Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Weaponization of EIS: the Purple Line

A few years ago I was at a conference on infrastructure, and I was talking to a journalist who reports on infrastructure financing for an institutional investing publication, and he referred to what he called "the weaponization of environmental review processes," in terms of how they (1) extend the development process to unbelievably long time frames and (2) provide multiple opportunities for people to file lawsuits against the project.

That's what's happened with the Purple Line light rail project in Montgomery and Prince George's Counties Maryland, where a lawsuit challenged the project's EIS--environmental impact statement--arguing that decline in Metrorail and Metrobus ridership because of the decline in the operating reliability of that system could have marked impacts on Purple Line ridership.

While the Maryland Transit Administration and the US DOT argued that WMATA ridership drops are not necessarily permanent and that the impacts are likely within normal ranges already considered, yesterday it was reported that federal Judge Richard Leon did not agree, calling for a revised EIS.

-- "Purple Line suffers major setback in Court," Washington Business Journal

Because of changes in federal priorities under the Trump Administration that disfavor transit, despite claims by Donald Trump as candidate and as President that he is committed to funding and implementing a wide-ranging infrastructure, delays increase the likelihood that federal funding will not happen, and the State of Maryland will stop funding the development phase of the project too.

Ironically, on Saturday, the Wall Street Journal had an article ("One Rail-Station Design May Be Just the Ticket to Ease Congestion") on a proposal by Rethink Studio in NYC to improve rail system reliability in Greater New York by better integrating and enhancing existing stations in the "station network" by improving and expanding connections between Penn Station in ways that make the lines "through lines" rather than Penn Station being a terminal station (comparable to how I have suggested that the MARC Penn Line and the VRE Fredericksburg Line be merged, to increase throughput, service, and decrease the demand for train storage in the Ivy City yard, see "A new backbone for the regional transit system: merging the MARC Penn and VRE Fredericksburg Lines).

-- Volume One, Regional Unified Network, Rethink Studio, NYC

That article uses Crossrail in London and the Regional Rail (RER) program in Paris, and the Center City Connection program in Philadelphia which connected separate Pennsylvania Railroad stations--Suburban Station and 30th Street Station--with the old Reading Railroad lines and Reading Terminal, as examples of how to increase railroad passenger train capacity by creating through lines through "elimination" of terminal end point stations.  From the article:
Terminal stations, where trains must reverse course to continue service, slow down travel. Through-running stations, where trains keep going without changing direction, speed it up.

The difference affects how many people can funnel into a busy urban core during peak hours or pass through the city to reach other destinations. For that reason, many metropolises opt for through-running stations.
I argued from a slightly different perspective that the Purple Line, by providing a critical east-west medium capacity, high frequency rail line that connects the East and West legs of the Red Line, the north leg of the Green Line, and the east leg of the Orange Line, can have a similarly positive impact on Metrorail, by reducing the need for people to travel to and from Downtown DC in order to transfer between lines for trips that originate or end in Suburban Maryland.

Plus, the Purple Line will connect to all three lines of the MARC passenger rail system, the Brunswick Line in Silver Spring, the Camden Line in College Park, and the Penn Line in New Carrollton, further increasing the utility and benefit of the rail system as a more integrated network.

(In "Setting the stage for the Purple Line light rail line to be an overwhelming success: Part 2 | proposed parallel improvements across the transit network" I proposed a parallel and complementary set of improvements across the transit network in concert with the development of the Purple Line, to further increase the value of the transit network.)

Not to mention that because of congestion and rail-induced development ("transit oriented development") a larger proportion of dense development in the metropolitan area is constructed in transit station catchment areas.

Plus, it is likely that despite competing objectives and goals amongst the jurisdictions, WMATA will be "fixed" and ridership will recover a significant proportion of the current decline -- which has also been abetted by lower gasoline costs and continued subsidy of driving in various ways.

We must remember that the NYC Subway system suffered grievous declines in the 1970s and 1980s but recovered.  In fact, the system's current problems are a result of an explosion of ridership and the need to invest in physical improvements including technology advances and storm-related resiliency measures ("MTA Announces 6-Point Plan to Restructure Management and Improve System Reliability," MTA).

I am not a lawyer, and I didn't read the arguments and submissions on the court case -- from the WBJ article:
In the 12-page memorandum, Judge Richard Leon wrote that Maryland and federal officials must produce a supplemental environmental impact statement "as expeditiously as possible." The ruling is an extension of what Leon told the parties in November, when he declined to reinstate the Purple Line Record of Decision, a federal environmental document that would allow construction on the $5.6 billion project to proceed.

This all comes in a response to a complaint from a Chevy Chase citizens group, Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail, that has been in the courts since 2014.

"In effect, FTA boldly concluded that there is no need for an SEIS, and the Purple Line will meet its established purposes, no matter what happens to WMATA Metrorail," Leon wrote. "To say the least, this is a curious conclusion when one considers that one of the three explicit purposes identified for the Purple Line was to 'provide better connections to Metrorail services.'"
but I believe that Judge Leon erred in his holding--although I can understand his reasoning--and it is unfortunate that this holding significantly increases the likelihood that the Purple Line will not move forward, and for all the expressed concern about "the environment," "sustainability," "climate change and global warming," and "greenhouse gas emissions," the reality is that the automobility and oil-dependent mobility paradigm continues to reign supreme.

Weaponization of EIS indeed.   Note that I do agree with critics that the EIS process can be unduly time consuming, at significant cost to doing important projects.  In large part this is because it provides many opportunities for opponents to sue or otherwise influence stakeholders to back down.

It certainly discourages "the private sector" from bidding on and investing in such projects if there is always a high degree of uncertainty due to the possibility of lawsuits and unfavorable decisions.

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At 8:45 AM, Blogger Ken Davidson said...

"I am not a lawyer, and I didn't read the arguments and submissions on the court case . . . but I believe that Judge Leon erred in his holding" . . .I didn't bother to read the opinion, which is published online and can be read for free, but I disagree with it because I do not care about facts I only care about my whacko enviro nazi agenda. Thank you for reading.

At 10:35 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I do care about facts, which I wrote up in the piece. If you look at the cumulative impact on the quality of the transit network and the diversion of trips between the spokes away from the core of the system, which is most stressed, to the periphery, via the Purple Line, the benefits are likely to be considerable.

At 12:18 PM, Blogger Ken Davidson said...

You are commenting about a case you never bothered to read. Your premise is also flawed. An entire government/industrial complex is built around these projects and you suggest that a ragtag group of citizens utilizing the ONLY tool afforded them, the expense and time of litigation, is somehow an unwarranted attack on the system. I support transit where it is necessary and will be used. Can we please focus on the infrastructure needs we have rather than creating new projects with phony predictions of build it and they will come?

At 1:49 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Nope. I am fine with EIS and the laws that require it (NHPA, NEPA, etc.). I just don't see why it needs to take 5-9 years, in many instances. Or why as a result, e.g., an NPS EIS on dog access to the GGNRA takes years to produce and is greater than 1,200 pages.

There is a point where marginal returns to extensions of the NEPA process are negative. That needs to be acknowledged, not just by the right, but by the left too.

I also don't think--and clearly this is where Judge Leon and I disagree--that the fall off in WMATA ridership at the level it is is permanent, or at least it doesn't have to be, and (2) as importantly, the potential of the impact of the PL on core system reliability is significantly greater than has been considered.

I am not an engineer, but I have written extensively about these issues (including in a piece cited in this post) and I would love the opportunity to talk to Prof. Vucic about the points I make, in order to get a professional opinion.

For obvious reasons, these points were not made by the opponents. And the opponents have been fighting, suing, getting the Town of Chevy Chase to fund opposition for many many years. They are hardly rag tag. In fact, were they rag tag, they wouldn't still be at it.

To you, this particular event is extraordinary.

To me, it's part of a long time continuum of opposition that for the most part, is mostly against the PL because people want to continue to have publicly-owned property extending their backyards, with the slight negative of people cycling through what is an extension of their backyard, somewhat, on the CCT.

As I have written before, if it opens, on the first day the PL will be the single most successful traditional LR line in the US (excluding some of the Boston/SF intra-city lines that are a kind of LR, not exactly a streetcar), compared to LR lines in NJ, Buffalo, Dallas, Minneapolis, Phoenix, Salt Lake, Houston, etc., because the ridership estimates are realistic (1) because of the current mobility mix in the PL catchment area and (2) because of the network effect of how the line will connect four legs of the Metrorail system and the three MARC lines.

It will likely have ridership greater than 50,000 people on the first day of revenue service. That's significantly greater than single lines in the systems I referenced.

It will be neck and neck with Seattle.

Furthermore, it is fatuous to argue I am a-factual. I have more than 10,000 posts in the blog and probably upwards of 25% of them are on transit, including WMATA's foibles as well as the PL, streetcars, etc.

At 4:14 PM, Blogger Edward Drozd said...

"Can we please focus on the infrastructure needs we have rather than creating new projects with phony predictions of build it and they will come?"

The rejoinder to focus on "infrastructure needs we have" is so well thoughtout and kills Richard's comments. I'm glad you're so much more an authoritative source than the FTA and commenting with such well-sourced remarks.

I mean, there could be 0 Metro and still it would be worthwhile! Have you ever been on E/W Hwy during rush hour? Or are you among those not wanting certain people to to west of the park, or alternatively thinking you'll be dead by the time these bad decisions befall Montgomery and Prince George's?

Imagine if during the New Deal, or even Eisenhower, we only thought 10 years in advance.

At 4:16 PM, Blogger Edward Drozd said...

I apologize for being antagonistic. Well, I would rather not be antagonistic, but places need to grow and adapt to remain relevant for future generations. If all we care about is the right-now, then our outlook is dim.

At 5:33 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

It's hard not to be antagonistic when the seemingly reasonable point "focus on what we have" is made when you know there is a hidden meaning behind it to scotch necessary advances.

But I held back.

2. Aaron Renn is a writer who did a better job than me of jumping from a blog to a regular writing gig. He has a piece in the new American Affairs journal on infra and he makes this same point, where we should be focusing on what we have.

While I absolutely agree we should be focusing on what we have, I don't think that means excluding investing simultaneously in big projects _that we need_.

So I am going to write a piece taking Aaron to task a bit.

There are many many train projects which ought to be done as part of 21st Century investment in infrastructure, transportation, etc. The stuff in NYC, HSR in California, various commuter railroad proposals across the country (some interesting proposals with Metra expansion in South Chicago, etc.), creating a transit network in Baltimore, many of which are only gleams in the eyes of people like us, that aren't on the drawing board, but should be.

3. Getting back to your point about E-W Hwy. etc., one of the things that has pissed me off about the anti-PL discussions (and note I have pieces on the PL dating to 2006, and also somewhere a copy of the 12/1987 Washington City Paper article that first suggested it--that article was a huge influence on my general interest and understanding of transit, and I read it at the time) is that it argues from a vacuum, the vacuum being a presumption that the DC area has no experience with transit and a reticence to use it.

But we have Metrorail, which until "The Troubles" was quite successful, with more than 700,000 riders/daily, Metrobus, which had 500,000+ daily riders, and RideOn in Montgomery County, which is considered one of the most successful suburban bus transit systems in the U.S.

Yes, I understand why someone in Tampa or Jacksonville or Omaha might be skeptical of transit, or even Buffalo, which didn't have the right antecedents for that LR line to have a quantum scale difference.

But this is DC/Montgomery County/Prince George's County which has Metrorail, commuter trains, various bus transit services, etc.

In short, this statement:

"Can we please focus on the infrastructure needs we have rather than creating new projects with phony predictions of build it and they will come?"

wrt DC is b.s. especially because the PL, unlike most other LR projects, is neither a single line nor an area LR network in a place (e.g., Dallas, Denver) where you have to build willingness to ride transit from scratch in a region that has long since been transformed in favor of an automobile-centric mobility paradigm.

Instead, it adds to and extends the existing transit network, albeit LR instead of heavy rail or railroad. It's completely different and expectations of high use are reasonable.

The only "bad" thing is that there isn't already planning to extend it to Largo and Alexandria, and west from Bethesda to Tysons.

At 10:17 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

discusses the "Grand Paris Express" project, focused on increasing direct suburb-to-suburb transit connections in the context of the Paris Metro/RER system, which tends to be focused on travel to and from Paris proper.

At 8:53 AM, Blogger Bradley Heard said...

I think it's unfair to characterize the "focus on what we have" point as anti-transit, which is what seems to be the tenor of the thread so far. I hardly think that I'm anti-transit, but that point nevertheless resonates with me, particularly as it applies to the Purple Line.

As you and I have discussed before, I think it's kind of crazy that PGC is arguing it needs additional rail transit stations when it can't seem to build out the ones it already has. You believe the Purple Line provides a reboot opportunity for TOD in PGC, but I'm pretty skeptical of that.

I'd be interested in your thoughts on my recent post over on Prince George's Urbanist.


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