Pork-Barrel Spending on a New D.C. Metro Line Could Cost Democrats

A proposed rail line near the nation's capital puts the wrong amount of money in the wrong places.

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By John Aloysius Farrell, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

I am not going to lampoon those who want to build a $1.2 billon east-west rail line from one Maryland suburb to another that will not take many cars off congested roads.

I am not going to call it the Train to Nowhere.

I am merely going to point out some facts, to my Democratic friends on Capitol Hill, before they pack the economic stimulus bill with projects like the Metro Purple Line. 

It is only a matter of time before John McCain or Rush Limbaugh or Grover Norquist or Tom Coburn picks up on this, so better the news come from a sympathetic voice.

And I will leave it to Nancy Killefer, the new "chief performance officer" of the incoming Obama administration, to ponder whether this is a sound expense in a time of record $1.2 trillion deficits.

For those of you who are not familiar with Washington, or know the Metro only as a visitor, the nation's capital has a first-rate subway system. Automobile traffic on the Washington Beltway and Interstate 95 crawls to a stop twice a day, but Metro moves people from the suburbs into the District of Columbia in the morning rush hour, and out again at night, with (relative) efficiency. There are stops at sporting venues and major tourist attractions.

For all its pluses, Metro is troubled. It's aging. It needs new rail cars and better buses, money for maintenance, and probably more digging to solve its shortcomings. Virginia, for example, needs to extend a Metro line through its fast-growing suburbs to Dulles International Airport.

But Maryland officials, bless their Democratic bleeding hearts, want to use Metro money not to reduce traffic but as a kind of social engineering program.

Maryland is apparently about to propose that state and federal taxpayers contribute more than a billion dollars in mass transit funds to build a 16-mile light-rail line from wealthy Montgomery County to (relatively) poorer Prince George's County—not to relieve beltway congestion but in the hopes of boosting the economic fortunes of Prince George's County residents.

It is a novel proposition, one that inspired a symposium in December at the Brookings Institution because, as the host said, "a host of communities" around the nation are looking at the Purple Line as a potential test of the federal government's willingness to use mass transit funds to address economic woe.

The Purple Line will add new links to existing Metro lines, making them more accessible, and connect the University of Maryland with its nearby suburbs. In the long run, a circumferential rail line around Washington will be a nice thing to have. But it won't solve the area's immediate, pressing traffic and pollution issues—as it is being advertised.

And that's because the riders of the proposed Purple Line already take mass transit to work. They ride the bus, often to a service job in a nearby, wealthier suburb.

I'm for fairness. All workers pay taxes and deserve efficient public transit. So why not, at a fraction of the cost, buy swank new buses? Or improve the roads? Put the money into Metro maintenance, and buy new rail cars? Or, at half the cost of light rail, build a dedicated "bus rapid transit" system like those in other jurisdictions?

The Purple Line rail project "is oversold," Montgomery County Council member Marc Elrich, a Democrat, told the Brookings audience. "If you look at the ridership numbers ... it's basically moving people who are already using buses out of buses onto transit."

With the same amount of money, said Elrich, the Maryland suburbs could build a first-rate BRT system for the inner suburbs and also extend the existing Metro network in outlying neighborhoods and actually "take people out of cars." It would save taxpayers millions and reduce greenhouse gases.

"You could build two routes, have $200 million left over, and move 90,000 people, or you can build the Purple Line for $1.2 billion and move 62,000 people ... mostly people who are coming off existing buses," he said.

"When I look at the Purple Line, I don't see it by itself as a solution to anything," said Elrich.

An easy choice? No. Because here the suburban power players—developers—enter the picture. The developers don't see bus stops, even nifty BRT stops, as having the permanence of a rail station. They won't invest in the property around a BRT station as they have around the big Metro rail stops in Bethesda and Silver Spring in Montgomery County. And Prince George's politicians—who would like to see their communities bloom like Bethesda—want that kind of economic development.

Yet there's a flaw in this reasoning as well. Prince George's already has as many Metro rail lines as Montgomery, and it is still waiting for its Bethesdas to bloom. Rail is no silver bullet. Developers are finding other reasons not to build in the county.

But the gold rush fever is raging. The Democratic Party's push for needed investment in national infrastructure, whether via the stimulus package or in follow-up legislation, offers an opening for Maryland to get federal funds for the Purple Line, fast. Politicians are swallowing their objections in the cause of unanimity.

"If Montgomery County takes one position and Prince George's County takes a different position, we may well get nothing," Elrich said candidly. The few remaining naysayers are local antigrowth groups and the folks who live along the planned rail line or who use it in its current guise as a popular biking and hiking trail.

If the United States were not so broke, I would be all for the Purple Line. I would even support the most expensive version, an honest-to-god subway like the rest of the Metro lines, which have been proven to be popular with the public and actually take folks out of cars.

But by selling the Purple Line as a fix for traffic or energy problems, or global warming, when there are far more cost-efficient alternatives, its proponents are actually hurting the cause.

Democrats need to remember, said Elrich, that they recaptured Washington, in part, because the voters were sick of Republican pork-barrel spending.

"I don't ever want to get back into a situation where you just spend as much money as possible without asking cost-effectiveness questions," Elrich warned. "I can guarantee the moment we do that, we will see Republicans back in the White House.

"You need to be able to show people you can manage sustainable budgets."

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