U-Md. Wants Purple Line Off Its Main Street

By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 22, 2008

University of Maryland officials are fighting the state's plans to build a Purple Line transit link along the main street of the College Park campus, saying light-rail trains or a rapid bus system would ruin its pedestrian-friendly feel by endangering walkers and cyclists.

The debate has intensified as state planners begin to wrap up a detailed study to determine the best route for a 16-mile east-west line that would run parallel to the Capital Beltway and connect the Maryland ends of Metro's Red, Green and Orange lines. The line between Bethesda and New Carrollton would have about 14 stops.

Maryland planners say a Purple Line, to serve the most people, would need to pass through the heart of campus along Campus Drive. They hope high ridership numbers will help sell the project when it competes against other transit proposals nationwide for critical federal funding. Projects are judged on their cost-effectiveness, based largely on how many passengers they would attract and how much travel time riders would save.

Purple Line plans got a boost last week, when Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) announced that his budget includes $100 million for engineering and design. However, state transportation officials have said they will need federal money to build it. Broad-based political support improves a project's chances for funding.

The project is estimated to cost from $450 million to $1.8 billion, depending on the path and type of system. It would take three years to build, with construction beginning no earlier than 2012, state officials say.

The university appears to be the primary source of Purple Line opposition in Prince George's County. Most of the controversy has come from Montgomery County, where some residents in Chevy Chase and Silver Spring have objected to trains or buses running through their neighborhoods. Users of the popular Capital Crescent Trail between Silver Spring and Bethesda also have fought it, saying it would destroy too many trees and a rare swath of urban tranquility.

State officials say similar transit lines operate safely in other areas crowded with walkers, including on college campuses. Supporters of the Campus Drive route say location is key. They point to the inconvenient walk or shuttle bus ride required now because Metro's College Park station was built a mile from the campus, which has about 36,000 students and 12,400 employees.

"Our experience tells us transit should be where the most people are," said Michael Madden, the Purple Line study's project manager for the Maryland Transit Administration.

Douglas M. Duncan, the university's vice president for administrative affairs, says school officials have long supported a Purple Line, particularly underground. But because state officials have concluded that a tunnel would be too expensive, he said, the university has tried to find less disruptive street-level alternatives to busy Campus Drive.

"The Purple Line would be a great enhancement to the campus," Duncan said. "We just want to make sure we get the best route."

The university's latest proposal, heading west to east, would veer south off Campus Drive and follow parts of Preinkert Drive, Chapel Drive and Rossborough Lane to Paint Branch Parkway east of U.S. Route 1. Some of it would run between buildings and through parking lots and grassy areas, he said.

Duncan, who was Montgomery County executive for 12 years, said the university has backed off an earlier proposal to run it farther north, along Stadium Drive. He said scientists were concerned that vibrations or an electromagnetic field could affect experiments in laboratories nearby.

The university's latest plan would serve the core campus, Duncan said, while allowing Campus Drive to be developed into more of a pedestrian mall with a circulating shuttle bus.

And if Maryland planners ultimately choose Campus Drive as the best option, would the university try to block a Purple Line? "We're trying to work with them and make this happen," Duncan said. But would the university try to stop it? "At this point," he said, "I'm very hopeful we'll get a good response."

The debate is playing out among a small mix of rotating Maryland political players. Duncan replaced John D. Porcari at the university after Porcari was appointed Maryland transportation secretary. It is Porcari who will make a final recommendation on the Purple Line's route to the governor. O'Malley and Duncan were one-time Democratic rivals for governor.

Under Porcari, the university called for a Purple Line to tunnel beneath the core campus. Any street-level line along Campus Drive would need to protect walkers and cyclists and be aesthetically attractive, Porcari wrote to state transit officials in 2004. His letter did not propose any alternative routes.

During his tenure as Montgomery executive, Duncan proposed running a Purple Line farther out, beyond the Capital Beltway, but he did not use his position to champion the project, advocates say.

Purple Line supporters say they're concerned that the university, as a major stakeholder in the plans, isn't doing enough to bolster it, either.

David Daddio, co-editor of a blog that tracks development issues in College Park, questioned why the university is still proposing new routes when the study is nearing completion. Daddio, who graduated from U-Md. last year, said he favors the state's Campus Drive alignment.

"The university is a major beneficiary of this project," Daddio said. "But you wouldn't know it by their actions in the last few months."

College Park Mayor Stephen Brayman said the city needs traffic relief. The university is the area's largest generator of congestion, he said. "I'm counting on the university to not present any stumbling blocks. We need the Purple Line. We want the Purple Line."

Madden said planners will analyze the university's proposal. Asked whether the state could proceed with a Purple Line along Campus Drive over the university's objections, Madden said, "We'd rather reach a consensus with them. We want to address the concerns they have."

All sides will have to come up with an answer soon. Madden said he wants planners focused on one cross-campus route by May or June, when the state plans to hold public hearings before choosing the final route.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company