East-West Divide Shadows Debate Over Purple Line

Purple Line advocates say it would benefit Prince George's commuters, such as these in Langley Park.
Purple Line advocates say it would benefit Prince George's commuters, such as these in Langley Park. (By Katherine Shaver -- The Washington Post)
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By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 1, 2008

Commuters in business suits ride up the escalator at the Bethesda Metro stop and into shiny office high-rises while shoppers visit upscale boutiques nearby and joggers bundle up to run along a popular wooded trail, past the well-appointed homes of Chevy Chase.

Six miles to the east, dozens of Latino women and men, many in baggy jeans and worn work boots, brace against a cold wind, waiting at bus stops amid the check-cashing stores, laundromats and international food markets of Langley Park.

A Purple Line between Montgomery and Prince George's counties would connect these two worlds. The proposed light-rail or busway system would not only carry people to jobs on the western end of the line but also create opportunities for development in less-affluent communities to the east. Beyond its value to the region's transportation network, the 16-mile transit line would deliver a sort of "social justice," some proponents say.

But the differences between these communities underscore a palpable tension rarely discussed in the debate over the Purple Line: a growing east-west class divide in Maryland's suburbs.

"It's two different worlds separated by economic class," said Del. Ana Sol Gutierrez (D-Montgomery), one of the few Chevy Chase politicians who favor running a Purple Line along the wooded Georgetown Branch Trail between Bethesda and Silver Spring.

Some critics suggest that this divide motivates the Purple Line's fiercest opponents, who they say are fighting the project much as Georgetown residents opposed a Metro stop 40 years ago.

"I think almost anyone you talk to who is paying attention would think race and class, as represented by the split between the two counties, is in play," said Peter A. Shapiro (D), a former Prince George's County Council member. "It's the smelly fish under the table -- everyone knows it's there, but not everyone is talking about it openly."

Purple Line opponents say that the charges of elitism are unfair and ignore the more nuanced arguments against the proposed line between Bethesda and New Carrollton.

They say their opposition stems from flaws in the Maryland Transit Administration's analysis and from the project's construction costs, estimated to run as high as $1.6 billion. Leaders of the town of Chevy Chase have enlisted a Washington law firm to work pro bono and are paying a New York consultant about $400,000 to analyze the state's plans.

They say Maryland planners haven't accurately studied an option that would spare the treasured Georgetown Branch Trail and its mature trees by running a rapid bus line about a mile to the north, along Jones Bridge Road. With the state's severe transportation budget shortfall, they add, a busway could be built there much more quickly and cheaply and better serve the expanding National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda.

Montgomery County Council member Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda) said that he generally supports light rail along the trail but that he appreciates concerns about homes and park space.

"These are reasons that could galvanize any community," Berliner said. "I don't think it's necessary to demonize their position in order to disagree with it."

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