Myth vs. Fact on the Purple Line Light Rail
Myth: The Purple Line will reduce congestion.
Fact: Despite extravagant claims by proponents, the Purple Line is projected to increase congestion because of its many street crossings and its sometime use of city streets. The traffic analysis for the draft environmental impact statement (EIS) found that, with the Purple Line, average regional travel speeds would be slower in 2030 than if the line is not built. Based on the analysis, building the Purple Line would increase traveler delays by 36,000 hours per day or more than 12 million hours per year.
Myth: The Purple Line will save energy.
Fact: The draft EIS found that the Purple Line would cost a huge amount of energy to build and would use more energy in operation than all the cars it would take off the road. While the final EIS found that Purple Line operations would save a little energy, it made two critical errors: it assumed that cars in the future would use as much energy per mile as cars today, when in fact they are likely to use half as much; and it failed to account for the fact that electrical power plants require three units of energy to deliver one unit to electricity users. Correcting those errors confirms the conclusion of the draft EIS: the Purple Line will use more energy than the few cars it takes off the road.
Myth: The Purple Line is rapid transit.
Fact: Proponents call light rail “rapid transit,” but the Purple Line will be anything but rapid. The travel forecast for the final EIS says the Purple Line will average less than 15.5 miles per hour. Most people can bicycle faster than that.
Myth: Light rail is affordable transportation.
Fact: The 16.2-mile Purple Line is currently projected to cost nearly $2.5 billion, or more than $150 million per mile. Most highways cost less than $5 million per lane mile, and the most expensive highway ever built in the United States, the Boston “Big Dig,” cost $90 million per lane mile. The average light-rail line carries the equivalent of less than a third of a lane mile of freeway per day. The Purple Line is so costly that it would be less expensive to give every new daily Purple Line transit rider (someone who previously was not riding transit) a new Toyota Prius every three years for the next 30 years.
Myth: The Purple Line will stimulate economic development.
Fact: Past studies have found that rail lines don’t make an area grow faster; instead, at best, they merely relocate development within an urban area. At worst, the tax burden imposed by the high cost of rail transit actually reduces growth, which means the new taxes that advocates say will pay for the Purple Line will never materialize.
To get new development along their light-rail lines, cities such as Portland, OR and Denver gave developers billions of dollars in subsidies. Where cities failed to offer such subsidies, they got almost no new development.
Myth: Maryland taxpayers will only have to pay $300 million for the Purple Line.
Fact: The Purple Line is currently projected to cost nearly $2.5 billion, of which $900 million might be covered by the federal government. Proponents say that “private partners” will pay all but $300 million of the remainder, but those private partners will expect to be repaid. Transit fares won’t begin to cover the Purple Line’s operating costs, much less construction costs, so the money to repay the private partners will have to come from Maryland taxpayers in one way or another.
Maryland taxpayers will also have to cover any cost overruns and pay to maintain the line. Given the abysmal maintenance record of the Washington Metro Rail system, it seems likely that if the Purple Line is built, Maryland transit riders will likely face an increasingly dilapidated light-rail line in the future.
Myth: Light rail is “the way of the future.”
Fact: There’s a good reason why hundreds of American cities replaced their streetcar systems with buses between 1910 and 1970: buses are faster, more flexible, more comfortable (a higher percentage of riders get seats), safer, and far less expensive to build and maintain. Because buses can use any city street, they can reach more destinations, so more people can make their journeys without changing from bus to bus or rail to bus.
Myth: Light rail is high-capacity transportation.
Fact: The term “light” in light rail does not refer to the vehicles’ weight; light-rail cars actually weigh more than heavy-rail cars. Instead, it refers to capacity: light rail literally means low-capacity rail. While three-car trains can hold more people than one bus, for safety reasons light-rail lines can move only about 20 trains per hour. In contrast, Portland has run as many as 160 buses per hour on city streets. A light-rail line can move about 9,000 people per hour, while standard buses can move more than 10,000 people per hour. Longer “bendy” buses can move more than 16,000 people per hour.
Myth: Light rail is safe.
Fact: For every billion passenger miles carried, light rail kills 12.5 people in collisions and pedestrian accidents. By comparison, buses and cars in urban areas kill less than 5 people per billion passenger miles.