Md. Gov. O'Malley Should Green-Light the Purple Line

Sunday, July 12, 2009

THE JOKE in suburban Maryland is that everyone has an opinion about the Purple Line. In the next few weeks, at least, only one person's matters. Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) is expected to decide on the specifics of the long-planned transit project, including its route and whether it should be bus rapid transit or light rail.

It should be an easy call. The county executives, county councils and planning boards of Montgomery and Prince George's counties favor light rail and agree on the general alignment: from Bethesda to New Carrollton along the existing Georgetown Branch railroad right of way. The National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board, which coordinates transportation projects in the Washington area, also voted unanimously for light rail. There's a reason for the broad support: Light rail is sturdier, will attract more riders than bus rapid transit and will deliver them to their destination more swiftly.

The last spasms of opposition come mostly from Chevy Chase, where elected officials have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to defeat light rail and are now threatening legal action. They contend that light rail is too expensive to win federal funding, that a key study of the project is skewed against bus rapid transit and that light rail would ruin the Capital Crescent Trail. Some advocates of Baltimore's Red Line project also fret that the Purple Line would compete for the same federal dollars.

Let's dispel the myths:

-- Yes, light rail is more expensive, but the Purple Line has one of the highest ridership estimates of transit projects in the country and would be a top candidate for federal funding. Maryland should try to secure federal dollars for light rail first; if that fails, there's always the option to downgrade to bus rapid transit.

-- If anything, the study in question, known as a draft environmental impact statement, shortchanges light rail. The report's ridership estimates end at 2030; presumably, light rail will operate long past that and continue attracting riders.

-- The Capital Crescent Trail is a haven for cyclists and joggers, but Maryland purchased the right of way in 1988 with the intent of building a transit line. Light rail would keep some of the trail, and much of the surrounding foliage, intact.

-- There's no rule that the federal government can fund only one major transit initiative in a state at any given time. Rather, federal officials will fund projects based on cost-effectiveness per rider. The Purple Line and Baltimore's Red Line both are worthy candidates. It doesn't hurt that former Maryland transportation secretary John D. Porcari, a long-time champion of the Purple Line, is now deputy secretary of transportation for the Obama administration.

Instead of being obstructionist, Chevy Chase officials should dedicate the thousands of dollars that would fund a legal challenge to minimizing the impact of light rail on the trail. Meanwhile, Mr. O'Malley ought not to let a vocal minority drown out strong support for light rail. With federal officials soon deciding how to allocate millions of dollars for transportation, Mr. O'Malley should endorse light rail -- and do it soon.

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