UPDATE JANUARY 26! Also weighing in, Maryland investigator and author Ken Timmerman declared yesterday “End the ‘light’ rail boondoggle” in the Frederick News-Post. Former U. S. House candidate Timmerman explained: “Maryland has better ways to spend our highway tax money — such as improving our highways and bridges. Why not a second Potomac crossing, for example, linking the I-270 corridor to the Reston-Dulles area in northern Virginia, where many Frederick residents work?”
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Newly inaugurated Maryland governor Larry Hogan campaigned against the Red and Purple Rail Lines, correctly seeing them as too expensive and lower in priority than roads.
Consequently he has a mandate to put the two light rail projects on an immediate hold and under comprehensive review.
These projects are beloved of local politicians, the media, and elements of the business community. Thus he will face loud and incessant attack if he appears irresolute in considering them.
The governor needs to authorize hearings and studies to re-examine the projects’ ridership estimates and costs, and to reveal the risks of over-runs.
Most important — such an examination must answer the long-term question of whether these projects could ever pay their way in fares and must estimate the fiscal implications of anticipated annual losses for the state.
Project advocates list all the jobs created during construction, but this is only a measure of cost, and avoids the real question: what value are they creating?
In any enterprise there is positive net value if the users are paying sufficient user fees (fares) to both cover operating costs and provide a competitive return on capital (ROI).
To the extent fares won’t cover costs plus return on capital, we have a clear measure that the value to users falls short of costs, making the project a net loss to any operator.
Rail transit in Maryland presently collects in the ‘farebox’ less than 30 cents on the dollar spent on operating the system and, of course, makes no return on capital invested. Light rail is the very worst with lower farebox recovery (currently under 20 cents per dollar.)
Some of those results could be improved, but almost no rail system in America come close to the black (100 on the dollar + ROI).
Heavy rail (WMATA and Baltimore Metros and MARC) makes inherent sense, taking commuters to dense downtown job locations like Washington, D.C., where car parking is difficult and buses are slow. Of course the WMATA Metrorail could be operated more efficiently, perhaps with its components privatized; it also could collect more in fares, but it’s a regional system and Maryland is only one voice in its management.
The Red and Purple Rail Projects
In Baltimore, the Red Line design uses light rail imaginatively — in tunnel for about a third of its length, where independence from road traffic is helpful downtown, and running on the street outside downtown. It’s a radial line from the end of I-70 in Woodlawn to many downtown locations, with a crosstown segment that could pick up some shorter in-town trips. Ridership should be pretty predictable.
My big question would be if all the Red Line tunnels, elaborate underground stations, and utility relocations can be built anywhere near the costs cited. Its complexity in its quite lengthy downtown Baltimore stretch makes it a candidate for awesome cost overruns.
The Purple Line (mainly Montgomery County) has almost opposite — well different — problems. It is more easily costed because its construction is rather straightforward — basically an at-grade trolley in its own right of way.
It is circumferential, not radial, to its metro area and won’t serve any dense concentrated employment centers, making its ridership projections and revenues extremely speculative. Ridership of the Purple Line could be tiny compared to the forecasts, a total fiasco.
The Purple Line should be a bus route, not rail.
Not only are the vehicles a fraction of the cost of light-rail pairs, but buses are flexible and their routes can be developed incrementally in response to demand.
Key segments could be built quickly as dedicated busways while the entire line goes into operation with the other segments running in local streets.
An incrementally developed Purple Line would be staged: decisions to proceed with each dedicated busway shaped by ridership levels and assessing the value of taking the busway further.
Such a staged approach would reduce the risk to the state’s finances.
But Roads Are The Real Mass Transit System
But roads are the metro areas real mass transit system, carrying over three-quarters of commuters, virtually all the freight and service vehicles, and all the emergency-services traffic.
Traffic has been growing more slowly for the past decade than it did in the 20th century, but that doesn’t mean we don’t need major investment and reform of roads.
(For several years we have had a decline in per-capita vehicle miles traveled across America. Some of this may be long lasting — owing to the internet and how it allows us to do a lot of shopping online, and some of our work at home or otherwise remotely. But some of this decline is caused by a stagnant economy, so driving may revive with an improved economy.)
Similarly there has been some move back to the city. Washington, D. C., and Baltimore have managed to reverse the long decline in population; more people are living close enough to walk to work. This is hopeful, but the new ‘gentrified’ inner-area housing is spread out. It remains to be seen how far this area will expand, and how much it will affect road traffic.
Upgrading The Regional Road Network Now
Regardless of future traffic, we have some serious choke points in the regional road network that need fixing now.
The traffic overloads today are so severe that small future changes in driving won’t make much difference.
In Maryland the greatest deficiency is the capacity of the Capital Beltway. The Beltway from at least Greenbelt west is the scene of huge congestion, both chronic and episodic.
One relief option discussed is to extend the 495 toll express lanes that Transurban built from north of their present end just beyond Tysons Corner over the Potomac into Maryland, by widening the American Legion Bridge (ALB) then extending them up I-270.
During his campaign Larry Hogan referred to this approach. It is in the Metropolitan Washington Council on Governments long-range plans.
But this would be a very difficult and expensive construction job — so many interchanges to rebuild and all under traffic.
It is 10 and 12 lanes already, so this approach would take it to 14 and 16 lanes: more easily costed because construction would be rather straightforward, providing just 2 x 2 toll express lanes. I doubt, however, that the future tolls could pay for it.
A Bold Initiative Across The Potomac
Here governor Hogan has an opportunity for a bold initiative.
A better alternative to 495/270 improvements would a completely new tollroad: a direct link between the Intercounty Connector (ICC) MD 200 in Gaithersburg and the Dulles area, with a connection to VA28 at Leesburg Pike.
VA7-ICC-west, as I call it, would be 15 miles long, all but 1.5 miles in Maryland. Construction-wise, it would be very straightforward compared to widening the Beltway/I-270.
Potomac River bridgework would be much simpler and a lower level than at the American Legion Bridge, where the Potomac is in a deep gorge. There would be almost no traffic to interfere with construction — versus difficult night work all the way on the Beltway. Just two interchanges are needed — one at each end, versus some 16 interchanges on the Beltway and I-270 up to Gaithersburg.
Governor Hogan could start with planning studies and alternatives analysis.
My estimates are —
- The ICC-West to VA28 would be very successful as a tollroad, whereas I’m doubtful about the financial viability of additional Beltway toll lanes, because of the huge cost of construction.
- That it would be a very attractive new direct connection between the two largest jurisdictions of the Washington-Baltimore metro area: Montgomery county Maryland (1.01m pop) and Fairfax county Virginia (1.12m pop)
- Gaithersburg to Dulles Airport, for example, would be 22 miles via IC-west — or perhaps 20 minutes versus 29 miles 270/495/267 and an average of an hour and very unpredictable. The ICC-west Gaithersburg to Tysons would be twice the distance — 32 miles ICC-West vs 16 miles on the 270/495 route — but at least in present conditions the average travel time would not be much different and the western U-route ICC-west/267 would probably be more reliable and more relaxing a drive.
Another consideration is that the American Legion Bridge as the sole river crossing on the west side of the metropolitan area makes us vulnerable to huge disruption should it ever be closed for any length of time.
Consider how the regional economy would be affected if Islamists were to blow up columns of the American Legion Bridge and bring it down. Even a temporary bridge would take months to deploy, the gorge is so deep there. The Maryland suburbs and Northern Virginia would be isolated from one another for many months, perhaps a full year.
In a joint op-ed in the Washington Post (Jan 2, 2015) the longtime Northern Virginia transport consultant Alan Pisarski and I argued for the Intercounty Connector (ICC)-west and also for an ICC-east which would extend the ICC clockwise from US1 to US50 near Bowie. (scroll down to map below).
This could provide an alternative route NoVa/Montgomery Co to Annapolis and the Eastern Shore. These projects would of course be heavily contested by Greens and transit enthusiasts, but then, so was the existing ICC heavily contested. Under former governor Bob Ehrlich’s leadership, the naysaying doom-mongers ‘veto’ on the ICC was overridden and a valuable new highway got built.
Its full potential will only be realized, I suggest, with the extensions east and west.
If these extensions can be built as self-financing toll projects, then governor Hogan may leave a great legacy in transportation.
NOTE: click on the following map, which was drawn mainly to indicate the general location of proposed ICC-east and ICC-west. The map shows a few other road projects that seem to me important, but there’s no analysis behind their selection. Others not shown may turn out to deserve higher priority.
–Peter Samuel of British and Australian upbringing has an academic background in economics, finance, and urban planning. In the U.S. from 1980 to 1992 he wrote as a daily reporter on defense and foreign policy. Then, as a freelance writer, he specialized in critical writing on the environmental movement. A longtime friend of Robert Poole, he wrote first on roads for Poole’s Reason magazine: click here. An article on toll roads commissioned by Forbes magazine in 1996 led him to specialize in reporting on the toll-roads business, first in a low circulation monthly Toll Roads Newsletter, that he established, then in the web-based TOLLROADSnews, which he sold to new management at the end of 2013. In the U.S. since 1980 he has lived in the New York area, in N.W. Washington D.C., and since 1992 in Frederick County, Maryland. He currently lives in 19th century downtown Frederick.