More than 900 people are involved in designing and building the 16-mile light-rail Purple Line through the Maryland suburbs — one of the first circumferential rail lines in the country designed to carry passengers directly from suburb to suburb without having to travel through a city’s downtown. The line, which will connect Maryland’s spokes of the Metro system, is being built with a $5.6-billion public-private partnership, one of the most-far reaching such arrangements of any U.S. transit project.
Workers are clearing trees along the alignment between Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, moving underground utilities, and beginning work on a short tunnel through Silver Spring. This fall, the first parts for the light-rail vehicles will be shipped from Spain to Elmira, N.Y., where the train cars will be assembled. The line, which will have 21 stations, is scheduled to open to passengers in 2022. However, trains are expected to begin running as early as next year on two miles of test track to be built in the Glenridge area of Prince George’s.
Fred Craig is the chief executive officer for the project’s contractor, Purple Line Transit Partners. He came to the Purple Line after 22 years of working for private consultants managing large construction projects, including roads, a streetcar line, a ballpark and a football stadium. He spoke recently from his corner office at the project headquarters on Kenilworth Avenue in the Riverdale area of Prince George’s County.
He lives in D.C.’s Chinatown. And, yes, he says, since starting the job in February, his work wardrobe has grown increasingly purple.
You’ve talked about the Purple Line being “transformational.” What do you mean by that?
Connecting to the Metro lines leverages both systems phenomenally. Right now if you want to go from one end of the Red Line to the other, you’d have to go all the way downtown and all the way back out. I’d bet that’s an hour-and-a-half trip. With the Purple Line, you’ll go across and go back up. It probably cuts that trip time by two-thirds … It also gives a tremendous amount of transit options to people. Quite often you’ll find that the underemployed or unemployed are not in the same location as the jobs. You see people with a three-seat ride to get to their job because they have to ride a bus and then another bus and another bus. These are people who can sometimes least afford all that time because they have young children or have got to get them to school. So what we’re trying to do is provide opportunities for people to get to some of those better paying jobs and in some cases get job access at all.
Younger people are looking for transit alternatives when they move to a community. They will make a choice where to work and live based on whether there’s transit or not. Not everyone wants or can afford a car.
You recently told the Montgomery County Council that you’d asked for this job before. What did you mean by that?
I was on one of the [other contractor] teams that competed for the project. We didn’t win. Two years later, I got a call from a headhunter in London, and they asked me if I knew anybody who was interested in the job. I said ‘What job is it?’ When they told me, I said ‘I want to interview for that job.’ I feel like I have trained my entire life for this position.
What is your biggest challenge?
It’s understanding all the community needs and expectations … They’re not different, but they’re specific. You live in an area where you know the names of every street and you know the temperament of the community. I don’t have that privilege, so getting to understand and listening is really critical to me … I’ve done every bit of research on this I can just to try to make sure that I understand the nuances of the project. Every project has its own personality and its own tempo. Learning the tempo of this one is a little challenging, but getting to know the community, what’s important to them and how we best can mitigate the construction impacts is important to me.
Construction is disruptive, and helping people understand why it’s going on is important. Also, trying to mitigate the impacts is important. In order to mitigate the impacts, you have to know what’s important to the community.
You’ve mentioned that the Purple Line is being watched nationally because of its 36-year public-private partnership. Can you talk a little more about that?
It’s a venture between the state, the federal government and private companies. Typically, you design a project, bid it out to the lowest construction bidder, and then the owner operates it. We have a long-term concession to operate this. It’s good that the contractor and the designers are also involved in investing in this and in providing the operational and management for the system when it’s done. One of the things that appealed to me is some of the companies involved in the design are also involved in the long-term operations, which means they’re going to build a quality system because they know they have to maintain and operate it and be responsible for its performance.
Is there any concern about recent studies showing that transit ridership is declining in many cities due to teleworking, lower gas prices, and the popularity of alternatives such as Uber and Lyft?
You’re giving everyone options. People choose between a balance of time and money. It’s also very sensitive to gasoline pricing. The other important thing with transit is you look at the University of Maryland or any of the municipalities along the Purple Line. Look at how much space is used for parking garages. Especially for universities, land is at a premium on campus. Parking garages take up land that could be used for research facilities or classrooms. A number of universities are trying to make themselves less dependent on automobiles and use more remote parking and people taking transit in. Ridership will go up and down … Ridership is dependent upon people’s perception of their time-value of money, the safety and security of the system, the quality of the ride, and where it goes. That’s how they make their determinations.
Is there any concern the Purple Line’s projected ridership won’t be there?
No no. It’ll be there. The Purple Line is so unique in terms of the type of service it provides and the places it connects. I think this system will exceed everyone’s expectations. When you look at it 10 to 15 years from now, people will think ‘Why didn’t we do this earlier?’ … When all is said and done, and I’m gone and dust in a box somewhere, people are going to remember that some people worked really, really hard to get this done. That’s what matters to me.