Tuesday, April 29, 2008

DC Public Transportation: The Purple Line, Please?

Normally, I post on international relations and development issues - because that's what I study. Today, I'm going to do something a little different - because I found a local issue that's really bugging me. So... welcome to the wonderful world of DC metro-area public transit.

Ever since I moved into the District, about 9 months ago, there have been two obvious oddities about our public transportation system:

First, look at the airports. Regan-National is on the yellow/blue line, and BWI receives regular bus service from greenbelt and MARC train service from Union Station. Yet Dulles, the "nice" airport - and probably the most international hub in DC - doesn't get convenient public transport service, despite being reasonably close to the metro area. And, in yet another brilliant maneuver by the federal government, Metro was just denied anticipated federal funding to expand a dedicated light rail line to Dulles airport. What was the reason? Because Metro doesn't have a dedicated revenue stream from the government - in fact, its the only subway system in the country to NOT have a dedicated stream for capital improvements and repair. So, we can't get special project funding because we don't have normal funding - behold the brilliant logic of federal bureaucrats!

Second, and the real point of this post, is that the DC metro is basically a "hub-and-spokes" model... without the hub. So, there are a number of excellent spokes to facilitate transport in and out of downtown, but nothing to help with travel that parallels the beltway. That requires knowledge of the bus system, which is nice, but also stops service much sooner than the metro on weekends and is very route-specific. So, the bus system is well-used, but somewhat inflexible and geared towards longer-term residents. What is missing is a loop around the outside in the suburbs - and the farther out on the system you go, the farther apart metro stations are, because the spokes diverge. For those who need a visual picture, check out this link. Essentially, to travel the "outer loop", you need to use the beltway or know the bus system and be willing to transfer buses. To be fair, I assumed the loop was missing because Maryland and Virginia didn't want to shoulder the costs originally (Note the added fun of Maryland-DC-Virginia cooperation needed for most of these projects).

Little did I know, until very recently, that plans have been bouncing around to close the Maryland half of this loop since at least 2003. The proposed "Purple Line" would be a light rail line connecting Bethesda, to Silver Spring, to College Park/U of Md, to New Carrollton - some of the most congested suburbs around DC. It would be clean, efficient, significantly improve traffic congestion at rush hour, and represent an entirely new public transit option for Maryland commuters - especially those who live and work in the suburbs, instead of downtown.

Well, leave it to special interests to mess things up, and politicians to come up with a brilliant idea hurting everyone but the special interest they want to please. The one "problem" with the purple line is that it would have to run through Columbia Country Club - home to all the wonderful elite of Chevy Chase. So, to appease the protests from club members, the town of Chevy Chase has proposed to replace the purple line with a new route for diesel buses. Ah, politics at its finest. We already have efficient, natural gas bus routes that are well-used... so rather than upgrade to a reliable and effective new metro line with more carrying capacity, why don't we go backwards and add one more bus route to be reserved for polluting and outdated buses. What inspired genius!

Wait - there's more! An interesting feature of the purple line is that it parallels the Maryland section of the capital crescent trail - a nice walking/biking trail going from the Potomac, out into Bethesda, and continuing on through Silver Spring and beyond. The capital crescent trail is an old rail trail - so this wasn't too odd of a proposal, since the route was already there and it would continue the original purpose of the trail. Now, for a significant part of the new bus route, the proposal suggests a two-lane bus only road that runs directly alongside the nice walking trail. To keep up with the carrying capacity of the purple line at rush hour - a bus, a diesel bus, would have to pass by every 30-45 seconds! What a nice atmosphere and wonderful way to show that, as part of the urban renewal programs in the nation's capital, we really are committed to reliable public transportation and city services!

If you want to know more, or find out how to complain or help, I suggest checking out the Montgomory County Action Committee for Transit. Their website for the purple line can be found here. Also, Maryland Governor O'Malley's e-mail is: