Ehrlich Transportation Plan Unsuitable for College Park

light rail
Light rail transit in Portland, OR (image via the Rethink College Park Flickr Page).

Before casting your vote today, please consider what you would like your commute and that of future College Park residents to look like. Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob L. Ehrlich surely has: His transportation platform, as outlined below, does not help actualize the vision of the modern college town that we all would like College Park to be.

More buses? The key to Ehrlich’s transportation platform is halting construction of the Purple Line light rail extension to the Metro system. The Purple Line would transverse Washington suburbs, connecting the Orange Line at New Carrollton to the Red Line at Bethesda. The route would have five stops in College Park—just outside the city limits at UMUC, in front of Stamp Student Union, East Campus, the existing Green Line metro stop, and on River Road at M-Square—quickly carrying local faculty and staff to campus, students to internships in D.C., and all residents to the businesses it would attract along the Route 1 corridor. Instead of investing in this speedy, commercially-viable transit system, Ehrlich would like to create a “rapid bus service” along the route, adding to the deluge of buses and shuttles that already hurdle up and down Campus Drive and get caught in mid-afternoon traffic across the region. Even The Diamondback, which endorsed Ehrlich yesterday morning, noted that when it comes to the Purple Line, Ehrlich’s plan is “less popular, less efficient, and less environmentally friendly.”

Roads over rail? Last week, Ehrlich promised to completely halt construction of the Purple Line if he gains office, claiming, “the dollars aren’t there”. While he cannot find money for light rail, there seems to be ample dollars available for roads. Ehrlich intends to divert the $80 million that O’Malley has dedicated to light-rail engineering to local road projects. Ehrlich has long given preference to roads over transit, beginning construction of the $2.6 billion Intercounty Connector during his term, while spurning the $1.6 billion light rail project. As Ehrlich’s representative on the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority board Robert J. Smith told The Washington Post, Ehrlich’s complaints of funding woes for the Purple Line are an attempt to “delay the project” and direct “all money available” to the Intercounty Connector, a nearly completed freeway marked by its environmental infirmity. In College Park, where nearly 50% of students come to campus by some other means than alone in a car, Ehrlich’s antiquated, autocentric scheme is unsuitable for the needs of the campus community.

Simply, when it comes to transportation, Bob Ehrlich does not have the needs of College Park in mind. While the Purple Line surely faces other obstacles in the reluctant University of Maryland administration, the Prince George’s and Montgomery County Councils have already agreed to the project, proving that the need and the desire for modern transit is here. All we need now is a visionary governor who will bring our ideal of a livable, vibrant college town to fruition.

For a similar viewpoint, read architecture professor emeritus and Purple Line NOW president Ralph Bennet’s guest column, “Fear the purple,” in The Diamondback.

8 thoughts on “Ehrlich Transportation Plan Unsuitable for College Park”

  1. O’Malley Transportation Plan unsuitable for College Park. Martin O’Malley has been governor for four years and has not built the Purple Line which has been talked about for 20 years. O’Malley has run Maryland into the hole with profligate spending, and they couldn’t even start constructing the Purple Line. There is a 9 billion dollar structural deficit. I love this rethink college park blog but the writers, many of those making comments and city leaders have a great misunderstand of basic economics and the role of government in society. You cannot build and make something without money. Money only is only generated in the private sector. When O’Malley increases the sales tax and personal income tax, this is driving down business in Maryland and driving it to places like West Virginia and Virginia. So not only does revenue go down, the spending goes into overdrive.

    Martin O’Malley complained that “Ehrlich” increased spending 33% and he reduced it 3%. So that’s still a 30% increase since 2003 with lower revenues! If I’m making less money but spending more, I can’t all of a sudden get all sorts of new stuff, because my credit card will be declined!

    Well Maryland’s credit card is officially declined, because the purple line is not being built any time soon. If we are to be adults about this we need to stop relying on some magical godsend like the Purple Line to magically raise the status of College Park. RTCP constantly compares our city to places like Charlottesville and Anne Arbor as the example of what a great college town should be. Well those places do not have light rail transit.

    Even if sometime in the distant future the purple line is built the effect on College Park is not being to be what everyone here is hoping for. For years people eagerly anticipated the construction of the green line. Developers bought property all around where the West Hyattsville station is now. They thought the green line was just what Hyattsville needed. Well go drive around West Hyattsville Station. In almost 20 years since it was opened, the only new development was an Aldi Store and KFC/A&W. There is nothing wrong with those businesses, but that’s far short of high hopes people had with the billions spent on the green line. The same story applies to Paint Branch Parkway in College Park, not much in the way of new business with the opening of the green line.

    The next great government project is not going to save us. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying mass transit isn’t a good thing in certain contexts, but what we’re paying for is not coming back to us, and that’s even when we do have the money to throw around. We need to remember that we just don’t have the money right now, neither does the federal government.

    The only thing that can make College Park a great center of economic activity will be a complete U-turn in the approach to business this town takes. The city council is notoriously anti-business, and does more to try to keep the “wrong” businesses out of town than trying to bring in the right ones. All this does is result in all the empty storefronts along route 1. When developers want to build something that’s in demand like student housing and bars, which employs local residents and puts money in the College Park economy, the city council and residents protest it. College Park tried to extort No. 1 Liquors out of business. When someone wants to open a quick service food location, the city council blocks them, saying there’s already too many. So tell me, HOW THE HECK does a new sandwich or burger shop hurt the economy?

    The only thing that hurts the College Park economy is the City Council, the M-NCPPC as well as the Prince George’s County Council. They hold up development, nix perfectly viable projects that people are willing to invest millions in, and prevent new perfectly good businesses from occupying the empty storefronts. And somehow they all think a multi-billion dollar light rail line that Maryland just doesn’t have the money to build will bring College Park into the upper echelon of college towns?

    Let me reiterate, I love this blog but hate the smug political undertones that often come with it. New businesses bring jobs and money into the local economy, even if it’s not necessarily a business we like or utilize. I don’t have any need to go to a womens clothing store, but it still helps the local economy. The more businesses there are, the more people stay in CP for all their needs and the better off local businesses and property owners are, the less people have to travel and clog up traffic, and the more jobs there are.

    Sorry for the long post, but I just had a lot to get off my chest.

  2. Appreciate your comment Tommy. You do have your facts switched around on some of these issues though. When O’Malley came in they had to basically start from scratch with the purple line planning process. Geting federal funding for transit projects is a multi-year effort. Ehrlich’s MTA set the process back years by botching ridership projections. If it wasn’t for that, O’Malley could have easily broken ground for the project by now.

    College Park is in a fundamentally different location than Charlottesville and Ann Arbor. It’s located in a congested and blighted inner ring suburb. It can’t sustain the kind of redevelopment it needs without better transportation infrastructure.

    I agree that development around Metro stations in Prince George’s County leaves much to be desired. WMATA, the county council, and NIMBYs are all to blame. The planning process and politics in the county are completely broken and WMATA historically has been a lackluster partner in the county. I’m cautiously optimistic that they are turning a corner. That said, Arlington and Montgomery have become national models for TOD. TOD can and does work in the region. The Purple Line is intended to work in conjunction with the metro system and connect College Park to already bustling development nodes in Silver Spring and Bethesda. That’s why it will be one of the most competitive applicants for federal matching funds. Thousands of UMD students, faculty and staff live within close proximity to the planned stations.

    East Campus is planned right where the purple line will come through the city. In fact, East Campus will probably come first. Also, despite a slow start, development is now proceeding at a rapid pace around the CP metro station. It remains to be seen whether the Purple Line will trigger dense infill projects in Langley Park and points east of CP towards New Carrolton. I’m very skeptical that it will, but it does add an equity component to the project and streamline some regional buses.

    I disagree with your assertion that any development is good development in the city. Real estate brokers can make a quick buck flipping drive through fast food chains; meanwhile leaving the city with a development that doesn’t contribute to its vitality and set back the vision for a vibrant, pedestrian-friendly College Park another generation. Fortunately, the zoning for route 1 is on my side on this issue and requires adherence to some form-based design standards.

    Neither O’Malley nor Ehrlich were upfront during the campaign about how they would pay for things. No real shocker there. It’ll be interesting to see how O’Malley intends to pay for the Purple Line beyond the current engineering phase.

  3. Tommy, I agree TOD around PG County metro stations should have occurred many years ago, but redevelopment around West Hyattsville Metro will happen. You may have already seen this but Rob Goodspeed has a good write-up of some of the things that have stalled plans in that area: http://goodspeedupdate.com/2007/2143

    A new transit district development plan was approved by M-NCPPC several years ago for West Hyattsville and hopefully implementation will move forward as economic conditions improve and banks begin lending to developers again.
    http://www.pgplanning.org/Projects/Completed_Projects/Completed_Plans/West_Hyattsville.htm

  4. David thanks for the thoughtful response. I think TOD is great and yes in Virginia and Montgomery there are some positive examples, as well as the Prince George’s Plaza Metro in the past 5 years there is a pulse of development although only about half of what was expected by now (the remaining half of UTC as well as the hotel and other previously planned apartment/condo buildings). I just wanted to point out that a transit project is not the deciding factor of development in the community. It can assist it, but only under the right conditions, meanwhile dense infill development can also take place without mass transit. Look at Downtown Louisville, KY. They’ve done a lot in the way of pedestrian plazas and infill retail, entertainment, hotel and housing within office towers. There is no rail in Louisville. Likewise Baltimore also has light rail and many of the stops have no discernible development. Thus I support mass transit ONLY when there is money to build it, which Maryland will not have for years. I won’t support federal funds either since we are in a huge hole right now, and it’s not good to build this kind of stuff when the deficit is so high while people have such a high tax burden right now.

    I think where I really disagree David is the planning, zoning, permitting, licenses, etc. The layers between College Park, M-NCPPC and Prince George’s County serve to stifle many people from trying to open a business in College Park. I think it should be easier to open a business. A fast food place provides jobs and money for the local economy better than a large vacant lot or storefront. People should be encouraged to open businesses, not discouraged. It seems like there’s a faction in College Park that’s out to choke out many of the businesses in the city that are employing people and putting money into the economy. I’ve seen quoted comments of people in the gazette over the years disparaging pizza places, sandwich shops, bars, liquor stores and counter-service restaurants, and sometimes these were from people on the city council. The type of opposition as well as the suffocating permitting, zoning, and licensing process leaves places like 7201 and 7207 Baltimore Avenue Vacant, along with places like the former Sizzler/Mexican Restaurant/Varsity Grill and Terrapin Taco House, the storefronts at University View Overlook, which is ironically next to a perfectly good business No. 1 Liquors that College Park tried to extort out of business.

    The fact that people are against someone with millions wanting to invest at the Maryland Book Exchange makes me wonder how someone who barely has enough money to open a business can somehow stay afloat for months or possibly years going through the red tape before they can even accept their first customer.

    I don’t mind the zoning guidelines for new construction such as building up to the sidewalk. But that’s about where my intrusion ends. But even when the developer follows through they City Council and District Council still add on more and more recommendations. Just let them build! Places start developing reputations as being unfriendly to business. I think College Park should make a U-turn and just try being ultra-business friendly for 5 years. If it doesn’t work, we’ll go back to the way it’s been for the last 30 years which leaves all the empty storefronts on Route 1.

    Mark I have seen that goodspeed update and we have been eagerly anticipating development around West Hyattsville, College Park, and Greenbelt stations. I still think that the M-NCPPC and city councils cannot really bring development until they develop a reputation for being business friendly, thus bringing job and quality services to our community.

  5. Mr. Priestly is simply wrong when he says the City is anti-business. It is obvious his source for this information is the Diamondback, which likes to say such things about the City, though it can never support its position with any facts.

    The City was the catalyst to rezone Route to permit housing starting back in the late 1990’s and has never opposed a single student housing project to date. The City Councilhas recommended approval for all seven student housing projects that have been submitted to the County Planning Board since the Route 1 sector plan was adopted in 2002.

    The City has recommended approval for the 20+ requests that have come before it for a new liquor license over the past decade, too, with one exception. That exception was for the license transfer to the Shopper’s Food on Cherry Hill Road. Just this year the City has recommended approval of licenses for two restaurants (with bars) downtown, Ledo Restaurant and Vito’s.

    The only example given by Mr. Priestly, No. 1 Liquors, is such a poor example. This liquor store had what was in effect a private traffic light that was needed to make the new University View student housing project functional, so it needed to be part of the redevelopment. For various reasons that did not happen, so now they are totally surounded by two major redevelopment projects, on a very small parcel of land (about 4500 square feet), which never can be redeveloped to the curent Route 1 Sector Plan requirements.

  6. Actually large vacant lots are not the problem in College Park. You can’t easily redevelopment small lots and few developers are interested in assembling small lots. The large vacant lots will be redeveloped long before many of the small run down properties.

    By the way the video incorrectly locates the old home of Terrapin Taco. That building was torn down many years ago. Terrapin Taco was on the site of the housing project being built immediately south of the Jiffy Lube.

    A video of this corridor in 2006 would show even worse conditions than exists there now and very little sign of improvement, so I don’t believe it shows what you say it shows.

  7. Tommy: Having lived in Louisville for the past several years, I felt compelled to respond to your comment. True, a transit project is not the deciding factor in the development of an area, but comparing what has happened in the downtown of a mid-sized city to a suburban area outside of a major city doesn’t make a lot of sense. There are many factors that make these two areas very different, and hence, they require a very different strategy for economic development. Downtown Louisville’s recent success was supported by the development of an internationally-recognized waterfront park and the opening of a new arena on Main Street. Louisville also has several interstate highways that flow into downtown. College Park and the surrounding areas have a much larger and more dispersed transit-dependent population than Louisville. The Purple Line will provide an important transportation option to the resident’s of this area and reduce the need for the horrid highways that divide our neighborhoods and create dangerous conditions for pedestrians and cyclists. For College Park, it will provide a safe and convenient option for people to come to College Park and provide the demand necessary to spawn further economic development.

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