Appetite Grows for Purple Line Data

By William Wan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 6, 2007

There was a giddy urgency among the residents and activists pacing through an elementary school auditorium in Silver Spring this week, poring over a flurry of maps, charts and numbers released by Maryland officials about the proposed Purple Line.

For some living in the way of the Purple Line's proposed route through the Maryland suburbs, the new information bred more outrage and solidified their opposition to the project. For others, the data validated their support of the project.

For state officials, though, the biggest news emerging from presentations this month in Montgomery and Prince George's counties is provided by the latest ridership estimates. State planners think the numbers will bolster Maryland's case for federal funds needed to build a transit line that could cost as much as $1.8 billion.

According to the state's new projections, by 2030, a light-rail system could have as many as 47,000 boardings a day, and a dedicated bus line along a similar route could have 45,000.

"In terms of the cost and riders, now we know we're in the ballpark compared to other projects. That was an open question until we got these numbers," said Henry Kay, deputy administrator of planning and engineering for the Maryland Transit Administration.

But at East Silver Spring Elementary on Monday night, the new data did not resolve many residents' most urgent questions about the Purple Line: Would it use light rail or buses? Would it include tunnels? How would it be routed across a scenic trail, a golf course and a college campus?

Such issues, residents said, could dramatically alter their neighborhoods and lives. Many attending Monday's meeting had staked out positions and spent their time combing through the data for facts to support them.

Silver Spring resident Rose Polyahova, for example, spent most of her time studying a map with all 22 stations plotted along the 16-mile route. Reflecting the many controversies around the route, the map showed more than one possible path at points where neighbors have objected or where a bus line would go one way and a light-rail line another. Using the new data, Polyahova listed advantages to going with the more expensive electric-powered light-rail system instead of the rapid-transit buses, which resemble trains on rubber tires. But the biggest reason for her preference was that the bus option would pass through her home.

"Basically, it would mean I'm homeless," she said.

Another resident, Jonathan Jay, noted advantages to digging a tunnel through east Silver Spring rather than routing the line through his neighborhood. "I have to say, though, what worries me most is the traffic it would bring into our neighborhood," he said.

At this week's meeting, state officials said they are considering tunnels in four areas: near Silver Spring Avenue in Silver Spring; just east of Sligo Creek near Flower Avenue; under the University of Maryland campus in College Park; and from Riverdale Road to River Road in the Riverdale Park area. But tunneling is an expensive option. In Virginia, a proposal to tunnel under Tysons Corner as part of the Dulles corridor Metrorail project appears to have been defeated because state officials thought it could threaten federal financial support.

With so many factors undecided, information on travel times, ridership and cost was presented in multiple charts, a different one for bus and light rail at each level of funding. The least expensive option, at $450 million, would have buses sharing roads with other vehicles, and a trip would take about 73 minutes from end to end. The most expensive options, at $1.2 billion to $1.8 billion, would have dedicated routes for a bus or light-rail system, and the trip would take 46 to 57 minutes.

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