PHOENIX — Residents and light rail train passengers here have a message for the Maryland suburbs: If a Purple Line is ever built, expect the trains to be popular, but first brace for years of construction that can be brutal for motorists and potentially crippling for businesess along the route.
Washington area drivers also would have to learn to share streets with Purple Line trains — the nearly three-year-old Phoenix-area system averaged one collision a week during its first year — and a new “ding ding” sound would fill the air. Light rail trains are quieter than Metrorail — the trains’ low hum is often drowned out by passing traffic — but the frequent bells of trains approaching intersections and stations can be heard a block or two away.
The Phoenix area's 2-year-old light rail system gives Washington-area residents a feel for how a proposed 16-mile Purple Line would operate, look and sound in the Maryland suburbs. A Purple Line would run light rail trains between Bethesda and New Carollton, with about 20 stations in North Chevy Chase, Silver Spring, Langley Park, College Park and Riverdale.
Maryland officials who hope a Purple Line would rejuvenate older communities along the 16-mile route, such as Langley Park and Riverdale, would see new development around stations, but that transformation takes time, Arizona officials say. Along the 20-mile line between Phoenix and the suburbs of Tempe and Mesa, high-rise apartment buildings, shops and restaurants have sprung up around stations. But trains still pass plenty of weed-filled lots and dilapidated buildings.
Arizona light rail passengers rave about their trains’ reliability and convenience.
“I love it,” said Guy Carpenter on a recent Monday morning as he stepped off a train near the Phoenix airport to walk two blocks to his engineering firm in a new office building near a chic new hotel. “I wish it were more extensive, but I love it.”
By the time Carpenter drives to the station, his light rail commute takes 15 minutes longer than driving, but he said the 25-minute train ride lets him get a jump on e-mail rather than fume behind the wheel. The buses had never been a good option, he said, because they were too slow.
What Phoenix now offers — more reliable public transportation, another alternative to gas-guzzling vehicles, new development rejuvenating areas around stations — is what the Maryland Transit Administration envisions for a 16-mile Purple Line between Bethesda and New Carrollton. State planners have said they expect to be granted federal permission this summer to do more detailed engineering on the $1.93 billion project. It’s still unclear where construction money would come from.
Consultants who worked on the Phoenix system are helping to design a Purple Line, said Henry Kay, who oversees projects for the MTA. He said Maryland planners like the Arizona system’s sleek trains and the attention to detail in stations, such as public art and shade for waiting passengers.
“Every new project solves a lot of problems or uses new technology,” Kay said. “The industry always wants to share those with each other.”
Even the Phoenix system’s biggest boosters say they are surprised by its success. Ridership in 2010 — the line’s second full year of operation — averaged 39,000 on weekdays and exceeded projections by 51 percent, according to Valley Metro, the transit agency. What strikes a Metrorail rider is the less herky-jerky ride and low-profile stations. Light rail “stations” are merely 100-yard platforms with seating and an overhang in medians or along curbs.