By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 13, 2008 12:00 AM
On its Web site, the Alliance for Smart Transportation bills itself as a "coalition of concerned citizens advocating for smart transportation solutions for Montgomery and Prince George's Counties."
But although the new group criticizes Maryland's plan to build a 16-mile Purple Line transit link between Bethesda and New Carrollton, it offers no ideas for how to relieve traffic in the suburbs. Nor does the site identify the "concerned citizens."
The site's owner is listed as a company based in the Madeira Islands off the coast of Portugal that allows clients to register Web sites anonymously. And its post office box is rented to a public relations consultant, according to a postal official. State tax records shed a little more light: Its founder is a board member at Columbia Country Club in Montgomery, whose 100-year-old golf course would be bisected by the transit line.
Purple Line supporters say the Chevy Chase club is merely disguising itself as a grass-roots movement.
"What's going on here is a battle between commuters who want to get to work and a bunch of people who don't want to look at trolley cars while they play golf," said Ben Ross, president of Action Committee for Transit, a pro-Purple Line group. "If the public understands that's what this fight is about, then the Purple Line will be built."
Geoffrey Gonella, a member of the country club's board of governors, said the club has done nothing to hide its opposition to a Purple Line and is just raising "serious questions" about its potential costs as well as its impact on traffic congestion, the environment and an extension of the popular Capital Crescent Trail.
"The club is not anti-Purple Line or anti-transit," Gonella said. "The club, along with a lot of other organizations and residents, has questions about spending $2 billion of taxpayers' money at a time when the state is arguably in financial distress."
Gonella registered the Alliance for Smart Transportation as a Maryland business July 2. The group has not filed with the Maryland secretary of state's office as a charitable organization, which it must do before soliciting contributions, said Michael Schlein, an investigator with the secretary of state's office.
Groups on both sides of the debate have revved up public relations efforts recently as the Maryland Transit Administration prepares to release its draft environmental impact study of the project next month. That study will detail the costs, travel times and ridership estimates for light rail vs. a bus rapid transit system. So far, the cost is put at between $420 million and $1.75 billion.
State officials say a Purple Line, which would run primarily above ground, is necessary to connect Maryland's ends of Metro's Red, Green and Orange lines with Amtrak and MARC stations. They say it would provide better east-west transit service, particularly for lower-income workers who can't afford cars, and would revitalize older communities.
Opponents say it would destroy the wooded hiker-biker path and disrupt neighborhoods in Chevy Chase, East Bethesda and Silver Spring. They say the proposed route also wouldn't serve the naval hospital in Bethesda, which will add 2,500 workers and twice as many daily visitors when it merges with Walter Reed Army Medical Center in 2011.
Ross said he learned of the new alliance from a flier that was being handed out in downtown Silver Spring last week. He said he has no qualms with the country club forming its own activist group. After all, those with a personal or financial stake in the project's success or demise haven't been shy about speaking out. The Web site for the pro-Purple umbrella group, Purple Line NOW!, lists Edward Asher as a member of its board of directors. Asher is president of the Chevy Chase Land Co., a development firm that would no doubt profit from property it owns near at least one of the proposed stations.
What Ross and other Purple Line advocates say they find troubling is that the alliance has not been upfront about its membership.
"They make it seem like some community organization fighting the project when in fact they're a private country club," said Michael D. Madden, the MTA's project manager on the Purple Line study.
Gonella said he and other Columbia Country Club members have not tried to hide the fact that the club is both an alliance member and a "financial contributor." He said he did not know why the group's Web site was registered anonymously.
The alliance, Gonella said, has members who do not belong to the country club. Asked for their names, he said he did not have them readily available and that he could speak only for the country club. The Web site doesn't list alliance members, he said, because the group is so new. He said he didn't know how many people it had recruited so far.
"It's like any grass-roots organization," Gonella said. "We're meeting with people on a daily basis and recruiting folks. The number probably changes on a daily basis, so I don't want to give the wrong number."
Gonella said country club members, including many who live in the area, have "valid questions to raise" about the Purple Line that go beyond its impact on their golf course. The club questions how the line would relieve traffic congestion if state studies show that 80 percent of its potential riders already take another form of transit. He said the club also believes that the state has not thoroughly considered other routes that wouldn't require clearing large, mature trees along the hiker-biker trail.
Madden said the country club's golf course was built around a 100-foot-wide right-of-way. The land was part of an abandoned rail line that Montgomery bought in 1988 from CSX to preserve for use as a potential trolley route between Bethesda and Silver Spring. Transit planners have ruled out tunneling a Purple Line beneath the trail and golf course, saying it would be too expensive.
Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.