Officials Jumping Aboard Despite Cost Advantage Of Rapid Buses
By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 8, 2009; B01
Despite its substantially higher cost, light rail has emerged as the clear front-runner among Maryland officials as they prepare to choose a transit system that would link Montgomery and Prince George's counties.
After more than 20 years of debate, a 16-mile rail line is the widely popular alternative to a rapid bus system, even though light rail could cost three times as much to build and 50 percent more to maintain and operate, according to state estimates.
"It's pretty clear there's overwhelming support for light rail," said Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D), who said he is personally undecided.
A state analysis predicted that light-rail trains and rapid buses would travel about the same speeds between some stations. But even in tight financial times, most local officials say they're willing to spend more on light rail because they believe it would better encourage the economic redevelopment they want transit to bring to communities inside the Capital Beltway.
For developers and future passengers, light rail is commonly seen as "more snazzy," while bus rapid transit is often viewed as "a second-class system," said Montgomery County Council member Nancy Floreen (D-At Large), who chairs the council's transportation committee.
Although Floreen said she believes both systems can offer quality rides, "I do think for long-term permanence and reliability, light rail sends a different message to everybody. It's just a step below Metro. . . . I think we all agree on light rail. The question is: Can we get it done?"
Some rapid bus supporters say the intense debate over the east-west line's route has overshadowed the larger discussion of what kind of Purple Line Maryland can afford. Some bus supporters say seeking federal funding for relatively expensive light rail could doom the project's chances of being built soon.
That's because the system would compete for federal construction money against transit projects across the country. The cost to build a rapid bus system is estimated at between $386 million and $1 billion, and a light-rail line would cost $1.2 billion to $1.6 billion.
Montgomery council member Marc Elrich (D-At Large) said he thinks the debate has given short shrift to a state analysis that shows that buses in their own lanes and with priority at intersections "perform virtually identically to light rail."
"If you look at the difference in ridership and the amount of money, you have to ask yourself, 'Is [light rail] worth it?' " Elrich said.
Elrich said he would join his fellow council members in voting for light rail to show unanimous support for a Purple Line. He said the rest of the Montgomery council appears to favor light rail, which the Prince George's council has endorsed.
"Everyone is afraid of losing everything after all this fight if we recommend something different from Prince George's," Elrich said.
The Purple Line is designed to allow transit riders to travel between suburbs without having to pass through the heart of Washington, as they do now on Metrorail, or ride buses in heavy traffic. Maryland transit officials want to connect population centers at Bethesda, Silver Spring, College Park and New Carrollton, and link MARC, Amtrak and Metro stations. Both light-rail trains and buses would run mostly aboveground and on local streets.
Rail proponents say light-rail trains, which would be shorter and quieter than Metro trains and be powered by an overhead electrical wire, would attract more passengers than a bus system. The state's study estimated that by 2030 bus rapid transit would generate as many as 58,900 daily trips while light rail would attract as many as 68,100. A light-rail line's capacity also could be increased more easily than a busway's, supporters say.
Most important, rail supporters say, fixed tracks attract developers who want to ensure that people have a fast and permanent way to ride transit to their shops, restaurants, condominiums and office buildings. Although bus supporters tout the flexibility of routes to change as demand dictates, rail advocates say that flexibility gives developers little assurance that their buildings will remain close to transit.
Busway supporters say a bus rapid transit system would bear little resemblance to the lumbering buses to which Washingtonians are accustomed. The buses are sleeker and roomier, proponents say, and outperform traditional models by using exclusive lanes and stopping much less frequently, only at designated stations.
But some public officials, particularly in eastern Montgomery and Prince George's, say they want trains, not more buses, for the predominantly lower-income passengers a Purple Line is designed to serve most.
"In Prince George's, our public bus system has fallen short. We don't have confidence in a new bus system," said Del. Tawanna P. Gaines (D-Prince George's), chair of the House subcommittee on transportation appropriations. "I think most people think buses aren't as good."
Lower-income transit riders "should be allowed to use a system with the same quality of life" as Metrorail passengers, Gaines said.
The Prince George's and Montgomery councils are scheduled to vote on a Purple Line plan in February or early March. Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) will have the final say, but local officials' wishes are expected to carry significant weight, particularly because they probably will have to help pay for it.