Purple Line Follows Path of Discord

By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 27, 2008

Many Montgomery County residents who addressed Maryland transit officials at public hearings about plans for a Purple Line agreed on two points: They cherish the gravel Georgetown Branch Trail between Bethesda and Silver Spring, and they want more ways to travel east-west without driving.

They parted ways, however, over whether running light rail or buses along the trail would lead to an improved, paved path with safer street crossings or whether it would spoil the trail's tranquillity and wooded beauty.

The future of the Georgetown Branch Trail has become the most contentious issue in Montgomery's debate over whether to build a 16-mile transit line between Bethesda and New Carrollton in Prince George's County. Some residents east of downtown Silver Spring also said they object to it running through their neighborhoods, such as along Wayne Avenue.

The Nov. 18 hearing in Chevy Chase, along with one Saturday in Takoma Park, were among four held this month on the state's draft "alternatives analysis" of the Purple Line. The other two were in Prince George's. Public comments are being accepted until Jan. 14. (See box for other ways to comment.)

More than 300 people attended the meeting in Chevy Chase, state officials said. Time and again, their arguments on both sides came back to the popular path.

State Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery) said that he uses the trail several times a week but that he thinks it would be better if it were paved as part of the Purple Line project.

"It will be useful, peaceful and fun," Frosh said. "I think it's compatible with light rail."

But Kathy Strom, mayor of Chevy Chase, said the town's consultant found "deficiencies, omissions and inexplicable assumptions" in the state's study. She said the state did not accurately evaluate a plan that would spare the trail and cost far less by running a rapid bus line farther north, along Jones Bridge Road.

"It's time to be creative and pragmatic to get the biggest bang for the state's buck and spare green space," Strom told transit officials.

The Purple Line would run mostly aboveground and have up to 22 stations, including in Silver Spring, the Takoma and Langley Park areas, and the University of Maryland's College Park campus. The state has studied eight options, ranging from an $82 million plan that would upgrade existing bus service to building a new $1.6 billion light rail system. Options with price tags in between include a busway.

Aside from the trail route, the line would mostly follow streets. Cost estimates climb for options that would run trains or buses in their own lanes or tunnels beneath or bridges over congested intersections. By 2030, the cheapest busway is predicted to handle 40,000 trips daily, and the most expensive light rail line would carry 68,000, according to the state study.

Maryland transit officials and supporters say the Purple Line would provide a key connection among Metrorail, Amtrak and MARC stations. It would also offer relief from slow, unreliable buses, particularly for lower-income workers who can't afford cars.

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