An Open Letter to Governor Hogan: the New Metro Lines Are Too Expensive

Dear Governor Hogan,

You have said you would approve the $2.5-billion Purple Line light-rail in suburban DC (along with Baltimore’s $3.0-billion Red Line) if the cost could be substantially reduced. Here is a way to accomplish this goal.

First, use buses instead of railcars. Order buses with wide doors for easy entry and exit and free WiFi to attract young riders, and paint them bright purple to distinguish them from existing transit buses.

Standard 40-seat buses cost under $400,000. Let’s be pessimistic and say that the WiFi, wide doors, purple paint, and a few other amenities raise the cost to $500,000 apiece.

Why should a few heavily subsidized transit riders get to avoid traffic when the auto users who are paying most of those subsidies have to endure the increased congestion caused by light rail?

Second, operate the buses on existing roads between Bethesda, Silver Spring, College Park, and New Carrollton. In moderate traffic, a vehicle can go from Bethesda to New Carrollton on streets approximating the Purple Line route in 50 minutes. With nineteen intermediate stops each lasting about 30 seconds, the total trip time would be just under 60 minutes, comparable to the projected 62.6 minutes for light rail.

Third, run buses every two minutes in each direction during the six busiest hours of each weekday, reducing service to every four minutes during twelve other hours and on weekends and holidays. A fleet of 72 buses costing $36 million should be sufficient to meet this schedule and provide a few spares.

Fourth, to speed service, build platforms level with bus floors at each of 21 stops along the route. Each platform would have ticket machines, turnstiles, a wheelchair ramp or lift, and shelter protecting passengers from harsh weather.

People would pay or use metro farecards to pass through the turnstiles. When buses arrived, people could quickly exit and enter the buses without having to climb stairs at the bus doors.

Some places have built platforms like these for under $100,000, but let’s be pessimistic and assume they cost $250,000 apiece. Larger platforms would be needed for the Bethesda and Silver Spring stops, which are expected to attract the most traffic, so let’s assume those two cost $500,000 each.

Two platforms each at 21 stops would cost $11.5 million, for a total cost of less than $48 million. The federal government’s Bus and Bus Facilities program could cover up to 80 percent of this cost.

On the schedule outlined above, these buses could carry 72,000 people per day, all of them comfortably seated. The light-rail line was optimistically projected to attract 69,000 daily riders.

Maryland Transit currently spends about $11.50 per bus mile operating its buses. Allowing for reduced schedules on weekends and holidays, buses would travel just under 4 million miles per year at a cost of $45.5 million, or $9 million less than the $54.5 million projected light-rail operating cost. Buses would also cost far less to maintain.

Rail advocates will object that buses can get stuck in traffic. But why should a few heavily subsidized transit riders get to avoid traffic when the auto users who are paying most of those subsidies have to endure the increased congestion caused by light rail? After all, Maryland’s traffic analysis found that light rail would reduce regional traffic speeds, adding thousands of hours of congestion to the region’s roads each day.

So the fifth part of this plan is to spend up to $50 million on things that will reduce congestion for everyone. Traffic signal coordination can save people thousands of hours and reduce fuel consumption and air pollution. Installing the latest signaling systems at 50 intersections between Bethesda and New Carrollton would cost around $5 million, leaving $45 million for other improvements.

This brings the total up-front cost to under $100 million, or 4 percent of the projected cost of light rail. Where light-rail construction would take years, this plan could be implemented in less than a year.

This plan won’t attract major new economic developments, but neither would light rail; no light-rail line in the country has stimulated development unless that development also received millions of dollars in additional subsidies.

What this plan would do is significantly improve transit for those who want it while reducing congestion for those who don’t, all at a far lower cost than light rail. I hope you find it worthwhile.

Randal O’Toole is a senior fellow with the Cato Institute and a visiting scholar with the Maryland Public Policy Institute.