Seeing Red over the Purple Line

February 8, 2014 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: The Right Answer 

As a long-time resident of the Washington metropolitan area, I have been following the saga of the Purple Line in suburban Maryland from its early conception in the 1980s to its current status as a 16.0 mile cross-county light rail line. Initially envisioned as a trolley line to run between the Bethesda and Silver Spring Metro stations, it is now seen as a major addition to the transit network in suburban Maryland.

From its inception, the Purple Line has been fraught with threats from all manner of opponents. First the Columbia Country Club sought to kill the project to prevent the use of an abandoned railroad right-of-way that cuts through its property. Then, when the right of way was temporarily converted to a trail, trail supporters disingenuously fought the project even though they were only given temporary use of the right of way until the transit line was ready for implementation. Now the tony (and tiny) enclave of the Town of Chevy Chase (population 3,000) is aghast that the right of way would impinge on their community. Their sudden concern for a mysterious microscopic shrimp-like creature found in Rock Creek Park that might be an endangered species is downright laughable. The shrimp has never been seen anywhere near the proposed right-of-way of the Purple Line and no less an authority than the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has given the Purple Line project the green light, but, hey, if you are rich enough to hire good lawyers, facts don’t matter.

In fact, the Town of Chevy Chase has also hired a Pittsburgh, PA law firm to fight the Purple Line whose stable of lawyers includes the brother of House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster. The brother is clearly identified in lobby disclosure forms as a lobbyist working directly on this issue. The Mayor of Chevy Chase says (with a straight face) that she was unaware of this connection. If you can’t stop a project with facts, the next stop is Congress. We note that a Congressman from Houston quietly inserted a provision in the two-year Omnibus budget bill recently passed by Congress forbidding a light rail extension that would pass through his district. Not to be outdone, the Indiana legislature is trying to forbid the city of Indianapolis from even considering rail. There is nothing conservative about these violations of the conservative principle of subsidiarity (which holds that the best decisions are those made at the lowest governmental level for the issue under consideration).

The only real impact of the Purple Line on the Town of Chevy Chase will be to increase the mobility of its citizens. The Purple Line will provide connections to four Metro stations and all three MARC commuter rail lines. It will also establish an inter-county service benefitting thousands of Montgomery and Prince George’s County residents. Ridership estimates are eye popping (74,000 weekday riders in 2040). It will bring car-free mobility to those who wish to travel to destinations around the Maryland suburbs and will facilitate trips into downtown Washington, DC. It will also significantly enhance the trip possibilities for University of Maryland students with three stations on campus and an easy connection to a nearby Metro station. If patterns shown elsewhere hold, this transit improvement will spawn quality economic development all along the Purple Line route. Everyone but the Town of Chevy Chase has concluded these improvements are desirable. Can a tiny town stop a major transit improvement at least twenty years in the making? Stay tuned.

Glen Bottoms serves as Executive Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation

Three Lines in the City of Angels

February 5, 2014 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Car Stop 

During a recent week in southern California, I was able to ride three transit lines: the San Pedro Pacific Electric line, San Diego’s Silver Line and L.A.’s light rail Blue Line. Each offers some lessons for transit properties.

San Pedro’s short re-creation of a Pacific Electric line is a tourist ride, not real transit. Over a couple of miles of private right-of-way, it connects the San Pedro cruise ship terminal, an edge of downtown San Pedro and the (quite good) Maritime Museum. There area couple of stops beyond the museum, but there is nothing there.

Equipment consists of two replica PE cars, built to a high standard, and one vintage PE car that almost never runs. The ride is pleasant enough, but to be more than a ride, the line would need to loop through downtown San Pedro, not merely skirt it. That would still only provide real transit for cruise ship passengers. To serve the locals, it would have to connect to L.A.’s light rail system on its inland end.

San Pedro’s museum or Disneyland-type experience was embodied in a “safety” culture take to an absurd level, to the point where passengers were not allowed to adjust window shades on their own; a crewman had to do it. Britain’s Health and Safety Ministry has become the worst tyrant in England since Henry VIII: we should not allow similar excesses to afflict transit here, or even just “rides” for that matter.

San Diego’s Silver Line lies somewhere between a “ride” and real transit. Looping through the downtown on existing light rail trackage, it is served by a beautifully-restored PCC streetcar in original San Diego colors, which happens to be the one of the best color schemes for PCCs I have seen (PCCs ran in San Diego from 1937 to 1949). I rode on a Saturday, and only a couple of people appeared to be using the line for transportation. Most were just taking a ride.

The operator said his PCC carries a pretty good crowd on weekdays for the “lunch rush,” but the Silver Line is not likely to become real transit as long as it only operates Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Daily operation is essential it something is to become part of people’s lives, which is what transit should seek to do. Unlike the San Pedro line, the Silver Line serves real destinations, so with daily operation it could become a useful part of San Diego’s ever-expanding electric rail network.

The third line I rode was Los Angeles’ light rail Blue Line, with a short connection via the heavy rail Red Line (subway) to L.A.’s magnificent Union Station. That ride was in many ways the strangest.

The Blue Line is unquestionably real transit, now carrying almost 85,000 weekday passengers. Our mid-day trains were both crowded. Technically, it is a model operation. The track is excellent, the cars ride well and quietly, and the run on the former Pacific Electric right-of-way is fast. Unfortunately, in street running the Blue Line lacks pre-emption, which significant slows down the trip.

Despite its technical quality, I would think hard before riding the Blue Line again. On-board disorder is out of control, to the point where the travel experience feels Third World. The line serves Watts, which is now more Hispanic than black, but provides lots of passengers whose behavior is sub-standard. On the way into town, we were treated for most of the trip to a loud altercation between two blacks, one of whom apparently touched the other with his coat. Both were up in years, so it didn’t go beyond a shouting match, but with three small children in my party it was unnerving.

Then, two young black males in the seat in front of mine decided they wanted to talk. Our discussion was friendly, not threatening, but one of them was clearly stoned. I could not help wondering what comes next, after the conversation. Fortunately, in this case the answer was nothing. It seemed common for passengers to talk to strangers on the Blue Line, which may be just be a cultural difference from the East Coast. But to an easterner, it again smacked of disorder. (Luckily, one rider talked to us to warn not to be on the trains when the high schools let out and many students ride them; if even the locals find the results too disordered, I can imagine what that’s like.)

Most disturbing to someone with some knowledge of transit was the constant parade of butchers through the cars, most swelling food or drink. There were at least three working each of the trains I rode. Again, there was nothing threatening about it per se. I was even tempted to buy a bottle of cold water on what was a hot day, but I realized I could not legally drink it on board nor know whose bathtub it might have been filled from.

The problem is that such butchers are breaking the law. Since LA Metro allows it to be broken so blatantly and so often, what message is being sent to those whose ambitions for getting some money might go beyond selling things? As the “broken windows” approach to urban policing, which has been quite successful, argues, letting small offenses go encourages larger ones.

I seem to recall that when the Blue Line opened, there was a cop on every train. That is hideously expensive, but for this line, it would also appear necessary if the public is to be given an ordered environment. I saw no police on any of the trains I rode (I saw them often on Washington’s Metro), though two ticket-checkers came through.

My friends who live in the L.A. area told me the level of disorder is even higher on other LA Light Rail lines. If so, the city has a problem. It certainly has one on the Blue Line. Disorder will drive riders-from-choice away faster than anything else. If L.A.’s light rail is to deliver on its promise of getting people out of their cars, they must feel as safe on board transit as they do in their cars. From what I observed, the Blue Line has a long way to go to meet that standard.

William S. Lind serves as Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation

[Ed. Note: LA Metro has announced a $1.2 billion plan to revitalize The Blue Line. In addition to purchasing new vehicles and refurbishing existing rolling stock, upgrading power systems and rebuilding the trackway, the plan also includes installing new surveillance cameras, enhancing the police presence and implementing additional safety measures]

The Cincinnati Streetcar Lives!

January 14, 2014 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: The Right Answer 

The Greek General, Pyrrhus of Epirus, remarked after attaining three victories over the Romans, “If we are victorious in one more battle, we shall be utterly ruined.” Well, Cincinnati’s streetcar has won two referenda, endured raucous political debate, and finally, survived a bombastic effort by the new Mayor, John Cranley, to bring the streetcar to a permanent halt. Hopefully, there won’t be a need for that fourth victory to insure the completion of this project.

The city of Cincinnati has taken the right step, choosing to complete its oft attacked streetcar project rather than taking a huge financial hit and halting all work (shades of the abandoned Cincinnati subway, two miles of which continue to molder away under city roads). The new mayor, who actively campaigned to stop the streetcar in its tracks (pun intended), found that his election didn’t turn on this project but on the fiscal problems now plaguing the city and dissatisfaction with the previous Mallory administration. His ultimately futile effort sparked an amazing grass roots effort (spearheaded by Believe in Cincinnati, organized immediately after the new mayor was elected) to save the streetcar. The first segment of the streetcar project (costing $133 million for 3.8 miles) was grounded in revitalizing a section of the city (Over the Rhine, or OTR) while laying a basis for extensions into other parts of city. From the start, the streetcar has held great promise in Cincinnati for revolutionizing how people might choose to travel in the city proper. The streetcar could also provide the entry trackage for any light rail system built to connect with the surrounding suburbs.

Trying to divine the reasons why the new mayor so abhorred the streetcar might be a fool’s errand. Perhaps, as with many unschooled in the intricacies of transit, he equated the streetcar with the bus and saw a huge disparity in costs, additional costs unjustified, in his mind, by the mode. But the streetcar is much more than simply getting someone from point A to point B. Heck, Roman chariots could do that (with real horsepower but also, at a ratio of one operator per passenger, high operating costs!). The streetcar can succeed, as part of a well-conceived and implemented plan, by sparking quality economic development, such as is now being experienced in the OTR district. Streetcars are ridership magnets. This translates into fewer trips by car, especially for those trivial trips easily served by the streetcar. In Europe, planners talk of the “tram bonus.” When a European city substitutes streetcars for buses, city planners expect to reap an additional 25 -50% riders over the previous bus line (and they get it!). For those all important Millennials, now increasingly moving into downtowns around the nation, streetcars offer the quality transportation they expect in walkable, pedestrian-friendly urban environments. Finally, and no less important, the streetcar provides a sense of place, of permanency, and of official commitment. Streetcars can and do foster and bind cohesive neighborhoods in ways that buses simply cannot. We conservatives look kindly on streetcars for these very reasons. [N.B.: This is not to ignore the venerable bus. It is and will remain the workhorse in our nation’s cities, large, medium and small. It holds a significant place in furthering mobility, especially for lower-income groups, in our nation’s cities. Preserving and enhancing bus service is always a key component in any city’s transit operation.]

Cincinnati is not alone in choosing the streetcar as a catalyst for change. By my count, a total of thirteen (13) U.S. cities are currently constructing streetcar lines (including the Queen City). Our website lists all streetcar projects under construction (or just opened), authorized, or moving toward approval and can be found at: www.theamericanconservative.com/cpt (scroll down on the right side of the home page to Urban Rail Statistics and click on Streetcar Projects Across the U.S.).

The most successful streetcar operation in the country is Portland, OR, where almost 17,000 Portlanders take the streetcar every weekday, followed by Seattle’s South Lake Union streetcar. Both cities have experienced robust growth along the route of the streetcar. In Tucson, AZ, which looks to open its 3.9 mile streetcar line in mid-2014, city officials are already pointing to $250 million in downtown development sparked by the coming of the streetcar. At least an additional $1 billion is expected over the next decade as the streetcar becomes part of the urban fabric. Washington, DC’s H Street, NE corridor, to be served early in 2014 by the first streetcar to operate in that city since January, 1962, has experienced a burst of renewal activity, the first in that corridor since the 1968 riots.

We are gratified that the project will move forward, and hope the city’s leaders will grasp the importance of extending the streetcar to the University of Cincinnati campus, a major source of urban activity and an obvious key destination. Maybe this will be that fourth victory, but unlike poor Pyrrhus, Cincinnati’s fortunes will only improve and flourish. They can thank Believe in Cincinnati for that!

Glen Bottoms serves as Executive Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation

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