The Purple Money Eater

The Antiplanner is particularly interested in the cost effectiveness of transit projects, and Maryland’s Purple Line is a prime example of an agency selecting just about the least cost-effective alternative. According to the DEIS, the cost of attracting one new rider to the “TSM” alternative is about $9; the low- and medium-cost BRT alternatives are about $14; the high-cost BRT is about $20; and the light-rail alternatives range between $22 and $24. The preferred alternative is the second-most expensive and, at $23 per new rider, the second-least cost-effective.

Put another way, the preferred alternative attracts about 134 percent more riders than TSM, but to get those riders the annualized cost is more than six times greater. Relative to the TSM alternative, the cost of getting one more transit rider on the preferred alternative is almost $34. At this rate, someone who makes a daily round-trip each work day under the preferred alternative who wouldn’t have under TSM would cost taxpayers nearly $16,000 a year.

So why pick such an expensive alternative? The preferred alternative document says light rail “provides for faster travel times” and has a “a higher passenger-carrying capacity.” The higher speeds, the document adds, attract more riders than the BRT alternatives.

This isn’t exactly true. The “high-speed” preferred light-rail alternative averages 17.46 mph, while the high-cost BRT alternative averages 17.52 mph at two thirds of the cost. Admittedly, the bus route is 0.9 miles longer so will require three more minutes (59 instead of 56) to get from one end of the line to the other. But the high-cost bus and medium-cost rail alternatives both take the same number of minutes to travel from New Carrollton to Bethesda, yet the rail alternative is projected to attract 8.5 percent more riders. Are planners assuming a “rail premium,” that is, that there are people who will ride a railcar but not a bus? The DEIS doesn’t say so.

Nor is it true that light rail has a higher passenger carrying capacity unless headways are identical. But for safety reasons light-rail trains cannot operate as frequently as buses.

Capacity really isn’t an issue anyway, as the light-rail preferred alternative is expected to carry only about 10 percent more riders than the high-cost BRT alternative. If capacity ever became an issue, for a lot less money Maryland could run buses at several times the frequencies of rail and easily beat rail ridership.

If the high-cost BRT alternative is actually as fast as the medium-cost rail alternative, why is bus ridership lower than rail? The DEIS fails to answer this question. A table on page 3-6 shows that the bus actually attracts more riders at the first fifteen stations on the east (New Carrollton) end of the line. But transit riders between Silver Spring and Bethesda appear to be prejudiced against buses–or, at least, the planning models think they are.

Although I noted yesterday that the preferred alternative costs a little less than the high-cost light-rail alternative, its route is also one-and-a-half miles shorter. On a cost-per-mile basis, the preferred alternative is projected to cost more than the high-cost rail alternative: $92.8 vs. $91.6 million per mile (in 2007 dollars).

One of the strange things about the Purple Line is that it doesn’t really pass by any major employment centers except for the University of Maryland. Instead, it is a suburb-to-suburb project, similar to Portland’s Wilsonville-to-Beaverton rail line. That line, of course, failed spectacularly, not only having a 57 percent cost overrun but a 62.5 percent ridership underrun: planners predicted 1,600 daily riders in the first year but it actually carried only 600.

When 2030 rush-hour auto speeds are expected to average better than 24 mph, how can anyone think that a light-rail line that goes nowhere at speeds slower than 17.5 mph will attract enough riders will be worth $1.9 billion? They can’t, at least not from a transportation perspective. The Purple Line is just one more demonstration that New Starts has distracted transit agencies from their original mission of moving people to a new mission of getting as much money as possible out of federal, state, and local taxpayers.

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2 thoughts on “The Purple Money Eater

  1. LazyReader

    Purple Line? You may as well call it the Barney line; only real with the power of imagination, will it come to life. This illustrates the overall tragedy of mass transit is that it’s built to communicate, not accommodate. Instead of addressing authentic transportation needs using the cheapest and simplest tools, they vouch for the most expensive means and build them in centers believed to be of great use or importance.

    Unlike a bus system which is modular, less expensive and can be scaled to the cities population (New York of 8 million people and 20 million metro needs more buses than Baltimore with 621,000 people and a metro area of 2.9 million needs far fewer), rail is monolithic and unidirectional and costs are higher than buses. Buses can be routed to go virtually anywhere and change their routes overnight, they can go where the commuters want to go. And the construction costs of heavy rail remain the same regardless of how populated the city is but grow with the difficulty (Building a subway for New York is way more expensive than say Baltimore, 1: You have to go deeper to avoid weakening the tunnels that already exist without compromising the support of all those highrises of some of the most valuable real estate on Earth 2: It’s a lot harder tunneling through Manhattan bedrock than digging through Maryland clay 3: The population density of Manhattan is considerably higher; building a tunnel may mean rerouting existing utilities, miles of plumbing, sewer, gas, electricity, fiber optic data lines. 4: The NYC subway is the most cost effective rail system in America and yet it doesn’t operate at a profit, so no other operating rail system operates even on par with the level of use or “success” as NYC’s trains and their falling apart just as badly).

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