I wasn’t able to attend last Tuesday’s Purple Line forum, as I was happily riding a crowded Amtrak train. But the university helpfully posted a high-quality video of the event online. You can watch it here. If you don’t have 2 hours to spare, here’s what you missed:
This forum had a lot in common with similar forums in recent years. There was a large turnout—the Purple Line is something that the community feels strongly about. As usual, MTA’s preferred Campus Drive surface alignment was pitted against the latest version of the university’s preferred anything-but-Campus-Drive alignment. In this case, a new incarnation of the southern Preinkert Drive alignment that includes a tunnel that starts near the Chapel and runs under Morrill Quad. As usual, audience input was overwhelmingly skewed in favor of the Campus Drive alignment. In the discussion period 10 people spoke in favor of Campus Drive, and 3 against (a further 6 raised other issues).
There were also some clear differences. There was a wider range of voices, including former Gov. Parris Glendening, who was Prince George’s County Executive when Metro’s Green Line alignment was being disputed, and Beth Day of the Federal Transit Administration, who offered some sobering truths on what it takes to compete successfully for federal funding. The event was kicked off by new UM president Wallace Loh, who continues to give no indication that he shares Dan Mote’s very strong views on Purple Line routing. It may be no accident that the university did not make the case for the Preinkert alignment as aggressively as it has in the past. There was a presentation from HMM, the authors of the university’s not-so-neutral recent report on the competing alignments, but it was not clear whether they were representing the current university administration, or Dr. Mote’s shadow. Overall, the tone of the meeting seemed less contentious than previous meetings.
Wallace Loh reiterated his view that no issue is more important to the future of the university and surrounding communities than the Purple Line. “Not having a Purple Line is not an option.” He pointed out that the timetable for recommendations from the university and the state is now rather compressed. “We can’t forever debate this issue at this early stage,” he said.
Glendening, the state’s former governor, reminded audience members of the dangers of history repeating itself. He said that the Green Line alignment, similarly contentious in the 1980s, “does not serve the campus community well at all.” He emphasized that the powerful impacts of transit will only be felt if transit is in the places where it will most benefit people. If one place has more pedestrian traffic, that should be an ideal place to put a transit station.
Beth Day, Director of Policy Planning at the Federal Transit Administration pointed out that around 34 projects, with likely requests totaling around $15 billion, are currently in the pipeline to compete for a pool of federal funds that amounts to about $2 billion per year. She outlined what it takes for a project to be competitive. The criteria include potential for economic development, good land use, cost effectiveness, environmental benefits, operating efficiencies, and the availability of solid long-term local financial support. Notably, the criteria do not emphasize the welfare of students who are distracted due to talking on their cell phones or underage drinking. That constituency features prominently in HMM’s recent report. At the end of the meeting, Day emphasized that a major obstacle to successful funding bids is the lack of local consensus.
After UM Professor Ali Haghani discussed engineering considerations affecting the alignment, Garth Rockcastle, former dean of the School of Architecture, talked about broader design issues. He emphasized the value of a surface alignment for reducing crime by putting “eyes on the street.” In apparent contradiction to this, he also encouraged consideration of a Campus Drive tunnel alignment, with a station connected to underground levels of Stamp Union, McKeldin Library, and Cole Field House. This revives an older idea that received some support from the university, but was discarded due to the $100 million-plus pricetag.
Henry Kay of MTA summarized the reasons why MTA favors the Campus Drive alignment. It takes the trains through an existing transit and pedestrian hub, and MTA believes that the safety and electro-magnetic interference (EMI) issues can be successfully addressed.
The Preinkert Drive alignment was represented by Elise Miller-Hooks, a faculty member in Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Mike Loehr of consulting firm HMM. They repeatedly described the Preinkert tunnel/trench as a “compromise,” though it wasn’t clear what were the alternatives that made this a middle ground proposal. Notably, nobody from the university administration was asked to speak in favor of the Preinkert alignment. In contrast to the university’s previous focus on EMI in criticizing the Campus Drive alignment, pedestrian safety was the main thrust of its current pitch. A couple of key points were revisited in the later discussion, and deserve clarification.
First, HMM argues that the daily pedestrian traffic across the tracks would be almost 10 times higher for the Campus Drive alignment than for Preinkert. This is because the proposed tunnel/trench takes out most of the pedestrian crossings that would have happened with the earlier Preinkert surface alignment. HMM made no attempt to push the poorly-reasoned claim from its report that a planned new teaching building near Campus Drive would further increase the pedestrian traffic by “an entire order of magnitude.” There seems to be agreement on the current numbers—and disagreement on whether light rail should seek out or avoid the places where lots of pedestrians go.
Second, the issue of the Campus Drive grade and safe braking distances was again emphasized, as in HMM’s report. The tunnel/trench avoids the 6% grade at the foot of Campus Drive. MTA argues that braking distances for light rail and buses are not very different, even on hills. HMM argues that the differences are massive. They’re using the same data, so what gives? What’s at stake here is the difference between the trains’ manual brakes (slow) and emergency brakes (much faster, but not to be used lightly). Both sides have a point. In the end, it comes down to whether people think that UM students are smart enough to keep out of the trains’ way. Opinions apparently differ on that.
Third, the Preinkert tunnel/trench isn’t cheap. Estimates of the additional cost are in the range of $50 million, and the disputes over this number are relatively small. Advocates see this as a small cost relative to its benefits (“just 3% of the total cost of the project”). Others see it as a major problem that could kill the entire Purple Line—the line only gets built if it is rated towards the top of the 34 projects competing for federal funding. The proposed tunnel is about a third of a mile long. Current cost estimates for the entire 16-mile Purple Line amount to roughly $30 million per 1/3 mile. Raising that figure to $80 million for the section at the middle of the UM campus is not small.
A fast-moving discussion, ably led by Dean of Public Policy Don Kettl, expanded upon many of the issues already touched upon in the presentations. Most speakers argued in support of the Campus Drive alignment. A number of them asked why the university does not think that its students are as responsible as people in communities that already have light rail. One questioner highlighted the continuing concerns about how EMI from the trains will impact current and future high tech research. MTA argued that these impacts can all be mitigated through power line designs and through shielding of equipment. MTA is probably oversimplifying matters on this point, and so it is understandable that the university remains skeptical. Another questioner raised the little-discussed issue of what will happen to the vehicle traffic that would be moved from Campus Drive: Would it then clog roads such as Mowatt Lane? MTA was dismissive of this issue, arguing that all the traffic would either go away, or would be moved to University Boulevard. This again did not inspire confidence. This is an issue that the community should keep in its sights, as it it could easily get lost in the fight over the choice of across-campus alignment.