2016 is shaping up to be an banner year for the Purple Line. The private concessionaire was announced last week, the full funding grant agreement will be signed with the federal government and, fingers crossed, the project will finally break ground. As we near these important milestones, we here at PLN wanted to facilitate a community wide discussion on the issues that we think will define this year through a series of forums we’re calling “Envisioning the Purple Line.”
Our first forum, held on February 22 in College Park, was devoted to, what else, College Park! College Park has a quarter of all the Purple Line stops and will undoubtedly be one of the biggest beneficiaries of the project. The forum brought together leaders from the university, housing industry, City of College Park, and student body to talk about the impact the Purple Line will have on the university and the greater College Park area. You may have seen WTOP’s coverage of the event, but if you didn’t, click on the link to see what you missed.
The biggest news to come out of the event was the announcement by University of Maryland officials that there will be a “fare-free zone” between the Adelphi Road/West Campus station and the M Square stop just south of the College Park Metro station. The fare free zone will enable students and faculty with a University ID to ride the Purple Line for free, not to mention reduce the time it takes to traverse the sprawling campus.
Students and university officials noted that the Purple Line will have the added benefit of freeing up shuttle buses that were formerly used to transport students from the College Park Metro station to the main campus, and vice versa. The buses can then be redeployed to new or existing bus routes, thereby spreading the operating benefit of the Purple Line to other corridors and students, who might not otherwise have a viable transit option.
Another major topic of the forum was how the Purple Line will support efforts to revitalize College Park. The conversation around redevelopment in College Park is usually centered around Baltimore Ave. (formerly Route 1), but Ken Ulman, Chief Strategy Officer for Economic Development at the university, focused attendees’ attention on another part of the city with big plans for redevelopment once the Purple Line is built, the M Square Research Park. Many people are unaware that the University has a world-class research park just outside the main campus near the College Park Metro station. M Square was even recognized by the Association of University Research Parks last year as the top university research park in the country. It currently hosts several federal agencies and a number of university programs and centers, but in the future, it will transform from a 20th century office park into a more vibrant area with new residential, retail and recreational opportunities. The Purple Line will unlock the full potential of M Square by seamlessly connecting the research centers at M Square to the academic buildings of the main campus, and in the process create a more cohesive campus.
One of the more interesting discussions to come out of the forum concerned the role the Purple Line could play in improving student access to grocery stores. Many of us take grocery shopping for granted, but it's a non-trivial concern for students at UMD, the majority of whom do not own a car. The only nearby grocery options that students have are Target Express, CVS and 7-11, which illustrates why College Park has been classified as a "food desert" by the USDA. The nearest full-service grocery store is more than two miles from campus, and it’s exceedingly difficult to reach it via transit. A representative of the Student Government Association described how most students are faced with taking a 1-hour shuttle bus ride to the grocery store or asking a friend for a ride in order to do their grocery shopping. For students who don't own a car, the Purple Line will make a simple errand like grocery shopping simple again.
Affordable housing and improving the variety of housing types rounded out the topics covered by the panel. Students voiced concerns about the already high costs of off-campus housing and the need to keep housing affordable once the Purple Line is up and running. Non-students, on the other hand, expressed hope that the Purple Line would help diversify the city’s housing stock. Most of the housing being built in College Park is geared towards students, but the panelists observed that the Purple Line could spur the development of market rate housing that is attractive to graduate students, young professionals and families who want to live near transit.
All in all, the first forum confirmed that big changes are in store for College Park. Thanks again to our panelists and sponsors for helping make this event possible. Our next forum, Understanding the Public Private Partnership - An overview of the next steps for getting the project built, will be held on April 21 at Montgomery College in Silver Spring. Maryland Transportation Secretary, Pete Rahn, will be among the speakers at this event where we’ll demystifying the P3 arrangement. Final details regarding the exact time and location of the meeting are still in the works, but be sure to save the date! You can RSVP right now (the event is free, but you must reserve your seat in advance.)