The Argument for a Heavy-Rail, Beltway Metro Line

Note: The following opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Rethink College Park, nor the views of other RCP contributors. Rethink College Park is always interested in contributed articles from community members.

With Purple Line’s cost-effectiveness as well as location on the University of Maryland campus being debated, perhaps we should take a look back on the history of the Purple Line route and how we got to where we are today.

The idea of a route connecting the two spokes of the Red Line surfaced not long after the initial construction of Metro, but it was not until the 1990s under then-Governor Parris Glendening that the line established steam and was expanded to include the line between Silver Spring and New Carrollton. At the time, there were two competing movements. Gov. Glendening championed a light-rail, Inner Line because that would do better to serve depressed, inner communities that could be well-served with more transit-oriented development. On the other hand, then-Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan supported a heavy-rail, outer Purple Line that more closely mirrored the route of the Beltway, under the notion that a Beltway line would better serve high-growth areas. At around the same time Gov. Glendening announced the Intercounty Connector project “dead”, the Inner Line won favor from politicians as the preferred route to connect the existing spokes of Metro in Suburban Maryland. When Robert Ehrlich became the next governor, he decided to rename the project the “Bi-County Transitway” to reflect the alternative proposal of bus rapid transit (BRT) that was being considered in addition to light rail.

Fast-forward to 2007, and two Governors and $2,400,000,000 later, the Intercounty Connector is now on the fast-track to construction after languishing for 50 years on state master plans and it is the Purple Line project that sits on the sidelines. Due to federal government polices that allocates 30 times more funding to highway projects versus mass transit, the competition for federal funding from projects nationwide is fierce. To convince the Federal Transit Administration that a project is “cost-effective”, state governments must show through statistical analysis that ridership figures for any new line would offset the cost of construction, and there is a complex formula that the FTA uses in its calculations.

This year, the Maryland Transit Administration was concerned that the Purple Line currently planned would not pass the cost-effective standards that the FTA uses to award funds for mass transit projects using Erlich-era ridership numbers, deciding to revise the estimates. Thus, the MTA must now go back and rework the figures to reflect an increase in ridership that will be suitable to meet the cost-effectiveness standards of the FTA.

But I am not optimistic. Even without the feasibility concerns that threaten the fate of the entire project, there are too many nagging concerns that have yet to be addressed with the Inner Line. Mainly, the opposition voiced by the Columbia Country Club and other residents of Bethesda, Chevy Chase, and Silver Spring over the route of the Purple Line. Their Not In My Backyard (NIMBY) mentality has been ever-present since serious consideration of a Purple Line began, and it promises to hamper any effort to move the line from the planning to the construction phase. Furthermore, there is a serious fight brewing on the University of Maryland campus over the route of any Purple Line, with the university administration preferring a Stadium Drive alignment to preserve the area in front of the Stamp Student Union as well as mitigate any impacts that a light-rail line on Campus Drive might have on pedestrians. Therefore, it is clear that public sentiment on a Inner Purple Line is anything but united.

Also, there are questions regarding a light rail Purple Line’s effectiveness in improving mass transit over existing bus systems. Right-of-way issues in particular are of major concern, especially in Silver Spring where several at-grade crossings are planned and tracks are to be placed on narrow neighborhood streets, potentially mixed with vehicular traffic. Headway times between Bethesda and New Carrollton will also be impacted the number of stops, and having too many stations close together might negate the benefit that a light rail line could provide if it slows down the commute time too greatly. Simply put, the Purple Line must be seen as an attractive option to commuters who would otherwise take their cars or other form of transportation; otherwise, it will not be a success either today, or more realistically, 10, 20, maybe 30 years from now.

Therefore, I implore the state to consider other options. At this time of crossroads, it’s time to look at other alternatives. Most notably, the Outer Purple Line (Beltway) line that was previously on the table, but with one important addition: the addition of a link between Grosvenor-Strathmore on the Red Line in Montgomery County to Dunn Loring-Merrifield on the Orange Line in Fairfax County via Tysons Corner. The inclusion of another state in Beltway Line planning will definitely make the project more complex, but I believe that it is the only way for any Purple Line to be seen as “cost-effective” under current FTA standards in terms of projected ridership.

Consider that a Beltway heavy-rail line would more closely follow existing major commuter patterns in the DC metro area. Twice a day, thousands of cars travel between Virginia and Maryland to get to work and back home again. One of the most congested corridors in the country is located on Interstate 495 between Dulles Toll Road (VA 267) and Connecticut Avenue (MD 185). A heavy-rail Beltway line would directly follow that route, giving commuters another option to sitting in traffic for hours at a time. A Beltway alignment is practically the only location that would make heavy-rail construction a feasible option due to easier construction of the line. The Beltway line could be constructed as an elevated line, or more preferably, tunneled beneath the roadway. As a plus, NIMBYism would be sharply curtailed because this line would be located primarily in the right-of-way of an 8-lane expressway. And while the cost of a heavy-rail Beltway line is sure to be much more expensive than the current Purple Line proposal, the ridership estimates also promise to be much, much higher than the Purple Line, potentially high enough to make this project cost-effective under FTA standards. And while the Purple Line promises to do little to solve our region’s congestion woes, an Outer Line would work to directly take cars off our aging, outmoded infrastructure.

The Beltway line thus promises to provide a much more regional, widespread solution to our transportation deficiencies. Between the current Purple Line and the Beltway Line, which line do you line do you see taking the most cars off the road during rush hour, improving our quality of life? A Beltway line would link up existing Metro lines at Dunn Loring-Merrifield, Grosvenor-Strathmore, Forest Glen, (West) Greenbelt and New Carrollton for improved suburb-suburb access, while providing desperately needed transit to the edge-megacity of Tysons Corner. Tysons is a major center for jobs in the metropolitan area, with over 50,000 people commuting there daily without the help of a mass-transit presence in the area. This would alleviate the traffic off beleaguered Interstates 495 and 270, while ensuring that we won’t have to rebuild the American Legion bridge anytime soon. And…we wouldn’t require an ill-conceived, sprawl-friendly Silver Line to Dulles Airport to make Metro to Tysons a reality.

Outer Purple Line conceptual map

The Beltway Line could provide improved access to the Naval Medical Center, which is scheduled to receive an influx of employees due to the BRAC realignment. It could also provide opportunity to foster transit-oriented redevelopment in the communities of Tysons Corner, Westlake/Rockledge, Four Corners, Hillandale, Cherry Hill, and Greenbelt. In addition, existing underutilized stations such as Rockville, Twinbrook, White Flint, Wheaton, and Glenmont would also see a surge of redevelopment due to construction of the Outer Purple Line and the increased patronage that accompanies it.

Finally, is it any coincidence that the Metro lines with the highest peak ridership are the ones that directly mirror existing commute patterns? The Red Line spokes from Shady Grove and Glenmont, as well as the Orange Line from Vienna are consistently the most congested routes in the Metro system because they provide the best opportunity for commuters to drive from their homes in outlying exurbs and park at commuter lots and take the Metro to DC for the remainder of their commute. I believe that the Beltway Line would provide the same opportunity for commuters coming down from Interstate 95 and Route 50 in Maryland and Route 267 in Virginia to park at the commuter lots and use the Beltway Line for the remainder of their commute. While the end goal should be to have these commuters live in more sustainable communities better served by mass transit, the Beltway Line would serve well in providing mass transit to those individuals that did not have the option of using it before.

So perhaps it’s time to switch gears on the Purple Line. Now that the ICC is almost a guarantee, we should focus on regional solutions that will take cars off the road and help expand our rapid-transit system and make it more effective to people who commute between suburbs. It’s time to reconsider a Beltway Line alignment. With the lack of funds in place for any Purple Line construction, we have nothing but time on our hands at this point.

5 thoughts on “The Argument for a Heavy-Rail, Beltway Metro Line”

  1. There are no heavy rail lines being constructed suburb to suburb in the U.S. – perhaps in the world. Even Paris chose at-grade LRT for its T-3 line which is projected to carry 100,000 people a day around a peripheral corridor on the southern edge of the city. Yes, heavy rail underground would be faster but the bottom line is it is too expensive in today’s world of transit financing. Even in NYC, the 2nd Avenue Subway has been deferred for…. 40 years? Perhaps longer since it was first started.

    Ridership numbers for the Purple Line will be available in a week. If they are good the project will receive funding for preliminary engineering.

  2. Haven’t we looked at beltway heavy line options already?? The 1999 Capital Beltway Corridor Transportation Study performed by Maryland DOT looked at six rail alignments, three of them heavy rail and three light rail. The alignments extended across the River to the Dulles area.

    As I best recall, several things came out of the study. First, much of the Beltway in Mont. Co. was not wide enough to build rail in, the existing r.o.w. being much narrower than in P.G. County and in VA. Second, of the six rail options evaluated the “P-6” alignment was most cost effective. That option was light rail along the alignment similar to the Purple Line. And finally, the State of Virginia had little interest in partnering with MD. in any beltway rail project, instead having a strong preference for more vehicle lanes on the Beltway and creating a second Potomac River crossing for an “Outer Beltway”. Virginia is now pushing for Federal funding for its Silver Line transit to Dulles. They will likely not welome the idea of starting a study of a competing beltway transit line to Dulles that could undermine their pitch for Silver Line funding.

    So, what is really new in this proposal that has not been studied already? And why would we think VA. will be an interested partner now when they have not been in the past?

  3. Mr. Farhoodi,

    As someone who makes his living facilitating the installtion of high-speed TCP/IP data networks(no I don’t mean DSL, CATV or FIOS), your argument is the only one that makes sense to me. It is scalable and will give us the most bang for the buck. The Light Rail system is a small-time band-aid of a solution that will be useless as a regional transportaion solution.

    To put it in geek speak the Light Rail is equivalent to a DSL router whereas the Heavy Rail is more like a Cisco or Juniper router with a 1.6 Tbps interface.

    These Light Rail guys are small-time lobbyists who are advocating inferior technology. If we can’t afford the good hardware then we should spend more on clean-fuel burning buses.

  4. Go a little carried away, a Japanese/French Bullet Train is more like a Juniper router with a 1.6 Tbps interface.

    Heavy Rail is probably more like Gig-E.

  5. I have found a link to the Beltway Corridor study since my post (#2 above). It is online at

    Cost information for heavy rail on the beltway can be found by following the Cost Information link at the bottom right of the website page. The study found the heavy rail on the beltway (P3) was about twice as expensive to build as light rail inside the beltway (P6). Ridership estimates for heavy rail was a little higher, but not enough to make the cost per new rider competitive with the light rail option.

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