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The Purple Line, a proposed $1.517 billion light rail from Bethesda to New Carrollton, won’t happen without help from the feds. After spending $130 million per mile on the Inter-County Connector, the state of Maryland is effectively broke, and seeking money from the Federal Transit Administration’s New Starts program to make up the difference. But to get that funding, the MTA needs to present a clear, cohesive proposal—and at the moment, the University of Maryland may be the biggest thing standing in the way.

The UMD administration is resisting the MTA’s plan to align the Purple Line with Campus Drive alignment, which has the support of the College Park City Council, the UMD Student Government Association, and others. And at a forum on Monday at UMD’s Stamp Student Union, MTA officials made their case in the strongest terms yet.

“Putting the line underground increases the cost significantly and reduces the affordability and competitiveness of the project,” said Mike Madden, the Purple Line’s project manager.  “The Purple Line has to compete in the national arena all over the country for federal funds.”

Madden and Monica Meade, the MTA’s transportation and land use planning consultant, not only argued for their Purple Line vision, but informed listeners why the UMD administration’s alternatives, one of which is a $96 million tunnel through the southern part of the campus, wouldn’t work. A slew of local elected officials and representatives from the Coalition for Smarter Growth largely supported the MTA team, but a small, but vocal, band of professors from UMD’s physics department were less enthusiastic.

Why the physics department?  They’re more heavily invested in the Purple Line’s placement than almost any other, because vibrations (electromagnetic interference, or EMI) from the at-grade light rail trains might disrupt sensitive research. The MTA has proposed active cancellation strategies, similar to systems currently being used successfully at institutions such as MIT, Cornell, and Northrop Grumman. Regardless, the department doesn’t appear entirely convinced that those solutions are enough for UMD. Madden estimated that the MTA has had over 800 meetings with the College Park community regarding the Purple Line, many of which have attempted to assuage the physics department’s issues with EMI.

The UMD administration initially opposed the Campus Drive alignment on the basis of aesthetics and pedestrian safety. The MTA has since studied several propositions made by the UMD administration, including alignments along Preinkert Drive and through Morrill Quad.

Overall, UMD stands to benefit massively from the MTA’s plan: The university will have five out of the 21 stops on the route. But the sixteen other stops will service some of the region’s areas that are the most in need of a stable, reliable public transit system, like Takoma/Langley and New Carrollton.  The University’s continued resistance makes such a vision even more remote.