Tree cover: The Chevy Chase opponents all decried the loss of trees which will result from building the line along the Georgetown Branch between Jones Bridge Road and Bethesda. This is a valid argument, and it concerns me to some degree. How will MTA deal with the loss of shady, oxygen-producing trees?

Saving the trail: Petitions to the contrary, cyclists spoke in favor of the Purple Line along the Georgetown Branch. It will result in improved crossings at major intersections, such as Jones Bridge Road and Connecticut Avenue. Additionally, it will result in the completion of the gap between Lyttonsville and Silver Spring, allowing cyclists a continuous bikeway from Union Station to Georgetown, via Silver Spring and Bethesda, once the Metropolitan Branch Trail is completed. He pointed out that petitioners don't explain that the Purple Line will result in grade-separated crossings, a paved surface, and perhaps a wider trail--they only say that this transit project will destroy the Georgetown Branch Trail. After all, the county purchased the ROW from the railroad in 1988 with the intent of building a rail transit link. The trail was just put there as a temporary measure (although Montgomery County is dedicated to keeping it alongside the Purple Line). As a matter of fact, it's not even a park--the trail property belongs to the county Department of Transportation.

Keeping the trail: Previous paragraph aside, it is important to consider the ICC bikeway, which bit the dust after it was determined that a 12'-wide bikeway adjacent to a 6-lane tollway would result in environmental degradation. What is to stop MTA from cancelling the trail later to reduce the footprint of the Purple Line? One commenter pointed out that as far as trails go, Maryland has a "credibility problem."

Trains, Buses, and NIMBYism: Commenters also noted that those Chevy Chasers so vehemently opposed to Light Rail on the Georgetown Branch support BRT on Jones Bridge Road because it won't detract from the trail. But the fact of the matter is that BRT on Jones Bridge still runs alongside the trail on the Georgetown Branch from Jones Bridge Road to Silver Spring, including its passage through Rock Creek Park. Besides, with buses along this portion of the trail, they'll be spewing exhaust right next to cyclists and joggers. Apparently, Chevy Chasers only care about the trail in their neighborhood. This suggests to me (and it shouldn't surprise anyone) that the Town of Chevy Chase doesn't support BRT because of its merits, but because it doesn't go through their neighborhood. I wonder if they'd still call for buses over trains if the BRT alternatives also used the Georgetown Branch ROW between Jones Bridge and Bethesda?

Don't fear the train: One commenter has young children and lives on Wayne Avenue in East Silver Spring. She testified in favor of street-running LRVs on Wayne, surprisingly. Apparently, she has lived along one of San Francisco's Muni lines and thinks that Wayne will be safer with light rail on the surface than it will be underground. This argument could easily be extended to the UM campus, where fights to reroute the Purple Line have been going on for years. Of course, if we're so afraid that a few trains will kill pedestrians, it's a wonder we allow cars, eh?

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