Sidelining the Metro: How Fear, Prejudice, and University Inaction Kept the College Park Metro Station away from Campus
The thousands of University of Maryland students, faculty, and staff who use Metro often wonder why the College Park Metro Station is located inconveniently far away from campus. A 1994 graduate study (PDF, 15 MB) led by Urban Studies and Planning Professor William Hanna came to the conclusion that during the Metro’s planning stages in the early 1970s, then-President Wilson Homer Elkins virtually ignored the alignment discussions and tacitly discouraged alignments that were too convenient to campus. The report asserted that Elkins’s lack of enthusiasm for Metro resulted from his uneasiness with metropolitan Washington and is linked with his lack of enthusiasm for racial integration.
Students, faculty, and staff often dread the long bus ride to the Metro station and wonder why it is so far away. The Maryland Department of Transportation (DOT) actually considered several different station locations for College Park, including one under Route 1 at the Ritchie Coliseum and one on campus near what is now the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center. However, as the current controversy over the Purple Line shows, political realities often force governments to compromise the convenience of public transit to appease oppositional constituencies—such is the nature of democracy. For different reasons, each alignment for the Green Line upset a different constituency in the surrounding neighborhoods. The default alignment included the current location of the station and though the Maryland DOT was actively considering alternatives that would be closer to campus the then-Administration remained publicly silent on advocating a closer location, leaving the debate to various NIMBY groups.
In fact, Maryland’s Secretary of Transportation at the time noted the current location’s “poor service to the University” and referred to his department’s ridership numbers that estimated the number of people that would board at each proposed station location. Obviously, the more convenient a station is to where people live and want to go, the higher the ridership. DOT’s damning conclusion shows that the public and then-President Elkins knew that the current station would be the least-used possible location for a Metro station in College Park:
We can never know for certain why Elkins failed to advocate one of the several proposed campus stations, even though such a decision would prove crucially important to the University’s future. Though these campus locations were shown to be more convenient and more popular among riders, the Hanna report asserted that convenience of transit was not Elkins’s priority at the time. The report suggested that racial animus (or at least ambivalence) subtly motivated the Elkins administration regarding enrollment and even regarding Metro planning decisions. On the matter of race, the report states:
There was never a George Wallace blocking the entry for African-Americans to the College Park campus. However, it is clear that during the years of Metro decisionmaking, there was no welcome mat. A distinguished [and unnamed] campus historian put it this way: “President Elkins didn’t want undesirable elements on campus, which [to him] meant black people from Washington.” Our research clearly indicates that some campus officials and others feared that a Metro link between the District and College Park would make it easier for African-Americans to come to campus. That result was contrary to the political will of the campus at the time. (PDF pp 54-5)
The report furthers discussed the fact that in 1973, though the Administration officially opposed racial segregation, “a federal civil rights agency conducted an evaluation of Maryland’s efforts, concluding that little had been done to foster [racial] integration.” (PDF p. 55)
The report links Elkins’s lack of support for a convenient station with a fear of racial conflict. The proposed Green Line would link College Park with places such as Columbia Heights and U Street, which had recently burned in the civil disorder that followed Martin Luther King’s assassination in April 1968. The report posited another cultural motivation for the Administration beyond that of race. The University of Maryland serves the entire state of Maryland, but is situated in the Washington metropolitan area. The University’s rural, agricultural roots, the report asserted, contended with the University’s suburban metropolitan location:
Metro was seen as a threat to the non-urban character of the campus, and especially to the separation of the campus from urban ways and people. It is, therefore, easy to understand that a source of further stress and disruption was unwelcome. Only with the arrival of President John Toll, who grew up in Washington metropolitan area, did the position of the campus change. (PDF p. 58)
Indeed, how times have changed. The University of Maryland now graduates more African Americans than does any other top-25 public university in the nation. Furthermore, the University’s recruitment efforts these days often tout the proximity of Washington as a benefit of attending Maryland and the current Administration voices its support for better connecting the campus with the rest of the region through the Purple Line.
Though the Administration now supports the Purple Line, President Mote opposes the Maryland DOT’s current alignment for a light rail station in front of the Stamp Student Union. He is urging the state to change course and head for Stadium Drive instead. Mote fears that the line would degrade the currently worn down state of Campus Drive, even though any Purple Line construction would bring millions of dollars in streetscape improvements. His opposition is also based on a fear that a light rail train will cause damaging vibrations to nearby scientific equipment, even though modern light rail vehicles are quieter (and most likely produce less vibrations) than our current noisy diesel Shuttle UM buses. President Mote also states the unwarranted fear that train drivers will run down students, even though private cars on Campus Drive today are a greater threat to pedestrian safety than are trained rail operators who can simply apply the brake as with any other vehicle.
President Mote’s opposition to the Maryland DOT’s current Purple Line proposal for a stop on campus (above) is reminiscent of Elkins’s lack of support for a convenient campus station. Though President Mote is certainly not motivated by fear of racial conflict, he is motivated by other fears—fears of the new and unfamiliar—that prove similarly unconvincing. The President believes his fears, which he has not adequately proven in public, warrant the University to yet again forgo the convenient public transit the State of Maryland is offering and that students, staff, and faculty deserve.
> Read the study yourself: Metro Stop? Metro: Stop! The Politics of Transportation Planning (.PDF, 15 MB)