Let’s face it, the Purple Line has become a disaster. And it’s not supposed to even open until 2026 at a cost of $9.3 billion.
It’s a given that government construction projects run long and exceed cost projections. Still, this is one for the record books – the Purple Line was originally estimated to cost $5.6 billion and open this spring.
Many downcounty residents are especially aggravated by the construction delay for one part of the project: the Capital Crescent Trail. This tree-lined trail between Silver Spring and downtown Bethesda and its tunnel was a popular route for bicyclists and pedestrians until 2017.
Things got bad for the rebuilding of the trail when projected costs for the tunnel redo mushroomed from $25 million to $55 million in 2020, according to The Washington Post. It got worse when Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich proposed postponing tunnel construction until 2028, meaning it wouldn’t open until 2030.
Let me get this right – it will take 13 years to remake a leafy, unpaved bike trail? And the tunnel work alone could end up costing close to $60 million?
In sum, our county leadership failed to look into transit options and committed us to costly, land-devouring light-rail. Let’s keep the Purple Line but also try personal rapid transit (PRT), an innovative form of public transportation.
PRT is a hybrid of automated people movers and taxis centrally controlled by computer that provides on-demand, non-stop transportation. PRT systems are operating in Morgantown, W. Va., and places such as Rotterdam in Holland; Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates; and London’s Heathrow Airport.
A PRT commuter rides in a light-weight vehicle powered by an electric engine or pod that sits on tires and travels along guideways that need less than half the space of light-rail systems. Commuters could purchase their own vehicle or use one supplied by the county. These vehicles can be driven off the guideways and onto surface streets, solving the “last mile” issue – the distance between a transit station and a user’s home or place of work – that bedevils transportation planners.
In 2013, two University of Maryland professors researched and compared PRT, light rail, and bus rapid transit (BRT) to find the best option for the proposed Purple Line. They found that PRT beat the other two options hands-down in transit times, wait times, safety, and capital and operating maintenance costs.
The study found PRT pods move more slowly than light-rail trains, but passengers arrive at their destination sooner because there are no station stops. And PRTs run quieter because the pods ride on tires, not steel wheels.
A PRT system on the Crescent Trail would need about a dozen feet of space at grade, compared with 32 feet for light rail. That would leave room for cyclists, pedestrians and trees next to the PRT.
PRT systems are lighter and safer. A PRT Purple Line would be separated from traffic by a wall or fence, and the pods weigh between 1,000 and 2,000 pounds, compared with 97,900 pounds for a train car and 69,420 pounds for the BRT’s 60-foot bus.
As for the Crescent tunnel, the University of Maryland team reported this eight years ago:
“A double-tracked PRT right-of-way is 13 [feet] wide and could easily fit in the tunnel without sacrificing the recreation trail or requiring expensive tunnel renovation. The smaller right-of-way requirements and structural components would also decrease the number of cleared trees.”
PRT is safer, smaller, quieter, and cheaper than light-rail. Why don’t we run a PRT pilot on the trail and see what the public thinks?
A fundamental problem in Montgomery County is political leaders who are incapable of looking beyond the familiar. It’s time we take a fresh approach.
Peter James of Germantown graduated from Springbrook High School and was a consultant to Fortune 500 firms and start-ups in Silicon Valley. He is a candidate for Montgomery County executive.