A Little Give and Take Is Called for in Debate Over Purple Line Route

By Marc Fisher
Sunday, December 28, 2008

Pam Browning and Ben Ross have spent decades fighting to get the Purple Line built the right way. Both live where they do, in Chevy Chase and downtown Bethesda, respectively, because they love the convenience of an urban center in a suburban location. Both cherish the Capital Crescent Trail, the former railroad bed that has been transformed into a linear park, a busy pathway for mothers with strollers, exercisers out for a constitutional and bicycle commuters.

But that trail between Silver Spring and Bethesda exists because the government bought the right-of-way from the B&O Railroad in 1988 to build an east-west transit line connecting Prince George's and Montgomery counties. And that plan is where Browning's and Ross's paths diverge.

Browning is appalled that Maryland would build a light rail line atop her beloved trail (the passageway is so narrow that at one point, in a tunnel in downtown Bethesda, the pedestrian trail would literally run on a deck above the railway). "Twenty years ago, no one could have foreseen how incredibly popular the trail would become," Browning says. "In the long run, no one will regret saving this trail," just as no one regrets the effort that went into saving the C&O Canal towpath in Georgetown.

She wants the Purple Line to be built either along the Beltway or as a subway beneath the more densely developed urban centers -- or she'd have the state scratch the light rail concept and build an express bus route instead, slicing through Bethesda along Jones Bridge Road rather than through the heart of the downtown.

"The trail is an excuse," says Ross, who can see the path from his apartment in downtown Bethesda. Ross, who doesn't own a car and commutes to downtown Washington on Metro, rides his bike on the trail every weekend and loves its peaceful setting. Still, he believes using the route for transit is simply more important.

The pro-trail advocates' "real objective is to stop light rail," he says. "They want the trail to be a private park for people who live nearby, rather than a transportation facility."

To many outsiders, the clash over the trail looks like a civil war within the left -- with hard-core greens pushing to save the quiet, the tree canopy and the carbon-neutral transportation model of the existing trail, and hard-core smart-growthers eager to pull commuters out of their cars and onto rail cars that zip past traffic lights and road congestion.

A squabble over routes has escalated into angry accusations of elitism, racism and NIMBYism.

"It's an orchestrated campaign," Browning says. The pro-rail side portrays the pro-trail advocates as rich, white, car-addicted suburbanites who want to save their country club from encroachment by public transit, keep less affluent people out of their communities and slam the brakes on growth.

Penina Maya, an East Bethesda resident who works closely with Browning on the movement to save the trail, says: "There's been an unfair effort by proponents to promote this very ugly stereotype of elitist, racist, pretentious people who don't care about less affluent people. The truth is we all want some compromise where we can all enjoy this beautiful park and have excellent transit."

Ross agrees it's overly simplistic to paint the pro-trail crowd as a bunch of elitists, but he insists trail supporters are masking their real intent, which he says is to keep a new transit line out of downtown Bethesda to prevent the development that would follow.

"This is a NIMBY (not in my backyard) movement masquerading as an environmental cause," he says. "Downtown Bethesda is such a popular destination that people who don't want it to grow won't say that flat out. So they talk about the trail, but they're really against urban development, and they're usually the most auto-dependent people in the community."

Browning and other trail advocates protest that they don't have their heads in the sand about growth. They say they like Bethesda's busy collection of retail, housing and entertainment. But they argue that the more densely developed such suburban centers become, the more desperately residents and visitors will need green space as a respite.

"More density and growth are inevitable," Browning says. "They're going to turn this into a city. That's why it defies common sense to get rid of the one piece of green we have. I've seen a fox on the trail. The hawks are out now. The trail is loved because it is safe, green and provides solace."

What makes the Purple Line decision -- which the Montgomery County Council must make next month and which Gov. Martin O'Malley faces soon thereafter -- so difficult is that both sides are right: The trail is unique, precious and popular. The need for transit is palpable and using the trail's route makes the most sense.

The greater good lies in sharing the trail between transit and pedestrians. The greater joy lies in leaving the trail as an oasis of green. The alternative routes, by skirting major population and work centers, simply don't provide as great a service. There is no good answer; the least-bad solution is to build the light rail line along the trail route, creating as much buffer space as possible between pedestrians and trains and hoping that over time, the green and the Purple will survive a marriage of convenience.

E-mail: marcfisher@washpost.com

© 2008 The Washington Post Company