Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Low ridership delays transit projects

Purple Line, Red Line and Montgomery’s Corridor Cities Transitway are being restudied for a better shot at federal aid

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Three major transit projects will be delayed for up to a year so state officials can come up with better studies on projected riders.

Delayed are the Purple Line between Bethesda and New Carrollton, the Corridor Cities Transitway linking Clarksburg and the Shady Grove Metro station and the Red Line connecting Woodlawn to the Inner Harbor in Baltimore.

Simon Taylor, director of planning for the Maryland Transit Administration, said the delay would give the projects their best chance of receiving federal funding. ‘‘We’re having to take additional time to make sure we have the best case for these projects,” he said.

Maryland Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari said the projects are probably a year behind schedule already. ‘‘I told the staff I wanted all the bad news in the first 30 days,” he said. ‘‘The ridership models were flawed, too low, clearly too low.”

Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) said the problems with the studies ‘‘are the types of things one finds in a new administration.”

‘‘I suspect given the previous administration’s lack of commitment to mass transit, they probably did not mind the studies underestimated the amount of ridership,” he said.

Public transit advocates hailed Porcari’s decision to conduct additional studies instead of risking the projects by going forward with inadequate numbers.

‘‘I’m pleasantly surprised. It’s worth a delay to get them right,” said Hans Riemer, president of the Action Committee for Transit, an advocacy group in Silver Spring. ‘‘Porcari wants to make this happen, and he knows you only get one bite of the apple and you’ve got to get it right.”

Webb Smedley, chairman of the Coalition to Build the Inner Purple Line, agreed. ‘‘It is frustrating, but the good thing now is there’s a general consensus the new administration is trying to get the study back on track and to be competitive for federal funding.”

Taylor said ridership studies are based on a complex formula to calculate usage. However, the numbers appeared to be too limited when considering actual use of public transit. For example, the current model calculates projected ridership by population within 15 miles of a station while it is known Metro riders often come from as far away as Hagerstown — more than 50 miles away, Taylor said.

Projected usage is key in bidding with other cities for federal funds from the Federal Transit Administration, he said. The Purple Line study is expected to cost $30 million; the Corridor Cities Transitway, $10 million; and the Red Line, $19 million.

‘‘I’m disappointed in the delay of all the lines,” said Montgomery County Councilman Marc Elrich (D-At large) of Takoma Park. ‘‘These are the most important transportation projects in all of Montgomery County.”

He said he is shocked by the project delays. ‘‘All of us thought we were at least on track.”

Elrich speculated that the delay may take much-needed funding from transit, and the money will instead be put toward the controversial $2.4 billion Intercounty Connector highway between Gaithersburg and Laurel.

‘‘We shouldn’t be at this point,” Elrich said. ‘‘It really bothers me that we’ve gone this far in the process only to be told that we’re playing with the wrong numbers.”

‘‘I’m distraught,” said Nancy M. Floreen (D-At large) of Garrett Park, chairwoman of the County Council’s Transportation and Environment committee. ‘‘These are projects we really need. If there’s new information, I don’t understand why it’ll take a year to develop it.”

Staff Writers Douglas Tallman and Marcus Moore contributed to this report.