State Officials Say Extending Rail to Columbia Too Costly

By Susan DeFord
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 15, 2007

State transportation officials say Columbia's future might not include rail transit despite pleas to extend such service to the county's largest community.

Howard Del. Elizabeth Bobo (D) asked state officials last year to study whether Washington's Metro rail system or the MARC, the state's commuter rail service, could run to Columbia. But state officials have told Bobo in recent weeks that both options would cost billions over the next 30 years, a prohibitive expense. That should provide local officials with "a little dose of reality," Bobo said.

"We can't move forward thinking we're going to have [rail] transit anytime soon in downtown Columbia," Bobo said after a meeting of Maryland transportation officials in Ellicott City last week.

An official with General Growth Properties, Columbia's largest developer, was aware of the state findings on rail transit. The company's evolving master plan for a redeveloped Town Center will focus on improved bus service within Howard and between counties as a principal transit option.

"We just don't have a hearty enough system now for our future needs," said Chuck McMahon, vice president of development for General Growth in Columbia.

The company's plan, which probably will be submitted to county officials early next year, might call for the eventual creation of a transit hub in Town Center, McMahon said.

"What we're trying to do is make it so people are not entirely dependent on their cars when they're in Town Center," he said.

State officials came to Howard last week to review a transportation spending plan that focused largely on improving roads and bridges in the county.

Bobo and transit backers have said that Columbia's redevelopment and a major expansion at nearby Fort Meade in the next few years justify investment in public transit.

"We really need to start making some kind of shift on transit," Bobo told state officials. "It's got to be a big shift, and it won't be painless."

According to a state feasibility study, extending Metro rail service from Greenbelt to Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport through Columbia would add $1.3 to $4.3 billion to the cost of expanding the Green Line to BWI, which is estimated at $2.2 to $2.9 billion.

There are also significant environmental impacts to wetlands, streams and woods along five alignments to Columbia that were studied, and estimated travel times would increase 15 to 35 minutes, compared with a direct route to BWI, transportation officials said.

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