Going Purple

Friday, July 7, 2006

FOR TOO MANY years planners and politicians have portrayed the proposed Purple Line as a sort of mass-transit chimera -- desirable, to be sure, but also gauzy, distant and farfetched. That may remain the case in Virginia, where the state legislature, enslaved to anti-tax dogma, can't seem to face the scale and urgency of the state's transportation dilemma. But there is room for hope in the Maryland suburbs, where this year's state and local elections, and the sheer force of logic, are compelling candidates to get serious about the Purple Line. And none too soon.

The Purple Line, which would run parallel to the Capital Beltway, circumnavigating the region, is a classic example of a transit project whose obvious potential benefits to the region have been stymied by insistent local opposition. That is certainly the case in Montgomery County, where the new rail link would run, for starters, from Bethesda to Silver Spring, connecting the two arms of the existing Red Line along the right of way of an old spur of the B&O railroad (now part of the Capital Crescent Trail). It would begin to compensate for Metrorail's main deficiency -- its radial design, which reflects planners' flawed assumption that the District would forever be the lone focal point for the region's development and job growth. Much of the economic boom in recent decades has taken place in or near suburban hubs ringing the city; naturally, traffic has followed. A four-mile link between the Metro stations in Bethesda and Silver Spring, two of Montgomery's major development centers, would reflect the new reality of commuting patterns. Eastward, there is equally powerful logic in a rail line linking Silver Spring, College Park and New Carrollton.

Spirited arguments are under way about the logistics, financing and design of the Purple Line -- whether it should be expensive "heavy" rail (like the existing Metro) or somewhat cheaper "light" rail (more like streetcars) -- even whether specially designed buses with dedicated stations would make a suitable substitute. There have been competing proposals, notably from Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, for an "outer" Purple Line alignment beyond the Beltway, where no right of way exists. All the debate is fine. What is lacking is political resolve.

Neither Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), nor his Democratic opponent this fall, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, has said much about the Purple Line, and what they have said is unconvincing. Both seem to like the idea in principle; neither has made it a priority. Mr. Ehrlich deserves credit for pushing a major road project linking Montgomery and Prince George's counties, the intercounty connector, which Mr. O'Malley also backs. Both candidates also need to recognize that additional transit -- namely, the Purple Line -- is critical to easing the region's traffic and sustaining its dynamic growth.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company