Decision Time for Purple Line

Sunday, February 1, 2009

The key questions regarding the Purple Line transitway proposed for the Maryland suburbs are: 1) Is a transitway needed? 2) If it is, should it be bus or light rail? 3) What route would the line follow? The final decision on those questions will come from the state of Maryland in the next few months. But an important voice offered its answers Tuesday. The Montgomery County Council said yes to a light-rail system that would primarily follow the Georgetown Branch rail right of way between Bethesda and Silver Spring. Here's where the project stands.

The Basics

The Purple Line would be a 16-mile east-west rapid transit line running inside the Beltway from Bethesda to New Carrollton. But there are choices within that concept.

It could be either a bus rapid transit or light-rail line.

A bus rapid transit system would have permanent stations and operate large buses on streets with traffic, or in dedicated lanes or on a separate right of way.

A light-rail system would have permanent stations and operate an updated streetcar on tracks with overhead wires. Like the bus line, it could run on streets with traffic, or in dedicated lanes or on a separate right of way.

Most of the transit route would be at street level. Twenty-one station locations are being evaluated. A hiker/biker trail is included along the Georgetown Branch and CSX/Metrorail corridors.

What the Council Did

The Montgomery council, voting 8 to 0, expressed a local preference for a type of transit and a route on this state project. (The light-rail line also has been endorsed by the Prince George's County Council and the executives of both counties.) The routing has been particularly controversial in the Bethesda-Chevy Chase and Silver Spring neighborhoods. The Montgomery council reviewed several of those issues.

The council recommended the Georgetown Branch alignment, terminating in downtown Bethesda, over an alignment farther north that would follow Jones Bridge Road. The advantages of the rail right of way are in travel-time savings along the Georgetown Branch route and the direct link to the Bethesda business district.

But the council voted 5 to 3 to ask the Maryland Transit Administration to examine more closely whether it could rely on a single track to save trees along parts of the Capital Crescent Trail, which follows the Georgetown Branch rail right of way.

It recommended expanding the trail pavement to a minimum of 12 feet where cost and tree loss would not be significant and suggested planting more grass along portions of the trail.

It asked the state to further analyze the possibility of tunneling under downtown Silver Spring and some neighborhoods to the east.

If the line is built on the surface along Wayne Avenue in Silver Spring, the council suggested that the route not include a stop at Dale Drive, a major intersection near the Silver Spring International Middle School.

Politics and Practicalities

Although Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) and his transit team still must announce a decision, they're getting strong political support in the two counties for the basic route, despite the political cost of some neighborhood opposition, and for the light-rail option, despite the financial cost of more expensive equipment.

But there will be new hoops to jump through. The high-end version of a light-rail line would cost $1.6 billion today. If Maryland chooses that version or one close to it, the state must win an endorsement from the Federal Transit Administration after competing with other budding transit projects across the country. The money in the federal stimulus package is not a factor in financing the Purple Line because the project is a long way from shovel-ready.


The Purple Line has gone through many years of planning and public debate. Its color-coded name dates to an era when the construction concept involved building a Metrorail link between the two ends of the Red Line. There was a debate over whether the line should be built inside or outside the Capital Beltway.

Last fall, the transit administration released its draft environmental impact statement and offered a public comment period that ended Jan. 14.

In the spring, the state will adopt one of the alternatives under consideration, which range from doing nothing to building a rapid bus system or light-rail line.

In the fall, if all goes smoothly, the state would begin work on preliminary engineering and a final environmental impact statement.

Maryland would then seek to move from the planning and environmental review to design and construction.

The earliest that construction on the Purple Line could begin is late 2012. It would probably take three to five years to complete.

-- Robert Thomson

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