By Robert Mccartney
Thursday, July 16, 2009
Maryland's inner suburbs should bulldoze 17 acres of mature forest and spoil an enchanting walking and bike trail to protect the environment. Sounds crazy. But it's not.
That's a tradeoff that Montgomery and Prince George's counties need to make to build the Purple Line properly. Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) is scheduled to formally endorse a plan for the long-sought transit link by Labor Day. He is expected to bless the two counties' consensus favoring light rail over buses, and a route between Bethesda and New Carrollton running down part of a now-bucolic stretch of trail in Chevy Chase.
The project would be a significant step toward "smart growth," promoting development close to mass transit. It would also finally provide a rail hookup among some of Metrorail's suburban spokes, so it wouldn't be necessary to go downtown to travel between east and west in the Maryland suburbs.
Those trees are safe for a while, though. O'Malley's decision would merely start the process of getting federal funds for the effort. That would require at least four years before construction begins, assuming everything goes smoothly, which it won't. First, although Maryland would ask the U.S. Treasury to cover half the project's cost, now estimated at $1.68 billion, it might have to settle for less.
Moreover, opponents of the Purple Line plan, currently on the defensive, might find a powerful friend at the Federal Transit Administration. The agency must approve the project and would want to see strong evidence that it's worth paying for light rail rather than less costly express buses.
The FTA could force Maryland to scale back the Purple Line, just as it blocked Northern Virginia from spending enough money to dig a tunnel under Tysons Corner for Metro's Silver Line to Dulles International Airport. Virginians had to settle for an elevated track, which will make the new Tysons less pedestrian-friendly and much uglier.
Admittedly, the Purple Line also presents bitter choices. The plan that O'Malley is likely to approve calls for building two tracks for light rail vehicles, the modern equivalent of streetcars. They would push pedestrians and riders to the side of the Georgetown Branch Trail, an unpaved extension of the better-known Capital Crescent Trail.
Opposition has arisen along the trail in Chevy Chase, as well as in some less affluent (and less influential) neighborhoods such as East Silver Spring.
"Nobody wants to walk and bike seven to 10 feet from the trains," said Pam Browning of Chevy Chase, an organizer of the Save the Trail coalition. The group has gathered 18,000 signatures on a petition to O'Malley opposing the plan. Signers "don't want the cathedral of trees destroyed," Browning said, and are worried about kids' safety along the tracks.
O'Malley should push ahead anyway. If done right, the transit line promises to provide a spine for the inner suburbs to grow in coming decades into denser but still navigable and inviting communities. Each light rail station can be an anchor for a walkable commercial or residential district, along a line running inside the Capital Beltway and parallel to it, including in Langley Park and College Park.
A denser population in those communities is a plus, because that's the antidote to continued suburban sprawl. If we can concentrate more people closer to the region's center and have them use more mass transit, then it will mean less driving, congestion and damage to the environment. The same approach has shown success in Arlington County, along the Orange Line corridor.
"The city and inner suburbs are places that should be growing, so that we don't continue to expand across farmland and forest," said Cheryl Cort, policy director for the Coalition for Smarter Growth.
Another environmental group, the Montgomery County Sierra Club, has endorsed the Purple Line plan, albeit with caveats, such as preserving as many trees as possible and running the tracks on a grassy roadbed instead of a paved one.
Opponents of light rail say the benefits could be had for about half the cost by running express buses along dedicated routes. The downside is that bus routes can be canceled, so developers are wary of investing along them, whereas rail tracks are permanent. Even skeptics of light rail acknowledge that it's more "glamorous" than buses, while decrying the cost during a recession.
"I think the days of snazzy for snazzy's sake are over," said Pat Burda, Chevy Chase Town Council member. She would prefer to see buses run along a more northerly route, along Jones Bridge Road, thus protecting the trail.
The town and Columbia Country Club, whose golf course is split by the trail route, are seen as the plan's most potent foes. Their opposition is understandable, given their location, but contrary to the region's best hopes for a more livable suburban landscape.A Better Alternative
It's regrettable that the only Purple Line options taken seriously are light rail and buses.
What the region really needs, in the long term, is a full-fledged, heavy rail Metro "Circle Line" parallel to the Beltway. That would be serious smart growth.
It would cost tens of billions, and the conventional wisdom is that it's just too pricey. Our grandchildren will blame us for being cheap and short-sighted.