The Purple Line’s Metro Blues

The Maryland Transportation Authority has been preparing the 16.2 mile Purple Line project for almost 10 years. The project mirrors the path of the Washington Beltway connecting the Maryland ends of the Red, Orange and Green Lines of DC’s Metrorail system. After getting FTA approval in 2011 to being the design phase, the project was expected to receive its $900 million federal grant on Monday to begin construction. Thanks to US District Court Judge Richard Leon, the state will be receiving a grand total of $0 until further notice.

Chevy Chase, one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the DC region and the United States, has been fighting the Purple Line since the idea was first proposed. Several disputes have ensued and the project managers have successfully swatted away all concerns from NIMBY-driven wealthy residents. But angry residents may have finally found their silver bullet. A court case was brought against the project by two Chevy Chase residents opposing the Purple Line in 2014, asserting that the ridership figures initially offered are now invalid and need to be recalculated given the heinous amounts of delays and malfunctions experienced on DC’s Metro system over the recent years.

This week, the Judge ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, thereby pausing the allocation of funds and putting the project’s future into further jeopardy. What makes this case so interesting is how your perspective on the DC region deeply influences your opinion on how effective and viable Maryland’s Purple Line project would be alongside a malfunctioning Metro system.

The Judge’s View: Purple Line may not be viable without Metro.

The Purple Line is often seen by many as a supplementary system to Metro, somewhat rightfully so. The Purple Line will be “light rail” whereas Metro is “heavy rail” which basically means that because of their designs Metro runs higher-capacity trains more frequently than the Purple Line can. Many DC residents without much Maryland experience would likely expect that ridership movement on the Purple line will generally gravitate towards Metro, following the black arrows on the map below. The initial review even states that the stations expected to have the highest ridership are the ones with Metro connections.

(Huge thanks to GreaterGreaterWashington for this awesome map.)

If you approach the project with this mindset, then Metro’s recent problems would probably cause you to hesitate and demand a recalculation of ridership estimates. Hello, Judge Leon.

However, the Environmental Impact Statement that was done for the project in 2013 estimated that only 1 in 4 Purple Line riders are expected to actually connect to Metro during their trip. While that’s certainly a significant chunk of ridership, unless Metro’s ridership plummets significantly and stays low for the long-term, the difference for the Purple Line won’t be prohibitively substantial. It’s important to remember that Metro stations aren’t only for Metrorail, there’s a large amount of bus, taxi and Uber/Lyft activity surrounding these regional transit hubs. Just because a rider boards at a Metro station doesn’t mean they used Metrorail to get there. When looking at the project through a slightly different geographical lens, you’ll get a much different picture that makes the Purple Line look essential to Maryland’s growth over the next decade because of the way it adds to the area’s transit landscape all on its own.

A Marylander’s View: Purple Line takes me to where I couldn’t go before, I may not even need Metro now!

The big draw to Maryland’s Purple Line project is how it crosses previously preventative transportation boundaries, connecting job-rich areas in Montgomery County to the much poorer and minority-majority areas in Prince George’s County. An end-to-end ride would take slightly over an hour but opens the door to a wider range of higher paying jobs to the average PG County resident. Even for people with limited skills in the service sector, a janitor for a Chevy Chase golf course would certainly make more than a janitor at a New Carrollton rec center. The average median household income nearly triples as you run the length of the Purple Line and better access to these areas is essential to fostering better income equality throughout the region. Existing transportation options are struggling to meet the demand along this path which decreases wealth creation opportunities for the vast amount of poorer, minority residents often stuck in these areas.

Average Median Household Income at each Metro transfer station

Life Without the Purple Line

Prince George’s County and Montgomery County each operate their own individual bus systems that end at the counties’ boundary line (bright red line on the map.) WMATA plays the mediator in this “no-man’s land” and operates buses within both jurisdictions, but only four bus lines cross the county line. Two of these lines alone account for 5% of the total WMATA bus ridership in entire DC-Maryland-Virginia the region, so the demand for a better transit alternative is definitely here. As for other options: going 4 miles in the suburbs takes over an hour on Metrorail since you have to venture into DC to transfer lines and driving is hell thanks to the Beltway’s perpetual gridlock along this path.

The construction of the Purple Line is pivotal to Maryland’s first coordinated effort at connecting DC’s eastern “edge cities” to prepare for further growth. The Virginia cities of Tysons Corner, McLean, Reston and Dulles helped coin the term “edge city” and were rewarded with their own official Metro line when the Silver Line opened in 2014. Now it’s Maryland’s turn to try a hand at this planning technique. If the Purple Line is delayed or put in such a deep financial hole that it’s inevitably canceled, this could easily cause a much bigger problem for DC’s Maryland suburbs than Judge Leon may expect. Maryland’s various local planning commissions have been drawing up their plans with the Purple Line in mind for nearly a decade. Putting the project into further jeopardy will cause a ripple effect across the region as planned developments will struggle to attract new residents because of a lack of access to adequate transportation (and remember, in this case we don’t even have Metrorail to rely because of it’s purported fatal malignancy.)

Back to the Ruling…

To acknowledge all of the legal wonks out there, yes, I understand that I shouldn’t expect a US District Court judge to rely on a deep understanding of urban mobility to come to a decision. Their sole job is to follow precedent and ensure that the law is preserved and upheld as written. The problem is that the precedent this judge sets is faulty on an extremely basic level.

He ruled that a recalculation of ridership estimates (among other factors) is necessary to ensure a full, thorough review of the efficacy of the Purple Line proposal in the wake of Metro’s persistent malfunctions and decreased ridership. The Judge questions the efficacy of the Purple Line on its own, using the assumption that the project may not be viable without a fully functioning Metro system alongside it. While a sluggish Metrorail will indeed affect ridership numbers, there’s certainly enough evidence to support the reality that there is an immediate need for additional transportation infrastructure. Going back to the drawing board this late in the game will only do more harm than good. Through this line of thinking, the Judge subscribes to the idea that a piece of a comprehensive transportation system is only as effective as its weakest link. Therefore, if Metro is struggling we should be taking a second look at our investments in all systems and projects that link to it. That would mean yet another review of the Silver Line Phase 2 project, a fundamental rethinking of DC’s Streetcar routes and a groundbreaking shift away from current land use plans in place all across the region. It’s too late to adopt this mindset.

Whether we like it or not, Metro is here to stay. Pulling away from it will only cause us further long-term trouble. While trying to find remedies to help Metro regain its footing, we need to prioritize solutions that keep the system in mind. Every major government project should be put through a full, thoughtful review process to ensure that our federal dollars are not being wasted. But when our definitions of “full”, “thoughtful”, and “thorough” diverge, our inner racial, economic and geographic perspectives and biases are exposed.

Who is more important? The 25% of riders that may only ride the Purple Line if it connects to a functional Metro line? Or the 75% of riders that would take Purple Line to new destinations previously inaccessible to them?