University of Maryland drops opposition to central campus route for Purple Line

University of Maryland officials have dropped their long-held opposition to running Purple Line light rail trains through the heart of the College Park campus, giving a major boost to the project as Maryland transit officials seek federal funding for its construction.

The university has fought the Maryland Transit Administration’s plan to run trains along Campus Drive since at least 2007. University leaders have said trains would ruin the campus’s pedestrian-friendly feel, endanger walkers and cyclists, and create electromagnetic interference for sensitive lab equipment. The university had proposed a tunnel or other setups farther from the campus core.

Frank Brewer, the university’s vice president for administrative affairs, said Wednesday that the MTA had addressed those concerns.

“We wanted to make sure the university is not in MTA’s way in any way, shape or form to make the Purple Line happen,” Brewer said. “We’ve always wanted the Purple Line to come across campus. It was just a question of where.”

After meetings with university officials over the past year, the state agreed to bury part of a light rail system’s overhead electrical wiring on campus and to install equipment that would reduce electromagnetic interference in particularly sensitive nearby labs.

Both steps are estimated to cost “a few million dollars” as part of the project’s estimated $1.93 billion construction budget, said Henry Kay, who oversees projects for the MTA.

Brewer said the university was satisfied with the state’s assurances that Purple Line trains, which would run along local streets, would stop at all Campus Drive crosswalks, as cars and buses do now.

The university’s opposition had been a major sticking point for the Purple Line proposal because unified political support is considered critical when competing for a relatively small pool of federal transit money. Federal transit officials also give significant weight to a project’s cost-effectiveness, which is based largely on how many riders a line would serve. Maryland transit planners have said the Campus Drive route would attract the most passengers.

Kay said the university’s support was “very important” to a Purple Line’s funding chances. About 12 percent of the line’s projected 60,000 daily boardings by 2030 would come from the campus’s three stations, Kay said.

“It’s a challenging funding environment,” Kay said. “The extent to which every major stakeholder in the corridor is united behind the project sends a strong message to the Federal Transit Administration that we are all working together well and are ready to build this project.”

A 16-mile Purple Line would run between Bethesda and New Carrollton, with 20 stations. The line would connect the Maryland ends of Metrorail’s Red, Orange and Green lines and be designed to spur redevelopment in older suburbs along the route. State planners say they could open it in 2020.

The project still faces significant opposition in parts of Chevy Chase and Bethesda, where it would run along the popular Georgetown Branch walking and cycling trail and require cutting thousands of trees.

Maryland transportation officials have said they expect to hear from the Federal Transit Administration this summer on whether they may proceed into preliminary engineering. Congress would then have to appropriate any federal money. State officials have said they would need the federal government to pay half of the cost of constructing the Purple Line.

Katherine Shaver is a transportation and development reporter. She joined The Washington Post in 1997 and has covered crime, courts, education and local government but most prefers writing about how people get — or don’t get — around the Washington region.
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