» 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.