Sunday, November 2, 2008; C02
The Maryland Transit Administration crossed a planning threshold last month when it released several hundred pages of study and analysis that could lead to the construction of an east-west transitway in the middle of the next decade. Here's a look at what the Alternatives Analysis/Draft Environmental Impact Statement says and where the project stands.
What Are the New Documents?
A lot of transit projects are competing for a very limited amount of federal money. Federal law requires that the projects' sponsors consider its potential impact on the environment as well as on transportation services.
The sponsors must also demonstrate the need for the project and consider alternatives to address the need. The full text of the study is available online at http://www.purplelinemd.com.
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What Do We Know So Far?
· The Purple Line would be a 16-mile east-west rapid transit line extending inside the Beltway from Bethesda in Montgomery County to New Carrollton in Prince George's County.
· It would be a bus rapid transit or light rail line.
· A bus rapid transit system would have permanent stations and operate large buses on streets with regular traffic or in dedicated lanes or a separate right-of-way.
· A light rail system would have permanent stations and operate an updated streetcar on tracks with overhead wires. Like the bus line, it could run on streets with traffic or in dedicated lanes or a separate right-of-way.
· Most of the transit route would be at street level. Twenty-one station locations are being evaluated. A hiking/biking trail is included along the Georgetown Branch and CSX/Metrorail corridors.
Communities: Although the bus or rail alternatives would improve mobility and enhance economic development along the corridor, they would eliminate three to 12 residential properties. Parking would have to be restricted on some streets.
Along some streets, including Wayne Avenue in Silver Spring, people are concerned that a transit line operating on the surface would harm the neighborhood's character. Others view the introduction of rapid buses or light rail as compatible with the car, truck and bus traffic already there.
Noise and Vibration: Silver Spring residents would hear moderate noise from rapid bus operations along the CSX corridor on Wayne Avenue and on Arliss Street. The light rail design includes vehicle skirts that substantially minimize noise. The Lyttonsville maintenance and storage yard in Montgomery would create moderate noise impacts from a bus system. The Glenridge yard in Prince George's would lead to severe noise from light rail. Noise walls might be needed.
Visual Effects: Rail operations would be reintroduced along the Georgetown Branch Trail. Trees would be removed within the right of way. Other areas of concern are Thayer Avenue and Piney Branch Road in Silver Spring and the University of Maryland campus in College Park. Landscaping, fencing or earth berms might be required. Existing poles or buildings could be used to support the trolley wires or new signs.
Open Space : Of the 53 public parks, recreation sites and open-space areas in the corridor, 11 parks, five open-space areas and five trails could be affected by the bus or rail alternatives.
Less than an acre of the individual parks would be affected. The Purple Line would benefit park users by providing direct transit access to the parks.
Build Nothing: Increasing traffic congestion lengthens travel times for cars and buses. The bus schedule becomes increasingly less reliable.
Manage Better: Improvements would include limited-stop bus service, more green-light time for buses and better bus stops. Metrobus routes would be modified to improve reliability. By 2030, traveling the 16-mile corridor would take 108 minutes at an average round-trip speed of 9 mph. There are practical limits on giving more green-light time in this east-west corridor. The big commuter roads that cut across that route, including Connecticut Avenue and Riggs Road, would suffer even worse congestion if they had to endure more red-light time.
Buses and Trains : Maryland looked at six basic options for bus and rail, ranging from simpler, lower-cost systems that mostly share local streets to more sophisticated and expensive versions that move faster because they have separate lanes and some tunnel segments. The top option for light rail would cost $1.6 billion today. That high-end system would offer the fastest travel times -- 50 minutes end to end at an average speed of 19 mph -- because of its higher investment in tunnel segments. The bus options would have slower travel times than their light rail counterparts and also have lower operating costs.
Cost-Effectiveness: In evaluating local projects for financial support, the Federal Transit Administration cares about cost-effectiveness. Based on that measure, the bus alternatives would be slightly more cost-effective than the light rail alternatives, with the medium-investment bus system being the most cost-effective. The medium-investment light rail is the most cost-effective of the rail alternatives. By current FTA standards, all the alternatives fall into the "medium" range of acceptability except for the low-investment light rail, which would rate as "medium-low."
· The documents are available for review and comment until Jan. 14. Then the Maryland Department of Transportation and its Transit Administration will adopt one of the options. Maryland Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari said in an interview that the choice should not be limited by current economic conditions. The state needs to think ahead and think big about its transportation system, he said.
· In spring 2009, the MTA expects to submit a proposal to the FTA and hopes for a favorable rating that would lead to partial federal funding.
· To build a bus or rail system after receiving a favorable rating, the state must then prepare a Preliminary Engineering and a Final Environmental Impact Statement.
· Maryland would then seek to move from the planning and environmental review stage into design and construction. (The process is similar to what Virginia is going through to build the new Metrorail link through Tysons and out to Dulles.)
· The very earliest construction on the Purple Line could begin is 2012. It probably would take three to five years.
-- Robert Thomson