October 31, 2011
Forget light rail, Purple Line should be bus rapid transit
Washington Examiner (Editorial)

It’s heartening that Montgomery County is finally taking a belated look at Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) to solve its worsening transportation crisis. Much credit goes to County Council member Marc Elrich, D-at large, one of the few elected officials who have been pushing for this practical train-on-wheels approach for years. The BRT is the most logical solution for a county that doesn’t have the money to build more expensive rail projects and seems to be politically allergic to widening highways or building more roads.

The BRT is not only cheaper to build and operate, it is also easier to adapt it to changing commuter patterns and demographics than fixed rail, be it of the heavy or light variety. Because of these obvious advantages, the BRT should also have been the first choice for the Purple Line and the proposed Corridor Cities Transitway linking Shady Grove and Clarksburg. But council members still stubbornly cling to light-rail versions that will cost more money than the county has.

However, County Executive Ike Leggett recently admitted that Montgomery cannot afford the Purple Line in its current configuration. The latest estimate for the 16-mile light rail line from New Carrollton to Bethesda is now up to $1.93 billion and county officials who still expect the debt-ridden federal government to pick up half the tab will be waiting a very long time. Devotees of the popular Capital Crescent Trail are vehemently opposed to it and even Leggett has suggested that private funds will be necessary to complete the Purple Line within the next 10 years.

But the Washington region already has the worst traffic congestion in the nation and solutions are needed now. A limited version of an eventual 150-mile BRT network can and should be launched immediately. A study commissioned by the county’s own Department of Transportation found that part of a BRT system could be running by 2014, and eventually pull 85,000 drivers off overburdened local roads by 2040.

Instead, Gov. Martin O’Malley is still backing too-expensive light rail and has proposed a disastrous 15-cent hike in the state gas tax to replace transportation money that such unnecessary expenditures will suck out of the state’s coffers, making high-tax Maryland even more unwelcoming to new businesses. Connecting the spokes of the current Metro system with a Purple Line is the right idea, but light rail is the wrong way to accomplish that goal.