UMD fights phantom fences

The University of Maryland and the Maryland Transit Administration remain at odds over the Purple Line. One argument that UMD loves to trot out is that the light rail line will turn campus into a maze of tall fences.

While MTA fiercely denies that they are planning to install fences, the University of Maryland claims evidence to the contrary. Administrators cite the University of Minnesota, where a light rail line connecting Minneapolis and Saint Paul is under construction. Staffers at UMD claim that the light rail line there caused 42 inch high fences to be erected to keep students off the tracks.

There are several problems with this logic, but the most important is that the fences pre-date the light rail line, and are being removed as a part of the light rail project.
Map of the U-Minn area
Continue reading UMD fights phantom fences

MTA Releases Purple Line DEIS

Portland Streetcar at PSU
The Maryland Mass Transit Administration has released the Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Purple Line. The document, sprawling across 251 pages offers a comprehensive look at the alternatives proposed for the transitway.

Running approximately 16 miles from Bethesda in Montgomery County to New Carrollton in Prince George’s County, the line will be either Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) or Light Rail and will cost between $386 million and $1.6 billion depending on the selected alternative.

The DEIS does not make for light reading, but it does cover a variety of important topics, from environmental justice to watershed impacts. Ridership and cost projections are also included, and this document is an important step in getting federal money to complete the project.

The project will play a vital role in connecting the region. Even the lowest investment BRT alternative is expected to garner 40,000 daily boardings by 2030. The high investment light rail line would draw over 68,000 riders by 2030.

Two alignments are currently being studied for the College Park/UM Segment. MTA clearly prefers a campus drive alignment, but at the behest of the University are also studying a right-of-way which would travel further south, passing between LeFrak Hall and the South Campus Dining Hall.

The DEIS does not identify a locally preferred alternative (LPA). The decision about which mode and alignment will be made after public comment on the DEIS. According to the document:

After consideration of comments received the State of Maryland will select a Locally Preferred Alternative in consultation with county and local jurisdiction officials and elected officials. The selection will be based on consideration of, and trade off among benefits, costs, environmental impacts, and affordability of the alternatives. The Locally Preferred Alternative could include project implementation phasing that involves an initial implementation phase, referred to as a minimum operable segment, and a plan and schedule for subsequent implementation phases.
(DEIS, page 13)

Selection of an LPA would allow the MTA to undertake the engineering required for the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) which is the last major step before requesting a record of decision from the Federal Transit Administration.

For I Dipt into the Future...

The DEIS can be accessed here (warning, large PDF).
Other documents are available on the Purple Line website.

Meetings are being held around the region soon. Make sure to get your comments heard.

New Carrollton
Saturday, November 15
New Carrollton Municipal Center
6016 Princess Garden Parkway
New Carrollton, MD 20784

Chevy Chase
Tuesday, November 18
National 4-H Youth Conference Center
7100 Connecticut Avenue
Chevy Chase, MD 20815

College Park

Wednesday, November 19
Ritchie Coliseum, University of Maryland
Route 1 across from Rossborough Inn
College Park, MD 20742

Takoma Park/Silver Spring
Saturday, November 22
Montgomery College,
Takoma Park/Silver Spring Campus
Falcon Hall
7600 Takoma Avenue
Takoma Park, MD 20912

Purple Line Meetings in November

Maryland’s Mass Transit Administration, the agency in charge of building the Purple Line project will be holding a series of public meetings next month. Make sure you come out to voice your support for this transportation project.

Meetings are scheduled for:

College Park
Wednesday, November 19, 2008
UMD Ritchie Coliseum
Rossborough Lane & Route 1

Chevy Chase
Tuesday, November 18, 2008
National 4H Conference Center
7100 Connecticut Avenue

New Carrollton
Saturday, November 15, 2008
New Carrollton Municipal Center
6016 Princess Garden Parkway

Silver Spring/Takoma Park

Saturday, November 22, 2008
Montgomery College, Falcon Hall
7600 Takoma Avenue, Takoma Park

The Purple Line is a proposed light rail or bus rapid transit line which will link Bethesda to New Carrollton by way of Silver Spring, Langley Park, the University of Maryland, and College Park.

Universities miss the train when it comes to transit

I would think that a fairly obvious aspect of transportation planning is that as convenience increases, so does use. Unfortunately, this lesson is one that apparently needs to be added to the syllabus. As I said last week, the University of Maryland has been fighting the Purple Line for a while. Other universities are making similar arguments against rail plans in their areas.

The Overhead Wire reported late last week that Norfolk State University in Virginia has been successful in getting the NSU station on Norfolk’s light rail system, which is currently under construction, moved away from campus. According to the Hampton Roads Pilot Online, university officials were worried that a stop so close to campus would be a security issue.

Moving the station will add $1.45 million to the cost of the project and will locate the station on the opposite side of Brambleton Avenue. Light rail patrons traveling to the Norfolk State Campus will now have to cross a 5-lane arterial. Of course, this is likely to reduce both the number of criminals and students using the train. The crucial question is which group will be more determined to get across the highway.

While the administration of UMD has decided to partake in a civil discussion regarding the Purple Line, history shows that they haven’t always been so accomodating. Not only did they try and get the Purple Line stop moved away from the center of campus, they were instrumental in the 1970s in getting the Green Line station located far from campus, on the far side of College Park. One WMATA proposal put the Green Line stop under Route 1 at its intersection with College Avenue. This stop would have been adjacent to campus, but the University feared that it would increase crime. As a result, students, faculty, staff, and visitors have to endure a long walk or bus ride to campus.

UM’s arguments against the Purple Line tended to be more along the lines of objections due to safety rather than crime. Of course, if the University is so concerned that light rail vehicles will be a danger to pedestrians, I challenge them to remove all cars from Campus Drive regardless of the fate of the Purple Line, after all, cars are far more dangerous to pedestrians. Rethink College Park further challenged the UM’s arguments by asking, among other things, why all the campus buses didn’t serve the the University’s proposed station location on Stadium Drive. Hopefully, the university’s fears won’t result in another inconvenient station location.

Another university that fought light rail is the University of Minnesota. They objected to the Central Corridor which would connect Minneapolis and Saint Paul on similar grounds as the University of Maryland. Fearing, vibration, traffic disruption, and pedestrian safety, they insisted on a subway route through campus. When that proved too expensive, they insisted on a lenghty detour around the northern side of campus. That route would have drawn too few riders, however. Finally, not wanting to be the last obstacle to the line, they wisely backed down.

These Universities, although they would benefit greatly from the increased mobility, have fought projects which would reduce their need to provide parking, increase their environmental friendliness, and make their institutions a more integrated part of the urban fabric. At long last, some are beginning to wise up. Still, these objections are likely to continue to crop up as transit officials continue to try to expand transit into new areas. Hopefully, in these debates, mobility will be the victor.

Purple Line Debate Calms

Charlotte-2008 022
The Purple Line has sparked much debate across the region, but perhaps the most contentious debate has come from College Park, where the proposed routing would traverse the University of Maryland on Campus Drive. Rethink College Park has weighed in on the issue many many times, and has long supported the Campus Drive alignment preferred by MTA and by students.

The University administration called for alternative alignments, costly subway construction, and further study; while students pushed for a central location and a speedy construction process. To many, it seemed that the debate was getting us nowhere, with the University proposing new alignments seemingly every week and forcing the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) to rehash old arguments over and over. The student government organizations at both the undergraduate and graduate levels passed resolutions calling for the Campus Drive alternative, but President Mote would not meet with representatives from those bodies to even discuss the substance of UM’s objections.

Finally, however, the debate has settled down into a calm, rational discussion of the issues. The administration, reports the Diamondback, will drop its objections to the MTA-preferred alternative if MTA can allay the fears that trains will be a danger to pedestrians and disrupt research. Accordingly, MTA is studying the potential effects, from vibrations to electromagnetic radiation. They’ve also released revised plans for pedestrian movement and design which will truly improve the appearance of central campus.

The Purple Line is a golden opportunity for UM and the Washington region. By improving transit access, the University can reduce the footprint of its parking facilities and increase students’ access to jobs throughout the region. The region will increase its mobility and will build a vital link missing from the transit infrastructure for so long. If UM’s support is indeed forthcoming, this vision of Washington’s future will be one step closer to reality.

Light Rail Around the United States

MTA LRV in BaltimoreWith all the recent discussion about the Purple Line, it seems pertinent to explore the reasons that light rail transit (LRT) is being considered for the UM Campus and the larger Washington region.

Before 1972, the term light rail did not exist. It was coined by the Urban Mass Transit Administration (now the Federal Transit Administration) to describe the upgrades of streetcar systems that were starting to become popular in the United States as a cheaper alternative to constructing heavy rail (metro) systems. The wave of new LRT systems started in Canada, when Edmonton opened North America’s first LRT system in 1978. San Francisco followed in 1980, starting the US trend. One could also argue that Boston’s Green Line, which has been operating as a streetcar tunnel since 1897, became a light rail line in 1975 when it began upgrades to modern LRT technology.

LRT in Dresden Portland Streetcar at PSU

Light rail’s popularity stems from its cheapness. Light rail was originally implemented in cities of small to medium size, where a full-scale metro system was impractical. However as federal funding became more competitive and inflation drove construction costs up, many larger cities began to turn to light rail as well. It is perhaps the most versatile form of rail transit. While heavy rail systems like Metro are fully grade separated, LRT can operate in almost any context. Buffalo, New York’s light rail system is almost completely grade separated. Except for the southernmost 1.2 miles, the line is entirely in subway. The light rail systems in Dallas and Portland each have only one subway station; the rest are at grade. The T in Pittsburgh operates in a subway downtown, on its own right of way through most of the South Hills, and, in a few places–like Beechview, in-street with cars. Ridership is greatly varied. In some cities, Like Tacoma and Trenton, only a few thousand people board every day; in other places, light rail serves tens of thousands. The Green Line in Boston carries over 235,000 passengers on an average weekday.

MAX in Downtown Portland Muni Metro Subway

The features which distinguish light rail from heavy rail and streetcars are in various categories. Because LRVs often travel in mixed rights of way, they use caternary (overhead) wires to power the vehicle. To overcome objections to these wires, several systems use diesel powered vehicles. Of note, Ottawa’s O-Train and NJ Transit’s River Line operate as “diesel multiple unit” LRVs. Still, caternary wires do provide benefits, such as fewer localized pollution sources. They can also be screened easily through different methods, such as planting street trees (see the Portland example above on the left). Capacity is another major distinguishing feature. LRV’s typically have much higher capacities than do streetcars, including the ability to be coupled into trains of several units. However, they are considered ‘light’ in the sense of their comparison to heavy rail, with which they cannot compete on high ridership lines. The two largest factors surrounding the selection of light rail as a mode are context and cost. Low density streetcar suburbs and suburban employment centers tend to be better suited to light rail because they lack the concentration of trip generators and destinations that heavy rail necessitates. Light rail is also chosen in situations where enough capital cannot be raised to construct a full-scale metro system.

Light rail is a safe, efficient, clean, and attractive mode of transportation. It will replace the crowded and often gridlocked Campus Drive that we know with one which is safer for pedestrians (after all, there’s nothing more dangerous than a car for a pedestrian), more accessible to the larger region, and which is more environmentally friendly.

Light rail systems have been springing up across the country, and will likely continue to do so. Here is a list of cities with light rail.

For photos, click on the links.

*Boston’s Green Line: upgraded to LRT in 1975, opened 1897
*San Francisco’s Muni Metro: upgraded to LRT in 1980
*San Diego Trolley: opened 1981
*Cleveland‘s Blue and Green Lines: upgraded to LRT in 1981
*Buffalo Metro Rail: opened in 1984
*Portland’s MAX Light Rail: 1986
*Sacramento‘s RTD Light Rail: 1987
*San Jose‘s VTA Light Rail: 1987
*Pittsburgh‘s T: 1987
*Los Angeles’ Light Rail Lines (Blue, Green, Gold): 1990
*Baltimore’s Light Rail: 1992
*Saint Louis Metrolink: 1993
*Denver RTD’s The Ride: 1994
*Dallas‘ DART: 1996
*Salt Lake City‘s TRAX: 1999
*New Jersey’s Hudson-Bergen Light Rail: 2000
*Tacoma LINK: 2003
*Houston METRORail: 2004
*Minneapolis‘ Hiawatha Line: 2004
*Trenton-Camden River Line: 2004
*Newark Light Rail: 2006
*Charlotte’s LYNX will open on November 24th, 2007
*Phoenix’s METRORail is under construction, opening 2008
*Seattle’s Central LINK is under construction, opening 2009
*Norfolk just started construction on the Tide, opening 2010

East Campus in Perspective: Technology Square at Georgia Tech

As the East Campus Redevelopment Project moves through the public participation process, it is valuable to look at how other universities have integrated mixed-use facilities into their campuses. This is the second post in that series.

In August of 2003, Georgia Tech completed the much anticipated Technology Square project. This redevelopment effort was in keeping with Georgia Tech’s motto: “Progress and Service.” This campus expansion marked a paradigm shift in the way that Georgia Tech saw itself physically within the greater Atlanta community.

Historical Perspective
In the 1950s the Georgia Department of Highways constructed a six-lane freeway through the center of the city. This freeway, which would eventually carry Interstates 75 and 85, became a barrier between Tech and the dense urban neighborhood of Midtown to the east. It caused the neighborhoods on both sides to accelerate their decline in status. This decline had started with the construction of Techwood Homes, America’s first public housing project, just south of the Georgia Tech campus in 1937. Due to the barrier that the Interstate posed to both automotive and pedestrian traffic moving east-west through Atlanta, Georgia Tech’s campus expanded westward becoming, essentially, a suburban campus located in an urban environment. With the surrounding neighborhoods continuing to decline through the 1960s and 1970s, Georgia Tech cut itself off from the surrounding cityscape with tall fences and an inward orientation. The widening of the Interstate to 15 lanes in the mid-1980s worsened the division even though the Midtown neighborhood was finally beginning to become a sought-after address.

The opening of Tech Square in time for Fall Semester classes in 2003 was the first time in five decades that Georgia Tech had expanded to the east, and this shift was more than geographic; it was symbolic. By turning abandoned buildings and surface parking lots into hip sidewalk cafes and classroom space, Georgia Tech was breaking through the barriers surrounding it and committing itself to the redevelopment of Atlanta.

The Project
The Tech Square project is centered on Fifth Street, which is a major campus artery bisecting campus into northern and southern halves. It stretches for two blocks from the Interstate toward Midtown, ending at West Peachtree Street. It is linked to the main campus by an improved Fifth Street with wide sidewalks, bus stop turnouts, and bike lanes. The Georgia Department of Transportation completed work on the new Fifth Street bridge in the Winter of 2006-07, creating a new park above the Interstate on either side of Fifth. The Tech Trolley was instituted to link the main campus with Tech Square, and service on the route continues to the Midtown MARTA (Metro-type subway) Station. These shuttles run every 8 minutes throughout the day.

The development itself includes a new campus for the College of Management, the Georgia Tech Hotel and Conference Center, the Economic Development Institute, the Georgia Tech Bookstore, and a privately-owned office building. The entire area, which currently takes up three square blocks, includes street-level retail and is now one of the busiest parts of campus. This expansion of campus has proven popular not only with students, but also with office workers in nearby Midtown skyscrapers and local condo-dwellers.

Most shocking from an Atlanta perspective is the project’s pedestrian friendliness. Tech Square won the prestigious “Golden Shoe” award for pedestrian design in 2003. Wide sidewalks exist throughout the project, which also includes on-street parking and bike lanes. A large parking deck is wrapped by buildings to disguise it from the street. This deck will eventually allow for the demolition of older decks on the main campus.

Another part of the paradigm shift which has been signified by Tech Square is Georgia Tech’s commitment to the environment. Starting with the College of Management Building, all new construction on the Georgia Tech campus will be LEED certified. By reconnecting and redeveloping the surrounding neighborhood, Georgia Tech has begun to encourage walking and transit ridership (the nearest MARTA subway station, North Avenue, is only two blocks away at Third Street). Tech has also begun to incorporate urban-style campus elements to its traditional suburban feel (despite being only two miles from the city center). The LEED certification is just the most quantitative example of this new commitment. Georgia Tech has long prided itself on being a leader in the community, and with Tech Square, it has made a large step forward.

Missed Opportunities
Perhaps the biggest flaw of the project was the lack of housing. While the Hotel and College of Management keep the area busy during the day and into the evening, most shops close by 10 p.m. and afterwards the district is quite still. Tech could have kept Tech Square alive later and worked on its housing crunch by constructing dormitories on Fifth. Instead, the Institute chose to move the residential center of campus further south by purchasing the Georgia State University Village across North Avenue from Tech. There is still one parcel which has not been developed, and it could be residential in nature when construction occurs, but no plans have yet been made.

Why it Matters to Maryland
Technology Square is quite different from the proposed East Campus redevelopment in many aspects, but it also has many similarities. The biggest similarity is the demonstration of the University’s commitment to the community. College Park has long been host to UM, but this project has the potential to show that both parties realize how bound their futures are in each other. The East Campus redevelopment, like Tech Square, will help to reconnect the University symbolically and physically with the city of College Park. It will also provide a stronger physical link with the Metro station just as Tech Square did with MARTA. Most importantly, the East Campus redevelopment will bring students to College Park who otherwise wouldn’t have been there, and it will bring citizens of College Park to campus who otherwise would have never had the opportunity to interact with the campus. This project is about more than redevelopment; it’s about reconnecting two communities with a commitment to prosper together.