Election Does Not End Debate Over Maryland’s Purple Line Rail Project

Published November 13, 2010

Debate continues in Maryland over a proposed new metro transit line to be jointly financed by the Old Line State and Washington, DC metro. The conflict spilled over into the recent campaign between candidates in the state’s gubernatorial race.

The Purple Line metro project would be the fifth metro line in Maryland. It would not connect Maryland with the District of Columbia, as the Red, Orange, Blue, and Green metro lines do, and it would not go up to Baltimore. Instead it would be a connecting line linking up only the Red, Orange, and Green metro lines.

The new transit line was supported by incumbent Democrat Gov. Martin O’Malley and opposed by his main challenger, former Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich.

Voters Backed Rail Backer
Maryland voters handed O’Malley an easy victory in the November 2 general election.

The Purple Line would be approximately 16 miles long and cost $1.8 billion. Its construction would come on top of the approval of the Baltimore Red Line, a 14-mile light-rail project estimated to cost $1.6 billion.

Some transportation experts, such as Wendell Cox, question the rationale behind the Purple Line expansion, especially because Maryland is reeling from a budget deficit. Cox is a visiting fellow at the Maryland Public Policy Institute, an independent public policy organization and a senior fellow of The Heartland Institute.

‘No Good Reason to Build’
“This is a needless metro line, an expensive metro line, with no serious demand,” said Cox. “A transit line of this expense would make sense only if it connects with downtown Washington, but this does not. So I have no good public policy idea why they are building it.”

Although there might not be good policy reasons to build the line, Cox said, there are corporate interests behind it: “The companies that do construction, and the companies that build metro trains, they do spread a lot of money around. They take people on trips to see these systems, give them nice dinners, make campaign donations.

“This is one of the worst examples of American special interest politics,” he said. “This is about aggrandizing the corporate bottom line of the people that build them. We could easily do what this project does less expensively and more effectively with buses.”

O’Malley has used his position as governor to spearhead the Purple Line project. Ehrlich, who had served as Maryland governor from 2003 to 2007, made no secret of his opposition to the Purple Line project during the campaign. He called the project unnecessary and said some of the money instead should go to establish a rapid bus system along the Purple Line’s 16 miles.
Randal O’Toole, a transportation expert at the Cato Institute in Washington, DC, agrees with Cox that there is no good public policy reason for the Purple Line, and he affirms Cox’s criticisms.

‘Cards Are Stacked for Rail’
“I can tell you that the cards tend to be stacked in favor of rail transit simply because there is so much money to be made building it,” O’Toole said. “Railcar manufacturers and contractors who stand to make millions gladly donated thousands to the campaigns of politicians who support rail.”

Cox notes transit worker unions will also tremendously benefit from the proposed line because state and federal government regulations force the use of union labor.
“The unions—the Amalgamated Transit Union, the Metro unions—those unions will benefit” from the operation of the Purple Line, Cox said, while construction unions will benefit from the building of the line.

Cox also said he believes the projected construction costs are lowball estimates and the actual costs “will double by the time they are done.”

O’Toole said another reason to favor buses over light rail is mortality. Light rail, he says, is more dangerous. This bit of information is rarely brought out during debates over light rail.

“Buses are safer. Light rail kills three times as many people, per passenger mile carried, as buses. There is nothing light rail can do that buses can’t do better except spend a lot of tax dollars,” O’Toole said.

‘A Hoax on Taxpayers’
“Light rail is basically a hoax perpetrated on taxpayers. Buses can carry far more people faster than light rail. Light-rail average speeds are just 20 mph. And because trains must be about 3 minutes apart for safety reasons, the number of people they can carry is very limited.”

O’Toole says the Obama Administration appears to be at odds with Democratic Governor O’Malley’s insistence on the Purple line project.

“As Peter Rogoff, the Obama administration’s appointee in charge of the Federal Transit Administration, says, ‘Paint is cheap, rail systems are very expensive.’ He goes on to say that ‘you can entice even diehard rail riders onto a bus, if you call it a “special” bus and just paint it a different color than the rest of the fleet,” O’Toole said. “Using buses for rapid transit “is a fine fit for a lot more communities than are seriously considering it.”

Thomas Cheplick ([email protected]) writes from Cambridge, Massachusetts.