Thursday, April 3, 2008

Science clashes with access as officials debate proposed Purple Line route

University of Maryland, College Park, researchers say light rail through campus center would disrupt sensitive equipment

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The possibility of a light rail system through the University of Maryland, College Park, has sparked a debate over whether to locate the station near the busiest part of campus or farther away to protect sensitive research.

The Purple Line, a proposed 16-mile Metro train route that would run from New Carrollton to Bethesda, would cut through the middle of the university campus, with a station on Campus Drive.

‘‘It makes sense to put the alignment through the center of campus and right in the heart of campus,” said Del. Joseline Peña-Melnyk (D-Dist. 21) of College Park. ‘‘If you put it on the outskirts of campus, you detract from the ridership. ... The university must support it.”

Douglas M. Duncan, the university’s vice president of administrative affairs and former Montgomery county executive for 12 years, disagreed and said more planning needs to go into the alignment.

‘‘Where you put this rail line is not going to change for 100 years, if then,” Duncan said. ‘‘People look at it and say, ‘Well, this is where the traffic is today and therefore we have to have the station there,’ instead of saying, ‘Where do we want the traffic to be?’”

The university’s science community has protested the Campus Drive site because of concerns that vibrations and electromagnetic waves from the trains could hinder scientific research.

If the Campus Drive alignment is chosen, Duncan said, it would impact university planning.

‘‘If you put it down the middle of campus, I think it creates sort of this swath where you cannot put scientific buildings,” he said.

Officials at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg supported Duncan’s concerns. In 2005, they decided to construct a laboratory at the center of their 578-acre technology center, farthest away from highways and railways.

‘‘[Vibrations and electromagnetism] can do anything from blur an image to actually damage a microscope,” said Todd Snouffer, the institute’s chief of engineering operations. ‘‘The more intense the vibration, the more effect you would have.”

Snouffer said planners were concerned that electromagnetic waves from railways could interfere with electron microscopes that use beams of electrons to examine material. Vibrations caused by cars and trains, and electromagnetic waves from light rail could interfere with atomic-level research that requires an undisturbed environment, he said.

‘‘The building environment becomes critical,” he said.

Much of the research at the University of Maryland’s College Park campus depends on high-powered microscopes that require a stable, undisturbed environment, according to school officials.

University research includes studies of nanoparticles and how they can be used to deliver drugs in the body, and researchers at the university’s Biotechnology Institution conducted microscopic research last year that examined how cells change shape and form different kinds of tissue.

Laura Moore, president of the university’s graduate student body and a researcher at the Plant Sciences Building, which sits about a block from Campus Drive, referred to the university’s concern as ‘‘grasping at straws.”

‘‘They’re viewing light rail as if it’s a steam locomotive,” Moore said.

She said current vibrations caused by the flow of nearby Metro lines and vehicle traffic on Campus Drive would be equal to or greater than vibrations caused by light rail. Research at the Plant Sciences Building is not disrupted by the constant traffic on the university’s side streets, Moore said, even though high-powered microscopes are often used.

‘‘There are trucks going by, but somehow research continues,” she said.

Mark L. Schattenburg, a chief research scientist and the director of the Space Nanotechnology Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, said the street traffic and his building’s elevators and roof fans are ‘‘much worse offenders” than the underground rail line that runs one block from his laboratory. To negate the affects of vibrations, Schattenburg said, a research laboratory would have to be built underground or in bedrock. Otherwise, avoiding vibration is ‘‘virtually impossible,” he said.

‘‘A lot of your leading research universities have jackhammers and cars and buses and all sorts of stuff around,” Schattenburg said, referring to Columbia University in New York City and Stanford University in Stanford, Calif., two schools known as national research powerhouses. ‘‘I don’t buy that argument. ... The least of my worries is the subway, which is much quieter than the elevator next to my lab.”

The proposed Purple Line path also bisects the 1,500-acre campus, making it more difficult for students to traverse, said campus officials, who have proposed a different route near the perimeter of campus.

Campus Drive is a nearly one-mile-long, two-lane stretch that runs from Route 1 past the Adele Stamp Student Union and ends near a group of student parking lots.

The university’s proposal would avoid Campus Drive and instead run through grassy areas near and between outer campus buildings, including the university’s chapel, a College Park landmark.

While the Campus Drive alignment would serve the heart of the 35,000-student university, Duncan said students would adjust and use the Metro in equal numbers if the tracks were built near the campus’ edge, about 600 feet south of Campus Drive.

City officials, residents and student activists point to the Green Line at the College Park Metro Station as evidence against Duncan’s plan. Instead of building the Green Line station close to campus near the downtown area, the station, which opened in December 1993, was built one mile from the outer edge of the university. Students and residents usually drive or take a shuttle bus to the station because of its inconvenient location, city officials said.

The Purple Line is expected to cost between $450 million and $1.8 billion depending on the route and type of transit chosen. Construction would start no earlier than 2012 and take three years to complete, state transportation officials said.

‘‘There are some lessons to be learned from that,” said Rob Goodspeed, a Maryland graduate student in urban planning who launched a Web site,, tracking College Park transit and development since 2006. ‘‘When you’re planning transit, making it as accessible as possible is very important. In a sense, building it through the center of campus is an opportunity to really rectify that.”

Building the Purple Line away from Campus Drive, Goodspeed said, would not have nearly the impact of a station placed close to the bustling campus center.

‘‘It would be putting transit in through the back door,” he said.

Peña-Melnyk, who sparred with the university several times when she served on the College Park City Council, said the Campus Drive route would reduce Route 1 congestion and make the city more walker friendly.

‘‘I just hope we don’t lose a wonderful opportunity to make the city a walkable, transit-oriented community,” she said.

Duncan said he held frequent meetings with Metro officials last year and will continue the dialogue throughout the planning and construction process. He has stressed that building the Purple Line away from Campus Drive would make for a safer campus, since the university’s preferred alignment would put the train in an area with less foot traffic.

Michael Madden, a project manager for Maryland Transit Authority, said both Purple Line options would be studied until September. He said engineers are examining travel time, cost, pedestrian safety, aesthetics and the impact of historic buildings for each option. The university’s proposal would run close to the historic Memorial Chapel.

‘‘That is a potential concern,” Madden said, adding that the travel time for each option would be almost identical.

Prince George’s County Councilman Eric Olson (D-Dist. 3) of College Park said choosing the Campus Drive option could be the only way to secure federal funding for the project. The Purple Line will eventually compete against other transit-related projects nationwide, and federal money is given to projects that serve the most passengers and save the most travel time for commuters.

‘‘You don’t want it running in places where you won’t pick up a lot of ridership,” said Olson, a former College Park councilman. ‘‘Personally, I think the Campus Drive alignment makes a lot of sense.”

College Park City Council members disagreed with Duncan’s assertion that building the Purple Line toward the campus perimeter would still attract large numbers of riders.

‘‘People want things to be the most convenient for them,” said Councilwoman Mary Cook (Dist. 4).”They want it to be three steps away from them, not 10.”

‘‘If they were to stop it going through the campus, I think it would hurt the city,” Cook said. ‘‘This is like having the Vatican in Rome.”

Transportation officials are expected to decide this spring if the Purple Line light rail option would include underground tunnels. In addition to rail, state planners are also considering bus rapid transit, a system using large buses that run in dedicated lanes.

Funding will not be decided until final plans are complete.

E-mail Dennis Carter at