Light Rail Backed in Report on Purple Line

By Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Montgomery County planners yesterday endorsed building a light rail system for the proposed east-west Purple Line and recommended running the trains mostly above ground and next to the Georgetown Branch Trail, a route heavily used by walkers and bicyclists.

The proposed 16-mile link between Montgomery and Prince George's counties would include as many as 22 stations at locations including Bethesda, Silver Spring, the Takoma and Langley Park areas, the University of Maryland's College Park campus and the New Carrollton Amtrak and Metro station.

"We have to grow, and we have to do it in a way that is sustainable," said Tom Autrey, the report's chief author. "The bottom line is that we have to take care of folks in these near suburbs so that we can experience growth in a reasonable way that is less dependent on the auto."

Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) is expected to choose a Purple Line route early next year and determine whether to build a light rail system or a busway, a type of transit system that often uses dedicated bus lanes and whose vehicles get preference at traffic lights. The plan endorsed yesterday by the Montgomery County planning staff calls for a system that would cost about $1.2 billion in 2007 dollars. The staff report is advisory and must be reviewed by the Planning Board and County Council.

County Executive Isiah Leggett (D), a light rail proponent, also is expected to weigh in, but not until he completes an assessment of financing and other data, an aide said.

The Montgomery recommendation is expected to be well received in Prince George's and eastern Montgomery, where residents say they need something better than the slow-moving bus system that is their only east-west transit link to Silver Spring and Bethesda.

"The Purple Line will connect our communities, enhance economic opportunities, take cars off the road and be a great benefit to both counties," said Prince George's County Council member Eric Olson (D-College Park), who represents New Carrollton and surrounding communities.

But the proposal reignited controversy in some communities along the proposed route, whose residents worry that light rail would be a few steps from their back yards.

In Bethesda and Chevy Chase, a coalition of affluent communities, a country club and some trail advocates are pushing to bypass the trail route and create a more northerly alignment that would use rapid buses and terminate at the Medical Center Metro stop, next to the expanding National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda.

Planners instead recommended running the light rail next to the Georgetown Branch Trail, an extension of the Capital Crescent Trail, and proposed expanding the 10-foot-wide trail to 12 feet where possible. They also propose planting additional foliage and finding other ways to buffer neighborhoods from the light rail line.

The western terminus would be in downtown Bethesda, at an as-yet unopened south entrance to the Metro station near Woodmont and Bethesda avenues.

In Silver Spring, some residents near downtown are worried about street-level light rail near their homes and are urging that parts of the route be put underground.

Mark Gabriele, who heads a community association in a neighborhood north of downtown Silver Spring, said he thought a surface route would get caught in "downtown gridlock." Running the system underground in Silver Spring would be more efficient, he said.

In Bethesda, the rail line would use an existing tunnel under Wisconsin Avenue, sharing it with the walking and biking trail, and then follow the trail to Silver Spring. East of Silver Spring, the rail would operate mostly along streets.

Silver Spring would have three stops: at the Metro station at Colesville Road and Georgia Avenue; on 16th Street; and near a proposed library at Fenton and Wayne streets.

The planners dropped a proposed light rail station on Dale Drive, citing ridership studies. Some residents have been strongly opposed to the stop.

Pat Burda, a resident of the Town of Chevy Chase, is among those who favor placing the system closer to the naval hospital. She said the staff-endorsed proposal fails to address "the phenomenal amount of traffic" from the hospital expansion and calls for cutting down too many trees.

"The amount of trees that will be removed is quite devastating," she said.

Ben Ross, a transportation activist, lauded the Montgomery plan but said he thought it underestimated potential ridership.

By 2030, the cheapest busway is predicted to carry people on 40,000 trips daily, and the most expensive light rail line is estimated to reach 68,000 trips, according to a state study.

The state studied eight options, ranging from an $82 million plan to upgrade bus service to a $1.6 billion, high-end light rail system. Autrey said the $1.2 billion plan appears to be the most cost-effective when ridership, time spent traveling, construction and other factors are considered.

Autrey said the Purple Line had been the subject of substantial internal debate, with many staff members worried about the impact on the trail.

"I use the trail, but there are tradeoffs. It is a tough, tough decision, and we don't make this recommendation without understanding what the trail has become to many people," he said.

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