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Alternative Alignments for Corridor Cities Transitway Illustrate Importance of Reaching Town Centers

Corridor Cities Transitway Alignment Alternatives Map

» But what other alternatives for transit provision are available?

After several months of discussion, the State of Maryland has released data on ridership and costs for alternative alignments in the Corridor Cities transit right-of-way, which stretches from Shady Grove Metro Red Line station to Germantown, northwest of Washington, DC. The study provides dramatic evidence of the importance of serving walkable neighborhoods directly, rather than peripherally, showing that despite increased costs, a realigned transitway — using either light rail or bus rapid transit — would serve far more riders. Yet the value of corridor realignment puts into question how well the service will reach other, unstudied, areas.

The original plan for the transitway, illustrated in yellow in the map above, would have skirted the edges of high development areas in Montgomery County west of Shady Grove Metro. Though the line would have reached the core of the walkable King Farm Village Center at its East and West Gaither stations, it would have been relatively distanced from the projects planned for Crown Farm and the Johns Hopkins Life Sciences Center, as well as the new urbanist development already in place at Kentlands. After criticism from locals, the state studied alignment alternatives, including links into the three unaffected areas as shown in blue above.

Results from the report demonstrate the significant advantage of providing transit service within walking distance of users. By routing the line north into Crown Farm, south into the Life Sciences Center, and west into the Kentlands, Maryland predicts construction cost increases of 14% but ridership increases of a full 40%, to $999 million in expenditures and to 34,000 to 42,000 daily users for light rail. This change in alignment, in other words, puts a whole new spin on the line, making it far more likely that it would receive a high cost-effectiveness score from the FTA and therefore receive New Start funds.

The former alignment would have forced the state to pick cheaper bus rapid transit for the corridor — an action Montgomery County officials have already partially approved — despite the local transit advocates who are clamoring for light rail. With most of its money headed towards the circumferential Purple Line around Washington and the inner-city Baltimore Red Line, the state of Maryland cannot afford to go forward with this process without some sort of guarantee from the federal government. The reworked alignment shown above, which is now likely to be the final choice of the area’s transportation planners, throws light rail back into the equation since its cost-effectiveness is now expected to meet the government’s requirements.

Maryland’s efforts to hew the line’s route more closely to the locations of greatest population and employment density demonstrates how good transit planning should work and indicates that the state is using an effective projections model. Minneapolis, on the other hand, has an alignment towards the southwest suburbs currently under consideration and is insistent that a route through a lightly populated area west of the city core would attract more users than a very slightly slower route through the densest, more attractive areas of the city. It clearly does not have a model that uses the same realistic assumptions about the fact that public transportation use increases in denser area. The result is that Minneapolis is likely to get stuck with a less-performing, less useful rail line, while Maryland will have a project that takes much better advantage of the limitations inherent in any fixed-guideway system.

But even a good predictions model cannot be fully effective unless transit planners have considered a whole spectrum of possible routes. If the new alignment better serves Kentlands than the previous plan, the projected station would fail to reach the center of the development’s retail area and it would force a majority of the area’s inhabitants to walk a long distance to get to transit, ultimately reducing ridership. A slight deviation of the line, shown on the map above in green, might increase the project’s cost effectiveness even further by putting hundreds of households within closer distance of the transitway. It would further enforce the idea that this project is ab0ut connecting the area’s densest population centers.

This is not to suggest that any further route changes for the Corridor Cities line are absolutely necessary, but rather to demonstrate that any transit planning is ultimately handicapped by the fact that all possible alignments cannot be considered in any study. This means that some worthy routes are thrown out of the equation because of a random decision made by a transit planner not to include them. The best way to fight back — to make sure the best alignment is picked — is through citizen activity, the manner by which this effective route change came about in the first place. When communities come together with strong arguments to make changes in government decision-making, they can achieve a lot.

21 replies on “Alternative Alignments for Corridor Cities Transitway Illustrate Importance of Reaching Town Centers”

I have to disagree with you on your Minneapolis example.

While I agree that the ridership forecasts of the two alternatives are somewhat suspect, it should be noted that the Uptown alternative (as I’ll call it) serves an area that is already well-served by transit and already in the process of some notable redevelopment, while the Kenilworth alternative can serve as a catalyst for a potentially major brownfield redevelopment (Van White).

Then, there are the concerns with the Uptown alternative of construction disruption of the Nicollet tunnel (mitigatable), and the signifcantly higher cost of the Uptown alternative in general (not mitigatable).

Lastly, and significantly, the Kenilworth alternative allows for a seamless tie-in and “through routing” with the Central and/or Hennepin LRT lines, which is a MAJOR operational advantage and allows a lot of flexibility. The Uptown alternative simply did not have this, and the Uptown sub-alternative did it very poorly.

What if, after leaving the LSC Belward station, the alignment followed Damestown Road instead of the Great Seneca Highway? You could have a station at the Potomac Valley Shopping Center, thereby hitting a fairly major traffic generator as well as the surrounding residential areas. It could then turn onto Quince Orchard Road, hit the Kentlands West station, then the Kentlands Central Station and then follow the original (yellow) alignment. In looking at Google Maps there appears to be enough right-of-way for a rail line along this route. It might cost a little more but there’s the potential to generate a lot more trips.

Good analysis, though I agree with “Froggie” above that the Minneapolis example, with which I’m very familiar, is not as clear-cut as you claim.

Note also that while the yellow alignment is praiseworthy for improving the overall cost-effectiveness of the line, FTA should still wonder why it would fund LRT when BRT delivers 85% of the patronage at 55% of the cost, according to your numbers. Another way to think about this is; Would you like LRT just for the distance indicated, or BRT that goes 45% further? Note that you could build BRT with a Kentlands branch, and a couple of other branches or extensions, for less than your LRT cost, and such an option might well bring so many more people into range that it would exceed the LRT patronage estimate.

Note too that “open” BRT concepts can also address the Kentlands issue without putting such a kink in the main line. I would never advocate LRT be built with such an awkward deviation, because it puts through service in that area at a huge disadvantage when competing with cars.

If anything, I think in idealistic terms the Minneapolis case leans more towards the detour being appropriate, while the Maryland case leans more towards the direct route. In practice, Maryland officials are being realistic about development patterns that were unfortunately allowed over the past few decades — a rather random assortment of densities rather than concentrating high density along a direct route.

In Minneapolis you have more of a preexisting condition dating back a century, and while they really should build light rail on BOTH routes, it’s inexcusable to leave Uptown, a hugely popular entertainment district for the whole metro, out of the picture. Besides, the “direct” route in Minneapolis can be served effectively in the short run by express bus, a mode that’s completely impossible in the crowded streets of Uptown without grade separation, which puts us right back to the cost estimates of light rail that are giving them headaches.

BRT would make more sense if you expect ridership to be low, or if capital funding is scarce while operational funding is not.

Once installed, however, a LRT system will have far lower operational costs than a BRT system of equivalent capacity.

Given that Minneapolis has existing LRT, there are significant other operational advantages to using the same technology throughout the system, even if the initial cost is higher.

Local buses are capable of carrying 50,000 riders per day. Unless Maryland expects higher ridership, the capacity advantage of LRT isn’t a factor.

But how many local busses do you have to run to get that capacity? If you assume 5,000 passengers per hour during peak period, and 60′ articulated busses crushloaded at 250 passengers per, that’s 20 busses per hour. While there are many advantages to doing that–3 minute headways would be very nice for the users–operating cost is not one of them.

Also–is the savings associated with BRT in this case simply due to cheaper rolling stock, no rails or catenary, and less heavy-duty roadbed and fixtures, or due to street running in “difficult” areas?

I did a post on this issue here, as an cautionary tale about long-range land use planning:

The BRT I’d have in mind would be a main corridor following the yellow line with spurs matching the blue and green lines. It would need to be an “open” configuration (like Brisbane and Ottawa) with three or four patterns providing the key all-day links and perhaps more patterns on the peak. For example, all-day patterns might be like this, all originating at Shade Grove: (a) the whole yellow line (b) the yellow line but with the Kentlands spur, and (c) the blue line to LSC only. Or maybe just two, one the yellow line and the other the blue+green. Depends.

This kind of approach gets you the same mobility with less infrastructure, and provides a series of reasonably direct routes, unlike any possible LRT option.

Jarrett: won’t those multiple patterns reduce frequency?

Engineer Scotty: yes, at 50,000 passengers per day, the peak frequency should be about 3 minutes. You can check the schedules of the M15 and B46 in New York, which achieve those passenger volumes.

The savings associated with BRT are mostly street running in difficult areas. Physically separated BRT tends to be hardly any cheaper than physically separated light rail.

I was on this Interstate 270 and it took five hours to go 14 miles down this freeway to get to Fredrick Mayland from Interstate 495 and this was on a good day. They should put in a light rail line and not a Bus Line. A Bus Line would get plugged up in the great bottle neck. I remember hearing a legend that a streetcar line used to go from Washingtion DC to Gettsyburg PA. Once you reach Fredrick Mayland there is a railroad line that is more a less looking like it has very light traffic or is abonadoned that goes though the core of Fredrick Mayland that this light rail line could use to extend itself once it gets to Fredrick Mayland. I also kind of wounder could they build a light rail line from this one to the purple line to meet the needs of Beltway users and I270 in that most traffic comes from the beltway so a link between these two light rail lines would be a good idea.

Alon. Yes, the patterns of a branching BRT need to be designed carefully so that you get a match with the frequency need on each segment. But I’d be figuring each route at no worse than, say, 9 minute headways, for a net 3 where they all overlay on approach to Shady Grove. Obviously I’m not close enough to do a detailed design, but that would be the principle.

A 3 minute headway is appropriate only at rush hour. If you need a 3-minute headway off-peak, then the headway you need at rush hour is too short for bus service, requiring LRT.

Off-peak, even a bus with 50,000 daily riders, which this bus won’t have, can only support 4-5 minutes, which translates to 12-15 minutes on the outlying segments. This is on the outer edge of frequent.

After seeing this highway in real life I think widening it to 12 lanes and adding the Bus RT won’t be enought for it in that I saw several high rise buildings under construction in the area with massive five to ten story tall parking decks. Also I think the idea of driving a bus that is two buses linked up as one would be very hard to drive around on the packed freeway and streets.


Jarrett: “of the cost, ”

That’s *capital costs*. If the LRT has lower operating costs than BRT, it may pay for those higher “costs” within a couple of years. With 42,000 daily users, most of whom are commuters, the savings could be enormous.

I haven’t looked up the operating cost numbers on this project, but suffice it to say they weren’t in this article. And since that is crucial for any comparison….

I’m shocked that they haven’t thought of extending the heavy rail metro line up towards Fedrick Mayland considering how fast the traffic is growing up there. Everytime I drive along that highway it seems like several new high rise buildings pop up and more and more traffic plugs the highways.

Ocean RR — Did U ever look at MARC’s 30-year plan? I don’t know if it is still posted on their site. But it was awesome, laying out step by step where they will double track, triple track, quad track, build bridges, add frequencies, start new lines. They aim for transit-like service, every 15 minutes, from D.C. well beyond Baltimore, up to the Army base or further. And plan to begin service towards Frederick.

What they’ll need is some billions to work with. They got the ROW and the passengers waiting. As this Great Recession rolls on and unemployment remains at 10% or 16%, depending on how you measure it, we may need a second stimulus program twice as big as this year’s. We’ll need the trains and it looks like we’ll need the work.

Would you know of any info if they are going to add eletric powered trains to the railroad lines that are not part of the NEC?

Woody there is a old railroad line in Fredrick that would really bing in the passangers MARC it comes out of the downtown area of Fredrick and then runs along US 15 and Interstate 270 right around their mixing interchange and follows US 15 for two miles before going out of sight. I did once go into downtown Fredrick and it is something sleeping and waiting for passanger cars. There is also another railroad that runs from Pennsyvinia to Fredrick Mayland and it goes though some very tight pedestrain freindly town cores and it needs passanger trains too. I have a friend who has to drive over a hour and a half a day to get to Washingtion from Pennsyvinia. While most of these rail lines are very near main highways and active towns and yet they sit unused.

I remember hearing romurs that they want to add 4 billon a year vs the old 1 billon a year to meet the demands of the sucessful railroad stimulus funding. Everyone from both parties is trying to get more funding to their states rail projects. Virginia Railroad Express is waiting for funding to extend passanger rail from Washingtion DC’s core to out past US Route 15.

That was a very good master plan it looks like do to the Oil panic of 2008 if it had kept going into late 2009 could have flooded out MARC in passangers from what the master plan mentioned. It also looks like that instead of building the great passanger projects in 2035 they should move up those plans to 2015-2018 in case we get hit by another rouge oil price spike. If they start extending electrification to Richmond Virginia then they also might start to think about extending the wires down to other rail lines around Washingtion.

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