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Fortunes Shift for East-West Rail Plan

Purple Line Stalls, Connector Thrives

By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 16, 2005; Page C01

It was only three years ago -- the blink of an eye in transportation planning -- that a proposed light-rail link between Bethesda and New Carrollton via Silver Spring seemed on a fast track to construction.

Maryland governor Parris N. Glendening (D) touted the so-called Purple Line as a boon to inner-Beltway communities and a way to improve east-west travel in the region. As for the intercounty connector, the long-debated highway that would connect Interstate 270 and Interstate 95 outside the Capital Beltway, Glendening said he wasn't interested. He halted an environmental impact study, saying the road was too damaging to ever be built.


Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., shown center in 2004 with Robert L. Flanagan, right, has supported expedited construction of an intercounty highway. (Matt Houston -- AP)

Since then, the projects have undergone a complete reversal of political fortunes. Both continue to face strong neighborhood opposition and daunting engineering challenges. But plans for the connector -- the subject of recent public hearings -- are humming along. The 14-mile Purple Line is on what Montgomery County Council President Tom Perez (D-Silver Spring) calls "life support."

"The Purple Line has become a joke," said Montgomery Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D), who is considering a bid for governor and has said he supports the connector and a rail line. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), Duncan said, "has a one-road transportation program, which is the [connector], and everything else is getting pushed to the back burner."

Supporters of the Purple Line said it fell victim to gubernatorial politics. Ehrlich, who has little support in heavily Democratic Montgomery and Prince George's counties, had incentives to make the rail line a lower priority, rail advocates said.

"I think it's a political calculation," said Montgomery County Council member George L. Leventhal (D-At Large), who lives in Takoma Park. "I don't think this [Ehrlich] administration sees Bethesda or Silver Spring or College Park or New Carrollton as strongholds of political support. I don't think they feel a great obligation to these neighborhoods."

In his 2002 campaign, Ehrlich made building an intercounty connector part of his appeal to the Washington suburbs, and after his election he got the federal environmental impact study placed on an expedited schedule. That study is scheduled to be finished this spring, and the General Assembly will discuss how to pay for the highway -- estimated to cost at least $2.4 billion, not including financing -- during the legislative session that began Wednesday. Ehrlich said he wants bulldozers on the ground next year.

He also has ordered that a study on the Purple Line, or Bi-County Transitway, which was last estimated to cost $1.2 billion, be redone and expanded to include a possible rapid bus system. The earliest start for construction is 2009, the state said.

Rail proponents say the Ehrlich administration complicated the study to delay the project.

Maryland Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan said Democrats who accuse Ehrlich of stiffing Montgomery and Prince George's "are looking for political goblins that don't exist."

He rejected any notion that the state is delaying a new transit line to focus on an intercounty connector. The rail study had to be redone, he said, because engineers must redesign the line to comply with new requirements about how close new track could be laid to existing track. He said planners also must recalculate ridership estimates.

The state expanded the study to include bus rapid transit, Flanagan said, because bus service is cheaper than rail and therefore more likely to receive federal funding.

"It's being moved on as expeditious a schedule as is humanly possible," Flanagan said.

Opponents of the Purple Line also said the problems are not political. The project's first segment, between Bethesda and Silver Spring, would run trains -- mostly above ground, powered by overhead electrical wires -- along the Capital Crescent Trail. Thousands of trees would be cut, ruining the parklike setting that is frequented by runners, cyclists and stroller-pushing walkers, opponents said. Trains also would disrupt such neighborhoods as Chevy Chase and East Bethesda, they said.

"It would destroy the communities through which it passes," said John Warnock, a Chevy Chase resident and president of the Greater Bethesda-Chevy Chase Coalition, which opposes the rail line. "It's not going to solve any traffic problems. It's not going to get people off the road. It will be hugely expensive to build and operate, and it would be an environmental disaster."

Defenders of the project said the opposition has had significant political help from members of the Columbia Country Club, whose golf course straddles portions of the proposed route.

Ben Ross, president of Action Committee for Transit, which promotes the rail line, said he has spent almost seven years tracking anti-transit political donations by club members. By his calculation, he said, the club members have spent at least $416,000 in lobbying and legal fees to fight the Purple Line, according to news accounts and state lobbying records he has dug up.

He said he also has found $20,000 in donations to Duncan and $5,000 to Ehrlich's gubernatorial bid that he believes came from fundraisers organized by country club members.

Ross said he is "absolutely convinced" that the country club's influence is the reason that trains don't already connect Bethesda and Silver Spring.

"I think it's the only real sticking point," Ross said. "The community opposition [to a rail line] is extremely narrow. If community opposition were enough to block something, the [connector] wouldn't be on the schedule it's on," he said. The opposition to the highway "is much more intense than community opposition to the Purple Line."

Glenn Mitchell, a Columbia Country Club board member and past president, said the club's golf course would be affected like any of the hundreds of other property owners along the Capital Crescent Trail or the "tens of thousands" of people who use it.

Mitchell said some club members hosted one fundraiser each for Ehrlich and Duncan. However, he said, it's "preposterous" to assume they influenced either one's view on where a rail line should go. The fundraisers, he said, "had nothing to do with" the rail proposal.

Duncan and Flanagan denied that political donations affected their views on where a transit line should go. Duncan, who has proposed a route that would put the Bethesda-Silver Spring link closer to the Beltway, said he has always opposed the inner route because it would destroy the trail, not because of the country club.

Perez said that, for the moment, at least, supporters of the Purple Line have been out-maneuvered and out-muscled.

"The whole debate about the [connector] illustrates that when you have the political will to do something, you can get it done," he said. "But when you have the political will to tank something, you can try to do that too. There's no political will to build the Purple Line."


© 2005 The Washington Post Company