WRI to Purple Line Planners: Give BRT a Chance
Rails or wheels? The Purple Line will run from Bethesda to New Carollton. Map by the Maryland Transit Administration.

Rails or wheels? The Purple Line will run from Bethesda to New Carollton. Map by the Maryland Transit Administration.

After more than 20 years of debate, Maryland planners are getting closer to making a decision on the Purple Line, a proposed 16-mile east-west transit corridor running parallel to the (infamously congested) Capital Beltway surrounding Washington, D.C.

The hot debate involves two main options: 1) light rail transit, featuring electric streetcars, or 2) bus rapid transit, in which high-capacity vehicles operate in designated lanes to bypass traffic. Elected officials are expected to make a decision by March or April, after reviewing public comments made in response to the Maryland Transit Administration‘s draft environmental impact statement.

The World Resources Institute recommends bus rapid transit.

Why? Because it is the only option that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions, plus it costs less and is less risky than right rail, even though it offers comparable services, according to a recent analysis. (To learn more details, read the full report.)

WRI’s recommendation, formally submitted to the MTA on Wednesday, stands out among a sea of voices in the D.C. area advocating for light rail.

For example, yesterday, the Montgomery County Planning Board became the first county agency to endorse a light rail system. Editors at The Washington Post and The Gazette also made their case for why rail is better than wheels. And local advocacy groups like Purple Line Now! also support the rail option. (For a full list of planning and advocacy organizations that support light rail, check out the Purple Line Now! website).

But experts at WRI insist that BRT is the better choice.

“The effort to create any kind of sustainable transit solution in the D.C. area is commendable, but it should be done the right way,” said Greg Fuhs, lead author of WRI’s Purple Line analysis, in a press release. “We aren’t opposed to light rail in general, but we just don’t think it’s the best option for this particular project.”


The idea of the Purple Line (or some version of it) has been around since the mid-1980s, when planners envisioned a trolley route that would connect Bethesda to Silver Spring. The project, which has since been re-vamped to run from Bethesda all the way to New Carrollton, is designed to ease congestion and improve mass transit ridership between major business districts in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, which are generally not well-served by the north-south routes of the commuter rail lines and Metro system.

“It’s important because it’s the only opportunity we have to improve east-west travel inside the beltway,” says Michael Madden, the MTA’s project manager for the Purple Line. “It’s the piece that’s always been missing.”

Madden, who spoke to TheCityFix by phone, says he’s “very confident” that the project will finally be realized, after decades of delays.

In the end, it will be up to elected officials, namely, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, to make the final decision.


So just what are the common arguments for light rail? And why should people consider BRT?

“Light rail can carry more passengers.”
Sure, but not by a whole lot. According to ridership estimates from the MTA, high-investment LRT can carry only about 16 percent more passengers per week than high-investment BRT (not a huge difference in the grand scheme of things.) And those BRT numbers are likely underestimated, WRI says, “since there has been no systematic data reporting on average passenger loading of BRT systems in the United States.” Plus, consider successful projects from other cities: Mexico City’s Metrobus serves 315,000 passengers per day, which is nearly half of the number of passengers who ride Washington D.C.’s entire Metro system.

“Light rail is faster.”
Actually, transit times are comparable to bus rapid transit. The estimated travel time from Bethesda to New Carollton is 59 minutes for high-investment BRT and 50 minutes for a high-investment light rail, according to the MTA.

From Montgomery County Council member Nancy Floreen, via The Washington Post: “Bus rapid transit is viewed as a second-class system.”
Misinformation and misunderstanding perpetuates the opinion that buses are inferior to trains. But BRT is not your conventional bus system. First, there’s the bus-only lanes (bye bye traffic!) Then, there’s the pre-paid ticketing, so no more awkward fumbling for pocket change. Add on the multiple doorway entries, frequent pick-ups from permanent bus stations with elevated platforms, and high-tech information displays, and you’ve got yourself a convenient, first-class public transit system.

From an e-mail by Cindy Snow of the Action Committee for Transit: “Light rail runs on electricity, so light rail will do better at reducing our emissions.”
Just because trains don’t have exhaust pipes, doesn’t mean they’re better for the environment. “The impact on GHG emissions of mass transit solutions that draw their power from the grid, such as the proposed light rail transit options, depends on the fuel source used to produce the electricity,” WRI writes. So, in other words: dirty grid = dirty trains. Light rail would actually increase carbon dioxide emissions along the Purple Line corridor. Instead, medium-investment BRT would reduce CO2 emissions by nearly 9,000 metric tons–equivalent to taking 1,600 cars off the road.

Of course, there are other issues at play. Some people prefer rail because of its “permanence” and economic development potential. Others can’t stand the noise of buses. And then there’s those passengers that just “like trains” because of positive experiences they’ve had with other rail systems.

Some “not-in-my-backyard” groups oppose the Purple Line completely, worried that it will destroy pedestrian and bike paths or take away from the business of their country clubs.

At the end of the day, Maryland planners needs to find a sustainable transport solution to accommodate the region’s rapid population growth and increasing traffic congestion.

“We have to view this as a long-term investment,” MTA’s Madden says. “We need to choose the right option and do it the right way.”


To read the full WRI analysis, click here.

To read the WRI press release, click here.

To get involved in the Purple Line debate, consider getting in touch with these organizations:

Action Committee for Transit: actfortransit [at] mail.org
Coalition to Build the Inner Purple Line: purplelinenow [at] gmail.com
Greater Bethesda-Chevy Chase Coalition: MierWolf [at] townofchevychase.org
Prince George’s Advocates for Community-based Transit: princegeorgesact [at] gmail.com
Rethinking the Purple Line: info [at] rethinkingthepurpleline.org
Save the Trail Petition: pambrowning [at] verizon.net
Silver Spring/Thayer Opposed to the Plan: rosyjapan [at] yahoo.com
Washington Area Bicyclist Association: waba [at] waba.org

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