Pr. George's Pushes for the Purple Line

By Aaron C. Davis and Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, November 27, 2008

Prince George's is for Purple. At least that was the sentiment shared last week by a large majority of residents who spoke at a hearing on plans for a Purple Line connecting Prince George's and Montgomery counties.

University of Maryland students said they want a better way to commute to and from campus. College Park residents want relief from gridlock on Route 1 and East West Highway, and most advocates for immigrants and the poor in and around Langley Park said the proposed light-rail line could expand employment opportunities and connect cultures that are mostly isolated in the District's Maryland suburbs.

"I haven't met a single one of my constituents in College Park who isn't strongly in favor of the Purple Line," said College Park City Council member Stephanie E. Stullich (District 3). "Everybody is very excited about bringing the Purple Line to this community and hopes to see it happen sooner rather than later," she said.

Roughly four out of five speakers who addressed Maryland transit officials at the four-hour hearing Nov. 19 at Ritchie Coliseum said they support the plan. Several of those who spoke against it noted that they were from Montgomery County and had driven to College Park to register their opposition after having missed an opportunity to do so the night before in Chevy Chase.

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 bus service to building a $1.6 billion light-rail system. Options with price tags in between include a busway.

Jonathan Sachs, U-Md. student body president, said a broad coalition on campus supports the permanent light-rail version. He spoke in favor of aligning the Purple Line along Campus Drive, through the heart of the university.

"It will allow us to travel conveniently to internship opportunities in Silver Spring and Bethesda. Currently, the commute on public transit to Bethesda is over an hour," Sachs said. "While cars are an unaffordable luxury for most students, the Purple Line will give us viable transportation alternatives to reach out to the rest of the state of Maryland."

Guy Johnson, an attorney for CASA of Maryland, a Latino rights advocacy group, agreed that light rail would be best for the community. He also warned that protections must be put in place for immigrants and poor people who live along the proposed Purple Line route. Residential and commercial property values could double or triple when the line begins operating, he said, creating incentives for landlords to displace poor residents in favor of those willing to pay a premium to be close to the transit line.

"Right now, in a place like Prince George's, there's no substantial protections for tenants," Johnson said. "Folks can be living there 15, 20 or 25 years, and if they are month-to-month on their lease, any landlord who wants to increase revenue would have to give 30 days' notice before they could as much as double or triple their rents.

"In D.C., if a landlord wants to convert to condominiums, they have to at least negotiate with tenants before making that move," he added. "We would like to see some similar protections put in place in Prince George's so that the long-term residents of the community cannot be displaced without any kind of compensation."

In Montgomery last week, hearings on the proposed Purple Line focused on a much different kind of neighbor: the tranquil Georgetown Branch Trail.

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

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 and tunneling beneath or bridging over congested intersections. By 2030, the cheapest busway is predicted to carry 40,000 trips daily, and the most expensive light-rail line is estimated to carry 68,000, according to a state study.

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

The Montgomery Planning Board and County Council are scheduled to begin considering their recommendation to Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) in January. State officials said O'Malley will decide early next year which Purple Line route and mode -- busway or light rail -- to enter into the national competition for critical federal funding.

One of the most-watched aspects of the governor's decision will be whether he chooses Montgomery's Master Plan alignment, which follows the trail. State transit officials have said the trail and transit line could co-exist safely as they do in many cities, with a landscaped buffer between transit vehicles and trail users.

Several Prince George's lawmakers who spoke at the College Park hearing said county residents are ready to use the Purple Line en masse. They suggested the state approve beginning construction on the line in Prince George's. Maybe by the time construction reaches Montgomery, they said, officials there will figure out where they want it.

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