Low Profile Among Tall Hurdles for Transitway

By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 11, 2008

Supporters of a north-south transit line in upper Montgomery County to help weary commuters escape Interstate 270's traffic jams are promoting a new slogan: "Good to go."

Half the land needed is publicly owned or set aside. As mega-projects go, its estimated cost of $450 million to $778 million is on the cheaper side. Business leaders and area lawmakers are backing it, and it has no organized opposition.

All that might make it good to go, but few people seem to have heard of the idea, and the project appears to be at a disadvantage in the struggle for scarce transit funding.

Plans for a 14-mile Corridor Cities Transitway get scant attention compared with the proposed 16-mile Purple Line linking Bethesda, Silver Spring and New Carrollton. Purple Line supporters and opponents hold dueling news conferences, circulate petitions and plant yard signs. Even the Purple Line name, some transportation watchers say, gives it an aura of belonging in a region with a color-coded Metrorail system.

Many people aren't sure exactly which "corridor cities" the transitway would serve, though. (Answer: Gaithersburg, Germantown and Clarksburg.)

"One of our biggest challenges is how to get anyone to pay attention to it because there's no controversy around it," said Montgomery County Council President Michael Knapp (D-Upcounty), who represents the area.

The Transitway and Purple Line are proposed as either light-rail lines or busways -- unlike Metro lines, which are heavy rail -- and nearly all aboveground. Montgomery officials say they support both.

But soon state transportation officials will seek federal transit money, and it is unlikely that the Federal Transit Administration would fund two projects so close to each other, even though they would serve different populations. Whichever project does not get the federal money could face significant delays.

State planners say their studies show that the Purple Line, estimated to cost between $420 million to $1.75 billion, is competitive for federal money as either light rail or a busway but that the Transitway looks cost-effective only as a busway.

The planners say that the Purple Line, which would serve more densely populated areas and connect three Metrorail lines, would attract as many as 68,000 trips each day and that the Corridor Cities Transitway would have up to 30,000.

Supporters of the Transitway say they are hoping for rail. The lack of public attention to it could work in its favor, they say, because so much of the Purple Line's notoriety comes from the influential opponents in its path. They include the affluent Columbia Country Club, the Town of Chevy Chase, and some walkers and cyclists who use the popular Georgetown Branch Trail between Bethesda and Silver Spring. Some residents east of Silver Spring oppose it because the Purple Line would run through their neighborhoods.

"The Purple Line gets more ink because it has more conflict," said council member Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville), who said he backs both projects. "The Corridor Cities Transitway has almost universal support."

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