Full Speed Ahead
The long-proposed Purple Line reaches a critical juncture.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

AKEY REPORT on Maryland's Purple Line should clear up any lingering doubts about the transitway's viability. The study, conducted by the state, concluded that multiple variations of the line meet federal funding requirements and that any of the proposed options would have a minimal impact on the environment and nearby homeowners. The report underscored the need for the transitway by depicting how an already agonizing commute will worsen dramatically in coming years.

The focus now shifts from whether the line is feasible to how it should be implemented. There are many details to debate as the public comment period begins, including the specific route of the transitway.

But the most important decision is whether the state should back a busway or light rail. Bus rapid transit is cheaper in the short term but would attract fewer riders than light rail, and it would transport them less effectively. We support light rail but look forward to a vigorous public debate in coming months.

In Prince George's County, there's near-universal support for the 16-mile east-west transit line, which would stretch from Bethesda to New Carrollton. In Montgomery County, there are small but vocal pockets of resistance, particularly in Chevy Chase. Council member Marc Elrich (D-At Large) has raised the most serious objections. Mr. Elrich says that a busway, which would cost about $600 million, would attract a similar number of riders as light rail for half the price. At a time when many jurisdictions are competing for scarce transportation dollars, Mr. Elrich argues that the federal government is unlikely to pay for the more costly option.

The report does conclude that bus rapid transit is more cost-effective than light rail. But those numbers are based on estimates through 2030. Light rail requires a bigger capital investment initially but is sturdier and, in many cases, more cost-effective in the long run. If Metro, which has operated for more than 30 years, is any indication, the Purple Line is likely to operate far beyond 2030. Light rail also provides more flexibility in the probable event that ridership exceeds estimates -- just add more rail cars. Even critics of light rail acknowledge that the trains will be significantly faster than buses.

The Purple Line provides a one-time opportunity to connect Prince George's and Montgomery and spur smart growth in the region's suburbs. The current fiscal crisis shouldn't limit the project's ambitions nor sway the state to support an option that is less effective in the long term. If the state decides to support light rail, we're confident that local leaders who have been cautious in their support of light rail, including Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), will use their considerable influence to champion the project. It will take strong and unified support from the community to bolster the state's case for federal dollars.

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