Debating Purple in College Park

3 Alignments

For urban observers, it’s a rare opportunity to watch a major urban planning mistake being made before your eyes. We can only wonder “what were they thinking?” years later, when the project is complete and communities are left with the builder’s errors: dead-end highways, blank walls, and train stations far from where commuters need to go.

Purple Line Route DetailAlthough its construction is years away, today a debate is raging in College Park that will determine where the Purple Line light rail link between New Carrollton and Bethesda will run on campus. (Detailed route) For years, state planners with the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) have discussed running the line through the heart of campus, where hundreds of university shuttles and other buses run daily, discharging their passengers in front of the Student Union just steps from the major campus buildings. This Campus Drive alignment maximized access to campus as well as passing through campus efficiently.

Purple Line 5High level university administrators, led by University President Dr. Dan Mote, have been less enthusiastic. Just before a MTA briefing in College Park on the project and after months of silence, Mote broke his silence. He declared in an op-ed in the student paper in October that the university would support the project—on the condition it would be routed on an alternate alignment at the north end of campus along a road called Stadium Drive shown in orange above. At the MTA briefing, state officials argued they thought Campus Drive was the best location for the line, presenting these renderings as well as a variety of data about what the effect of the line would be.

Since then, the student paper has published three student editorials, one a half by myself, supporting the Campus Drive alignment as well as a staff editorial critiquing Mote’s proposal. Meanwhile, on Rethink College Park we have broken down the various proposals in gritty detail with over 100 community comments in the past two weeks, and launched a Facebook group dedicated to the issue.

Nonetheless, administrators are pressing on in their quest for a circuitous northern route that gives the transit engineers headaches. Last week Mote spoke to the undergraduate student government about his plan, and this week bringing their case to the university’s Faculty Senate. The debate will continue on campus Friday as the Graduate Student Government will consider a resolution supporting the Campus Drive alignment. State planners will return to College Park in December to present the results of their study of alternate routes for the trains on campus. According to the current project schedule, the state hopes to finalize the route by next spring, to use to apply next year for federal funds for the project.

Will the Purple Line eventually have a stop in front of the student union, as pictured in the MTA image below? For now, it’s unclear, and the conversation continues on campus in advance of the next MTA meeting. Care to join a Facebook group?

Purple Line 7

Author: Rob Goodspeed


  1. Having watched this debate unfold, the near virtual silence of the undergraduate student body is deafening. A handful of administrators, local officials, university staff, and graduate students (on both sides) seems to make more noise than the undergraduate body… and there are 25,000 undergrads!

  2. Well, it seems like a grass roots campaign needs to be launched. It’s easy to post information in dorms, class buildings, etc about the new purple line and how it will impact the campus. How much do those slideshow adds in theaters cost? Come December, you should have more undergraduate voices.

  3. Well I’ve got to imagine it’s hard for undergraduates to care one way or the other when they’ll all be long gone before the project is completed. That’s why it’s disheartening Dr. Mote doesn’t favor the Campus Dr. route. He’s in a position to make long-term decisions/recommendations that the many students may not care about or be capable of properly contextualizing – and he’s making the wrong one.

  4. Why are some folks agaiant the Campus Drive route? DO they sa it will breakup the campus, or create some sort of traffic congestion?

  5. The Purple Line will be an unmitigated regional environmental and transit-ridership disaster if it is not integrated into the existing Metrorail station (since it will be at minimum 50% separated grade and parallel existing station platforms at all four transfer stations), so the northern route is the only route justifiable because it is the only route where elevated rail makes sense. Placing a so-called “light rail” line UNDER a wide-open college campus while trying to ram it through majority-minority areas at grade (requiring massive road widening and fenced medians to build a west-coast style suburban-friendly light rail line) is outrageous. There is no room for growth in front of the Student Union, and the Student Union plan does not serve downtown College Park. Build two stations at opposite ends of campus and build them as full-length Metro stations with 6-car trains running every 6 minutes. The direct connectivity to Metro, not proximity to Student Union, will encourage kids to walk. The Student Union is but one building on campus and the bus service there is used by kids trying to get OFF campus, not circulate through it.

    (The initial Purple segment traverses a route ending at a dismal parallel platform — disconnected to the existing Metro entrance every bit as much as MARC — terminating 2-car trolleys every 12 minutes where Red Line trains currently halt and turn around every 6 minutes! Think about the wasted throughput and ask yourself if light rail is the answer on this corridor where you are sacrificing more ridership in a higher density corridor than Tysons-Reston will ever accomodate. Also remember that this “light rail” will involve trainsets and engineering every bit as heavy, indeed moreso, as Metro due to the limited interaction with traffic and assorted FRA regulations — light rail cars are often heavier than Metro cars, have catenary, and in this case would involve every bit as much tunneling and elevated as Metro, especially once an architect (or former UMD Arch student as myself) is consulted and points out that the grade on opposite ends of Campus Drive in front of the Library and behind the Field House is too steep for “heavy duty” light rail. Your options are elevated rail with stops on opposite ends of Campus drive, looping around the built-up campus; or tunnel under Campus Drive for two miles (even as the State and Counties attempt to justify surface running in densely-developed neighborhoods whose impoverished immigrant residents they seek to displace in the “natural course” of transit-oriented gentrification which they seem to feel is necessary to economically justify an important public service.) The plans shown on the drawing above are outrageously amateurish; fortunately I happen to know they are being done by planners who are not seriously expecting this abortion to take place while we are spending our kids’ inheritance on the soon-to-be-obsolete ICC. So they are still purely conceptual and not being done by anyone who values the “high-speed, high-ridership” aspect of public transit. Most of the Purple Line Coalition folks have weighed in on this saying they don’t see it as a ridership tool, they see it as an urban development tool to “catalyze” areas the way Silver Spring and Bethesda Metro “catalyzed” Towne Centre developments with built in parking garages designed to capture 99% of shoppers (according to developer statistics) by car. The statistics for light rail would be much worse than heavy rail on the same alignment, comparable with Hoboken light rail vs. PATH. This is because even when LRT is popular, it fills up 10 x as fast as DC style Metrorail so your absolute maximum passenger throughput (leaving aside the out-of-station transfer penalty) is limited to a fraction of the expected throughput for a Metro station in the same location.

    Moreover, all the development and expansion potential is at opposite ends of campus where Metro stations were originally PLANNED, namely Campus West (the Golf course and all those acres of soon-to-be unnecessary parking lots) and Downtown College Park north of the Route 1-Campus Drive intersection. Admittedly, these planned stations were on two different alignments of the Green line, never built, so it’s best to connect the two because those were always the preferred locations for transit in the area, especially the empty street grid of asphalt and paved roads behind Cole Field House.

    If you want to see an example why Metro works, long-term, feel free to check out the image on my website showing corridors for long-term Metrorail expansion. Metrorail as currently constructed cannot be expanded without in-system connectivity and track connections. A low-ridership (by design — remember, this would be an articulated bus on rails, running every 12 minutes max, on right of way that is just dedicated enough to be not much cheaper than a decent Metro line on the same route and just shared enough to hobble the line’s average speed) to build it as anything less than a Metro line with shared platforms at the existing stations would in turn hobble all potential for future axial Metrorail expansion, even to the extent envisioned in the 1950s. Any other capital city in any other 1st or 2nd world nation would have recognized this long ago — even London’s “light rail” lines are essentially rapid transit extensions to the existing subway system.

  6. Pingback: The Bellows » No Campus Progress

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