Study: Purple Line Could Do More Harm Than Good

Mar 18, 2015

ROCKVILLE, MD  (March 18, 2015) — A study released today by the Maryland Public Policy Institute reveals that the proposed Purple Line project could do more harm than good to the greater Washington transportation system. The study sheds light on the likelihood of unaffordable cost overruns, overly optimistic ridership projections, high maintenance costs and inability to substantially improve road congestion as fatal flaws for the project. The Purple Line is a proposed $2.44 billion light rail extending from Bethesda in Montgomery County to New Carrollton in Prince George’s County. The Institute’s study, written by Randall O’Toole, can be found at this link.  

“With a $2.4 billion price tag, Maryland can ill afford to make the wrong decisions on the Purple Line,” said Christopher B. Summers, president of the Institute.  “This exhaustive study underscores the Purple Line’s dubious return on investment and the irrational optimism of some of its advocates.  We encourage state policy makers to apply the brakes to this runaway project and review these findings before commitment of more taxpayer money to this project.”

Cost Overruns Are Likely: The study shows that a representative sample of 31 major U.S. light rail projects over the last three decades experienced an average cost overrun of 44 percent. Of the 11 projects completed since 2005, the average cost overrun grew to 53 percent. Cost overruns are the rule, not the exception, for transit projects in the United States.

Light Rail is Not Cost-Effective: The study uses the Maryland Department of Transportation’s draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) for the Purple Line to show that light rail is not a cost-effective transportation option.  The DEIS shows that both the cost per rider and the cost per hour saved for light rail were far greater than for bus improvements. The Institute’s study shows that the cost per hour saved for various bus alternatives could be as high as $19.34, while the cost per hour saved for rail alternatives could be as high as $26.51. Thus, the most cost-effective rail options such as the Purple Line were inferior to even the least cost-effective bus alternative.

Overoptimistic Rider Projections:  Of the 31 light-rail lines featured in the study, planners for 24 of them overestimated ridership by an average of 54 percent. The Maryland Department of Transportation has already demonstrated its tendency to overestimate ridership with the Baltimore light-rail projects, both of which overestimated ridership by about 50 percent, as well as the Baltimore subway, which overestimated ridership by well over 100 percent.

High Maintenance Costs:  Rail transit projects include a large hidden cost: maintenance and repair.  Construction of the Purple Line would obligate Maryland to find a source of funds to rebuild it in about 30 years, something the WMATA has failed to do for the Metro rail system. The alternatives would be to let it deteriorate, with increasing hazards to public safety, or tear it out after 30 or so years.

About the Maryland Public Policy Institute: Founded in 2001, the Maryland Public Policy Institute is a nonpartisan public policy research and education organization that focuses on state policy issues. The Institute’s mission is to formulate and promote public policies at all levels of government based on principles of free enterprise, limited government, and civil society.  Learn more at