Going Forward with Purple Line Puts Maryland on Road to Even Higher Gas Taxes
Unwary tourists to large cites often become victims to a purported game of chance that is really a scam for the unwary, three card monte. Victims are asked to pick out a pea hidden under three cards, but the game is in fact a con. Maryland’s Purple Line advocates routinely attempt their own sleight of hand about the project’s benefits and costs. They point to the risk of losing federal funds or even “private investment,” which is really backdoor financing underwritten by the state.
The harsh reality is that Maryland’s multi-year state transportation plan does not have enough money to cover the state’s projected share of Purple Line costs. If the plan goes forward, come, say, 2018, Governor Hogan and state legislators will face the unappetizing prospect having to raise transportation taxes yet again or else find other projects to cut.
Another sleight of hand tries to confuse Purple Line opposition with lack of support for mass transit, to confuse Purple Line as a full part of the Metro system, or to compare it with the Virginia Silver Line.
First, the Silver Line is fully integrated with the Metro system, not an intermodal light rail adjunct. Unlike the Purple Line, the Silver Line is partially paid for with substantial financial support from adjacent real estate benefiting from the project. No such contribution has been offered by Maryland developers.
Yet another Purple Line sleight of hand glosses over how little the $2.4 billion investment would actually increase mass transit usage. Planners estimate that the Purple Line would add only 11,800 new daily transit riders by the year 2040, less than a one percent increase (0.8%) in metro area ridership. (Not to mention these rosy estimates come from the same transit consultants, Parsons Brinckerhoff, who were responsible for the design flaws that produced the spectacular cost overruns at the now $140 million Silver Spring Transit Center.)
Daily Red Line Metro riders are all too familiar with broken escalators, single tracking for repairs and overflowing parking facilities. Dollar for dollar, using scarce transportation capital resources to fix and maintain existing Metro and Ride-On service would do more to support mass transit than adding a new underutilized trolley service.
The potential financial pain from the Purple Line continues even after it is completed.
Operating costs calculated on a per trip basis of $10.42 per boarding run well above other public transit alternatives. Assuming WMATA’s same 62% fare box recovery ratio, the fare would have to be more than triple comparable existing “J2” service, or alternatively the Purple Line need to be more heavily subsidized than other mass transit services. And because the Purple Line travels at grade-level for much of its route, it fails to make significant travel time improvements over existing services.
While Purple Line supporters have tried to frame Governor Hogan’s upcoming decision on the project as a kind of litmus test of his attitude toward Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, sound transportation decision-making should depend on examining the facts. And the facts for the Purple Line suggest that is a bad investment for Maryland.