Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Key decisions on transit projects to come in ‘08

Federal funding is pivotal to CCT and Purple Line

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With two major transit projects in Montgomery County crucially tied to receiving federal funding, state and county planners have begun collaborating to make the pivotal decisions that could determine if the money is awarded.

Choices on alignments and modes, either rail or rapid-bus options, need to be decided for both the Corridor Cities Transitway, between the Shady Grove Metro station and Clarksburg, and the Purple Line, between New Carrolton and Bethesda.

Top officials with the Maryland Transit Administration met with the county Planning Board on Thursday in what will be the first in a series of briefings this year on the projects.

To have the best chance at landing federal money the projects need to be factored into county updates of several local master plans.

Federal funding typically amounts to about half a project’s total cost. County leaders say they need to decide on the preferred alignments and modes for both by the end of the year. The Planning Board must weigh in with the County Council, which will issue its recommended alignment and modes for the state to fold into its proposal.

‘‘If we can have the council taking up both of these by end of November... the rest of the schedule can be worked out ...,” said Glenn Orlin, the County Council’s deputy staff director.

Complicating the effort will be new standards being demanded by the Federal Transit Administration.

‘‘There are fewer transit dollars nationally and all local projects of this nature compete for those dollars,” said Diane Ratcliff, MTA’s director of planning. ‘‘... What they found was that the stakes are so high that they want a unified set of data, criteria and standards.’’

With state environmental studies pending and public hearings scheduled for the fall, the CCT and Purple Line are on parallel schedules.

Whether to push one before the other will be a key question for the County Council to decide.

For the Purple Line, the Planning Board conceded that ongoing controversy over the alignment will make decision making more problematic.

The board hopes to have its decisions regarding the CCT concluded before next year’s budget talks ensue.

‘‘So we’re going to have to have our decision made no later than the second week of October and have that to the council almost immediately,” Chairman Royce Hanson said.

Hanson floated the idea of possibly choosing the rapid-bus option first, then converting to light rail, which Ratcliff said is a model being followed in other cities.

But in the end, she said, it will come down to data projections on ridership, cost and travel time.

‘‘These are the critical factors that you need to look at when you’re talking transit alternatives,” she said. ‘‘These are the ones the FTA is going to look at, these are the ones we have to look at.”

The CCT’s light-rail option is expected to take about 36 minutes travel time from Clarksburg to the Metro station, carrying between 24,000 and 30,000 riders. It is projected at $780 million in capital costs, with $28 million for annual operating and maintenance.

The rapid-bus option would be a ‘‘couple minutes slower,” said Jennifer Weeks, a consultant representing the MTA, carrying between 21,000 and 27,000 riders daily, with a $480 million initial price tag and about $27 million in annual costs.

Weeks added that the state will launch a Web site next month on the CCT, www.I270multimodalstudy.com.

Details on the Purple Line can be found at www.purplelinemd.com.