Saturday, December 25, 2010

Some concerns, some advantages.

Norris used to dread his weekly hour-long Metro trips between the University of Maryland and Bethesda. It took him an hour, using both the Green Line and Red Line. “The commute was horrible,” he said.

The Red Line’s infamous U-shape makes Metro trips twice as long than if driving straight across by car, which ultimately forced Norris to abandon Metro, except on rare occasions. Instead, he borrows his friend's cars instead to travel home, cutting his commuting time in half.

He and others yearn for the completion of the the Purple Line, which would eliminate the U-shape by connecting the east-west gap with a straight across route and a shorter ride for everyone.

Although the Purple Line has been hailed for its ability to cut commuter travel time, other state residents believe the transit line will have a negative impact on their communities.

The Purple Line, first designed in a method under study since 1992 to shorten the route between improve transportation between Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, will be a 16-mile light rail line extending from Bethesda to New Carrollton.

Although the Purple Line will be welcomed by those seeking a shorter commuting time, it is not universally embraced. Many state residents are concerned that it will ruin a popular running and biking trail, and pose safety risks, among other things.

The Maryland Transit Administration has addressed community members' concerns in a series of meetings, drawing in property owners, developers and chambers of commerce members. Michael Madden, project manager of the Purple Line with the MTA, sought to ease their concerns by explaining that the line would have a minimum adverse impact.

On Nov. 9, Madden met with the Town of Chevy Chase Purple Line Mitigation Advisory Group to address concerns that Chevy Chase officials and residents expressed in a letter written by Mayor David Lublin.

“The Capital Crescent Trail is used by tens of thousands of users – like senior citizens, commuters and bikers,” said Patricia Burda, community liaison for the Town of Chevy Chase Town Council.

Burda raised concerns that the transit will decrease the width of the trail — used hourly by an estimated 240 people, which is twice the amount of the second most popular trail in the county - and make it more crowded than it is now, according to a study conducted by Capital Crescent Trail and Georgetown Branch Trail members in 2006

“The town is also particularly concerned about the right-of-way, which is particularly narrow,” Burda said. “Because it's so narrow, especially before the tunnel in the town, the transit will have to brake hard, causing a lot of noise.”

Also, the town is also worried about the potential noise from the railroad tracks.

To address concerns of noise and safety, the state said they would look into decreasing speeds of the light rail, which are generally around 45 miles per hour.

“Near East-West Highway, it's about 25 to 30 mph, but the state expressed they wouldn't go down that low,” Burda said. “All of these things are all up in the air - we're still negotiating.”

Madden, aware of Chevy Chase's safety concerns, said that the University of Maryland — which would be the Purple Line’s eighth stop from the east — has also expressed similar concerns.

Cory Krause, a student representative to the Purple Line, explained that the light rail line also could cause electromagnetic interference throughout campus.
“A lot of magnetism can mess with research equipment on campus,” Krause said.

To address this concern, Madden said that the University of Maryland and a MTA working group to design ways to reduce the interference - but Maryland has yet to approve it.

"We would place restrictions on the speeds of the LRT, down to 15 mph and place restrictions on the amount of steel mass in the LRT,” two factors that increase electromagnetic interference, Madden said.

The station would be located at Stamp Student Union, one of the busiest areas on campus along Campus Drive, raising concerns that the trains might pose a risk to pedestrian students in the area.

“The issue is that the transit will probably be very silent, and students could get killed if they don’t hear it coming,” Krause said.

He also said the trees along Campus Drive could cause leaves to fall especially during rainfall, leading to slippery rail — a condition in which moist leaves cling onto railroad tracks resulting in a loss of friction of the transit wheels and rail.

But, Madden said that wet leaves shouldn't become a hazard with this particular line, as it has with others.

“Leaves from trees is not an issue for a new light rail transit system, like the Purple Line, because newer LRT vehicles have improved braking systems that are not subject to slippage due to wet leaves,” he said. “We are also confident that all pedestrian safety concerns, as we continue to work closely with the UM community, can and will be addressed.”

Moreover, Krause said the line would provide countless benefits for the university. “It will increase mobility across campus, decrease noise pollution, and increase popularity for neighboring areas, which will cause a flourishing of economic prosperity,” he said.

Madden agrees that economic development will be a benefit. “The Purple Line connects key business districts and employments, such as downtown Bethesda, Silver Spring, Takoma Park, Langley Park, University of Maryland, College Park and New Carrollton,” he said.

Though these are the predicted popular stations, Madden said that there are a total number of 21 stations total, which should be a boon to area and surrounding businesses.

But the biggest boon will be in time saved commuting, Madden said.

“It will improve travel from east to west,” he said. “It will also provide mobility for people who don’t have it.”

Because of the current lack of quick east-west mobility, commuter Richard Layman bikes, avoiding both public transportation and the need to drive. He lives in Washington, DC near Takoma Park, and cycles Layman bikes seven miles each day to Bethesda for work-related trips.

“For trips less than ten miles, the bike compares favorably, if not faster than public transit,” he said.

Most of his trips Layman makes on his bike are less than ten miles, which he says takes him around 25 minutes. But it takes more than 30 minutes to make the same trip on the Red Line, according to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. Trip Planner.

Another commuter, Sreya Sinha - and a frequent user of the Red Line - said she’s pro- anticipating the opening of the Purple Line - and with good reason.

“It will definitely allow me to save travel time if I want to travel home to Rockville from College Park because right now it takes almost two hours since the Red Line runs in a big U,” said Sinha, a student at the University of Maryland. “The proposed Purple Line will cut across that, hopefully halving my travel time.”

Sinha takes rides the Green Line from at the College Park station to Fort Totten, where she transfers to to get on the Red Line to get to Rockville - physically located just west of College Park. Because of the Red Line’s U-shape, she has to ride Sinha must travel south, and then north, and wait through 24 stops to finally reach her destination.

Commuters traveling from Silver Spring to Bethesda, two busy stations with popular business districts, will really feel the difference. Madden explained Silver Spring is considered one of the busiest stations of the Metro.

“Silver Spring and Bethesda on the Red Line...generate high levels of midday Metrorail travel,” according to Transit Ridership Trends and Markets by WMATA in March 2009.

WMATA recognized this high ridership, especially between the two business districts, Bethesda and Silver Spring. Currently, those riding traveling from Silver Spring to Bethesda must endure 17 stops on the Red Line, about 40 minutes.

In response to the long trips for a large amount of people, WMATA announced on Nov. 30 that Montgomery County residents will see additional service on the J2 buses between Silver Spring and Bethesda to “provide more frequent service,” according to a press release. This change will take effect on Dec. 19.

But the Purple Line will mean that there will only be five stops from Silver Spring to Bethesda.

The Purple Line will also be one of the first transit systems to connect multiple Metro trains, three MARC commuter train lines and the Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor line at New Carrollton, Madden said. It also has connections to regional and local bus routes.

This connectivity will allow the MTA to omit building new parking lots around the Purple Line. “Commuters can walk or bike, take the Amtrak, take a MARC train or a bus to get to the Purple Line,” Madden said. This will save a significant amount of money but Madden declined to comment on exactly how much.

Some believe that the benefits override any negative concerns that community members may have about the Purple Line.

“I believe that the Purple Line should be implemented on campus,'' Krause said. "The main concern is student safety, but this doesn't mean that the project should be discontinued because of it. ,” said Krause, referring to the university’s concerns. “There are plenty of innovations that can keep safety at a manageable level while increasing mobility and livability of a campus community.”

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Loco for Four Loko.

Amid the growing popularity of alcoholic energy drinks among college students and a recent string of student hospitalizations, both state liquor boards and university officials moved to ban the beverages.

The US Food and Drug Administration recognized these actions by announcing on Nov. 17 that caffeine in malt liquor drinks is an “unsafe food additive” and requesting that four major companies, including Four Loko maker Phusion Projects, remove the substance from their products to prevent seizure of their products.

Speculation over the drinks’ safety skyrocketed after several students at Central Washington University were hospitalized on Oct. 9 at an off-campus party. “Comments by students initially made were that people were ‘roofied’ and that students were warned to ‘stay away from the red cups,’” said Cle Elum Police Chief Scott Ferguson.

“The nine students were hospitalized with blood-alcohol levels ranging from 0.123 percent to 0.35 percent,” Ferguson said. “A BAC level of about .30 is considered to be lethal.”

One female student, sickened after consuming the drinks, was hospitalized in critical condition for more than 24 hours while the others were released overnight.

“The toxicology report showed that students were mixing the Four Lokos with other alcohol contents,” he said. “But the other students who drank just mixtures of rum and coke or other drinks were not the ones being hospitalized.”

Four Loko, which contains caffeine, taurine, guarana and alcohol, is typically sold in a 23.5-ounce can with 12 percent alcohol by volume -- or about four to six beers. They’re cheap, too: Each can runs at about $2.50.

Kimberly Caldeira, associate director of the Center on Young Adult Health and Development at the University of Maryland, explained that aside from high or lethal BAC levels, another concern about mixing caffeine and alcohol is the “wide-awake drunk” reaction.

“This is when all of the impairments to judgment and decision-making and reaction time are still there, but the caffeine masks them and you don’t notice them [impairments] as much, she said. “Essentially, this can cause students to drink more and more and have a risk of alcoholic poisoning.”

On Oct. 25, CWU President James L. Gaudino announced at a press conference that alcoholic energy drinks would be banned on the campus, according to the university’s Web site.

But it wasn’t long before the Washington State Liquor Control Board stepped in and revealed a statewide ban on alcoholic energy drinks.

The liquor board enacted the ban on Nov. 18, one day after the FDA’s decision, said WSLCB spokesman Brian Smith. In regards to reversing the ban once the caffeine is taken out of the beverages, he said: “The Board will review the new formulations and act on those soon.”

When asked about the long gap between the CWU hospitalizations and the ban nearly one month later, he explained that the “toxicology reports were only revealed about two weeks ago, which confirmed that the cause was not date rape drugs, but rather Four Loko with a combination of hard alcohol.”

Washington state was soon joined by Michigan, which became concerned after a Michigan girl said she drank a Four Loko mixed with rum before being sexually assaulted, said Andrea Miller, a spokeswoman for the Michigan Liquor Control Commission.

The incident prompted the commission to ban 55 alcoholic energy drinks, including Four Loko. “The ban will stop sales of the 55 drinks at statewide beer and wine stores, liquor stores, bars and any restaurants,” Miller said.

“The commission announced the ban on Nov. 4, but it won’t take effect until Dec. 3 at midnight,” she explained before adding that the ban hasn't changed, even with the FDA's decision.Although the beverages could eventually be sold without the caffeine contents, Miller said, “The commission won't automatically approve it unless the labeling is fixed.”

Many have argued that the actual can resembles an energy drink, just with small print noting the alcohol content levels, which may mislead users to underestimate the drink’s potency.

Sam Gogan, a 20-year-old junior at the University of Maryland, disagreed.
“To me, [Four Loko] doesn't look like an energy drink since it's grouped together with other alcoholic beverages,” he said. ”I knew the first time I had one that there was alcohol in it.”

“It’s ridiculous that people don’t know their own limits and now this ban is causing everyone else’s fun to be ruined,” said Barbara Sparklin, a 21-year-old senior at Salisbury University.

Sparklin said she would continue to buy the drinks even without the caffeine because “you can pay just 5 dollars [about 2 cans of Four Loko] to have a good time.”

Nikolaj Birman, a 21-year-old senior at the University of Maryland and a frequent buyer of Four Loko, certainly knows his limits when it comes to consuming the drink.

“I drink one can to feel good, two cans if I want to get crazy, and three cans if I don't want to remember the night,” he said.

After drinking the first Four Loko, Birman added, “I always talk about how I feel like I'll have a heart attack if I have another one.”

Four Loko maker Phusion Projects argued against the claims that its drink has caused many to become ill, especially after the CWU incident. The company compared its alcohol-caffeine mixture to “having coffee after a meal with wine, or consuming rum and cola, an Irish coffee or a Red Bull and vodka,” which its Web site claims are all popular practices.

That explanation, however, did not convince the FDA.

”The FDA said peer-reviewed studies suggest that the consumption of beverages containing added caffeine and alcohol is associated with risky behaviors that may lead to hazardous and life-threatening situations,” according to the Nov. 17 press release.
The CWU hospitalizations may have proved just that.