Leggett Endorses Light-Rail Plan

County Executive Isiah Leggett is concerned about the plan's impact on the Georgetown Branch Trail.
County Executive Isiah Leggett is concerned about the plan's impact on the Georgetown Branch Trail. (Courtesy Of Montgomery County Executive's Office - Courtesy Of Montgomery County Executive's Office)
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By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 23, 2009

Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett endorsed a light-rail plan for a Purple Line link between Bethesda and New Carrollton yesterday and said he had secured a promise from state officials that the county would bear no construction costs "to the extent feasible."

In a letter to County Council members, Leggett (D) also said that Maryland Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari had promised that the county would not have to cover any cost overruns for the 16-mile transit link.

Leggett said he had asked Maryland transit officials to consider ways to reduce the impact of a four-mile stretch slated to run along a popular hiking and biking trail between Bethesda and Silver Spring.

Those measures could include widening the paved trail from 10 feet to 12 feet, planting grass between the tracks and using hybrid light-rail cars that would spare more trees because they do not require overhead wires.

Leggett said he supported light rail along the Georgetown Branch Trail because it is in the county's master plan. Even so, he said, he questions how enjoyable the wooded trail would be once its trees were cut down and light-rail trains ran past joggers and cyclists.

"You could have a functioning trail, but the trail as we know it in its pristine condition is going to be challenged," Leggett said in an interview.

The Purple Line has been debated for more than 20 years as a way to provide faster and more reliable east-west transit between Montgomery and Prince George's counties while rejuvenating aging communities inside the Capital Beltway. Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) is expected to choose a mode -- light rail or a rapid-bus system -- and a route in the spring.

Planners said they will then begin working with the Federal Transit Administration to begin their bid for federal funding.

Local officials' preferences would factor heavily in the governor's decision, state officials have said. Yesterday, the council's transportation committee approved a county Planning Board recommendation to build light rail along the trail route. The full council is scheduled to vote Tuesday.

Maryland transit officials have said construction could begin in 2012, although the state would first have to compete with other proposals for federal money and find its share in a strapped transportation budget. The proposal that Leggett endorsed is estimated to cost $1.22 billion.

Leggett said Porcari told him that if the county "is required to share in the local costs," it will get credit for more than $90 million it has spent or allotted for related projects, such as buying right of way and building an additional entrance to the Bethesda Metro station.

Leggett signed a pledge during the 2006 elections to support light-rail trains along the trail, but he had done little publicly to push the Purple Line until yesterday, saying he was still considering different viewpoints. Some political observers said Leggett's reticence probably stems from a tough political choice.

A light-rail line has widespread political backing. The entire Montgomery council has voiced its support, as has the Prince George's County Council. However, the only right of way, which was purchased in Montgomery in the 1980s, runs along the Georgetown Branch Trail, a path Leggett has championed for the past two decades.

Leggett also has enjoyed political support from the Chevy Chase area, where many residents oppose the trail route and some back yards abut the route.

Purple Line advocates said Leggett's written support, while expected, was important in building momentum for a project that has languished for years.

"When they go to the federal government [for funding], it shows a stronger commitment," said Harry Sanders, president of Purple Line Now.

But some trail advocates say they were disappointed that Leggett didn't do more to protect a rare swath of urban green space used by thousands of cyclists, walkers and joggers. Pam Browning, who has organized a petition drive to oppose the trail route, said 17,500 people have signed petitions and more than 1,000 have e-mailed the governor.

"The dissent will grow as more people learn all the trees along the trail are going to be destroyed," Browning said.

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