A Purple Line Alternative and a Lesson in Strong Towns Thinking

Matthew Keadle lives in the Washington D.C. area and shares a guest article today about a proposed public transit project in his region. You can also read an opposing viewpoint on this project by Strong Towns member Sean Emerson.

A celebratory opening for the Purple Line project, with requisite politicians in hard hats and shovels. (Source: Maryland GovPics)

A celebratory opening for the Purple Line project, with requisite politicians in hard hats and shovels. (Source: Maryland GovPics)

As we embark on spending billions of dollars attempting to connect two Washington D.C. surrounding counties in Maryland, it would be helpful to consider another alternative. The Purple Line light rail project would connect Prince George’s County (P.G.) and Montgomery County, but it wouldn’t be the only connection. There is a solution that is currently in place and working to a certain degree—one that would cost very little to upgrade in order to serve as a viable alternative.   

From its website the goals of the Purple Line light rail system include: reliable and rapid east-west travel, connecting Metrorail lines, and connecting people to jobs by serving major economic centers.

Enabling better mobility in order to enhance economic development between P.G. County and Montgomery County is an extremely worthwhile goal. Traditionally, P.G. County has taken a back seat to Montgomery County in terms of economic drivers; such as income and home value. However P.G. County has areas of significant economic activity such as universities (Bowie State and the University of Maryland), easy rail access to Baltimore (via Amtrak and MARC rail lines), and other economic drivers such as Andrews Air Force Base and National Harbor. By providing better access to their neighboring county to the west, P.G. County could become more competitive with Montgomery County. Residents of P.G. County would have increased access to jobs and recreation in Montgomery County, and conversely Montgomery County residents would have better access to P.G. County.

The consensus around the D.C. metro area is that a light rail solution is necessary to connect the two counties. However, the counties are already connected by a reliable, low cost, transit solution.

A Simpler, Cheaper Option

Instead of spending billions building a new light rail system and having a massive new system to maintain, why don’t we try a small, incremental change as a possible alternative?

The J-4 Metro-Extra Bus from College Park (P.G. County) to Bethesda (Montgomery County) is that alternative. It is an express bus that runs east-west connecting both counties with limited stops between Bethesda and College Park costing $2.00.

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In order to be a viable Purple Line alternative we could make a few simple modifications.  Right now the J-4 bus only runs on weekday rush hour times. What if we expanded those times to run all day and added a lighter weekend schedule? What if we also extended the bus route to run from College Park to New Carrollton essentially replicating the exact same route as the Purple Line (New Carrollton, MD – Bethesda, MD) with a few stops in between as necessary? Bus Only lanes could be specified in high congestion areas in order to expedite bus travel along main thoroughfares. Yes, these changes cost money, but they are extremely cheap compared to building a new rail system. Then, we could measure ridership to see how increased transit availability between P.G. County and Montgomery County affects mobility patterns and ultimately each county’s economy.   

If this solution does not work, or has little or no effect on bus usage then the project can be scrapped easily and quickly at very little cost to the taxpayer. Compared to building a massive light rail infrastructure, at a time when D.C. metrorail usage by younger generations could be stagnating, this is a huge advantage.

Why it works

As you can see, there is very little cost and downside to this alternative, while the upside is increased mobility between counties at an extremely low cost. Also, this metro-bus is already compatible with the Washington Metro Area Transit Authority fare system (the D.C. subway), something the Maryland Transit Authority (MTA) supported Purple Line has not yet proven to be. Riders should not have to worry about multiple payment systems when riding and transferring on different modes of public transportation. When multiple transit agencies attempt to compete against each other with incompatible systems, the loser is ultimately the rider and taxpayer. Let’s look first to current solutions and how we can leverage them to achieve our mobility and economic goals.

Instead of building competing transit systems that are not compatible; why not work on utilizing existing systems to accomplish our goals while remaining economically sustainable?

From a macro-transit point of view, the J-4 bus solution would accomplish the two basic goals of the Purple Line without any of the pomp and circumstance that politicians revel in (groundbreaking ceremonies and news conferences). Those goals are to connect the four Maryland based northern tips of the D.C. metro system, while also connecting the three Maryland MARC (commuter rail) stations. This would also be a huge benefit in terms of connecting the Baltimore Metro area to the Montgomery County Metro area.

Unfortunately, the J-4 bus is WMATA funded while the purple line is supported by the MTA. Instead of building competing transit systems that are not compatible; why not work on utilizing existing systems to accomplish our goals while remaining economically sustainable?     

This proposed solution doesn’t have fancy marketing materials with futuristic trains and a catchy nickname like “purple line”. It also doesn’t have miles of expensive track to lay and maintain. But it could work and would cost very little, and there would be very little downside if it doesn’t work. A true Strong-Towns approach.

Read an opposing viewpoint on the Purple Line.

(Top photo source: Ben Schumin)

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ABout the Author

Matthew Keadle is a proud resident of Bethesda, MD where he is a strong advocate of utilizing public transportation to move about our Nation’s capital. In his spare time he enjoys seeing live music and promoting the use of public and private mass transit to get there. He also enjoys visiting other countries and learning about their culture and infrastructure surrounding public transportation and how it can apply to the U.S.