Town of Chevy Chase should accept Purple Line and spend its cash on dampening impact

Columnist

Some people have more money than good judgment.

A current example is the Town of Chevy Chase, an affluent patch of 1,000 households tucked between two venerable country clubs in Montgomery County. It has more than $8 million of accumulated tax revenue that it’s not sure how to spend.

Robert McCartney is The Post’s senior regional correspondent, covering politics and policy in the greater Washington, D.C area. View Archive

The uncertainty hasn’t hindered one cause, however. The Town Council voted last month to devote up to $350,000 to a last-gasp lobbying bid to move the Purple Line away from the long-planned route along the town’s northern border.

It’s hard to overestimate this effort’s futility. The federal, state and various local governments have supported the proposed route for the light-rail line. It would create a much-needed transit link between Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.

The town would be smart to accept reality and spend the cash on dampening the line’s impact. It could help the state and county plant trees or build sound barriers to protect the homes closest to the route.

Map of the proposed Purple Line

Chevy Chase has been negotiating with the state over such mitigation efforts, but with few results. Both sides view the other as inflexible.

“We’ve been meeting [with] them for four years and have very little to show for it,” Mayor Pat Burda said.

“If the town can deal with the fact that [the route] is going to happen, then it’s very much to their advantage to talk to us,” Henry Kay, the Maryland Transit Administration’s second-ranking official, said.

The town’s neighbor to the north, Columbia Country Club, took that approach, with good results.

It opposed the Purple Line for years because the route cuts through its golf course. Ultimately, however, the club compromised. It swapped some land with the state, and the state altered the route slightly to spare four holes and help protect clubhouse views. In a crucial part of the deal, the club promised not to sue to block the project.

Alas, the town offers no such guarantees. It is focused now on lobbying federal and state lawmakers and officials to look again at a discarded option to shift the line north and use express buses rather than light rail.

Failing that, the town has left open the possibility of going to court.

Burda rebuffed my suggestions that the town was wasting its money and hurting its reputation. “If you were me, you would be doing exactly the same thing to protect the community,” she said.

The town’s stubborn resistance is exasperating. It costs the rest of us money and time. It creates uncertainty that could discourage private companies from bidding on the Purple Line and county governments from making related investments.

Admittedly, this project requires sacrifice. It’s a shame to lose thousands of trees and the quiet along the Georgetown Branch trail where the trains would run.

But as I’ve written before, the costs are justified by the advantages of building a transit link to cope with future growth of population and jobs in the inner suburbs. The county bought the right of way in 1988 with the specific purpose of building a transit line roughly parallel to the Capital Beltway.

“We need east-west mass transit, and this [route] has clearly been designated for that for years,” said Jacob Bardin, a town resident who supports the Purple Line. “To suggest all of a sudden that that’s not a good idea is really pretty selfish.”

The council vote to spend the money was 3 to 1, with one member abstaining. Purple Line supporters in the town complain that a vocal minority living closest to the route exerted undue influence.

“They have, in my view, captured the Town Council,” Donald Farren said.

A recent survey of residents showed that the Purple Line was not the top priority for spending the town’s bountiful reserves.

After conducting two public forums to gather input on what to do with all that money, the town reported that the top preference was to improve open space and recreational facilities.

The No. 2 priority was the vaguely worded goal of “Purple Line assistance.” It wasn’t specified whether that meant trying to stop the project altogether or adapting to a fait accompli.

The town should end its obstruction of a worthy project. Burning money is unwise even if you have it to spare.

McCartney discusses local issues Friday at 8:50 a.m. on WAMU (88.5 FM). For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.

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