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Low Profile Among Tall Hurdles for Transitway

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The Transitway would extend Metro's Red Line northwest from the Shady Grove Station. It would serve fast-growing areas popping up around 30-year-old plans for a transit line. Transitway supporters say their greatest concern is that too many developers want it to run past their high-rise condo tower or office park. As the route grows to serve more areas, supporters say, it could make the ride too long to attract enough riders to help pay for it.

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But Transitway supporters say they are also optimistic that those developers and large employers might be willing to help pay for it, an attractive option when government transportation funds are dwindling. Because the areas near the Purple Line are built out, transportation observers say, it has far fewer opportunities for new development and fewer private entities available to share the costs.

"Politically, the Corridor Cities Transitway is much more palatable to most elected Montgomery officials at the state level," said a Montgomery official who spoke on condition of anonymity to candidly discuss both proposals.

The two Washington area projects also face competition for federal funds from a third Maryland proposal -- a 14-mile Red Line through Baltimore. That project, which is being designed, has state funding to proceed through one year of construction. The Purple Line and Corridor Cities Transitway are funded only through their engineering and design.

The state's financial commitment to a project is a key factor in clinching federal money, said Henry M. Kay, deputy administrator of planning for the Maryland Transit Administration. However, he said, federal officials also consider cost-effectiveness, mainly whether a project would attract enough riders and save them enough time to warrant the investment.

Kay said letters, e-mails and phone calls for and against a Purple Line outnumber Corridor Cities Transitway correspondence by 10 to 1. Although controversy might affect politicians' support, Kay said, it has no effect on planners' calculations about cost-effectiveness.

"We have technical observations and benefits we can quantify," he said.

That cost-benefit analysis so far appears to favor a Purple Line, at least for the more popular light-rail options. Development planned for the I-270 corridor does not appear to attract enough riders to offset the higher cost of light rail, Kay said. As planners continue to study different routes, only the less popular busway option would meet the federal criteria for cost-effectiveness, according to the state study.

The Purple Line also has a key political advantage: Unlike the transitway, it would run through two counties -- Montgomery and Prince George's -- giving it double the political pull for state money.


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