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Harry Sanders, 63

Harry Sanders dies; activist led Purple Line campaign

Fellow advocates saw Harry Sanders as a mild-mannered activist who was most effective behind the scenes.
Fellow advocates saw Harry Sanders as a mild-mannered activist who was most effective behind the scenes. (Courtesy Of Purple Line Now)
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By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 12, 2010

Harry Sanders, 63, a retired federal computer analyst and Montgomery County transit activist who led the campaign for an east-west rail link through the Maryland suburbs that eventually became the Purple Line project, died March 10 at Casey House hospice in Rockville of complications from kidney cancer.

Mr. Sanders, who lived in Silver Spring, co-founded the Action Committee for Transit in 1986 to rally public support for a trolley line between Bethesda and Silver Spring. The Maryland Transit Administration later expanded county plans for the four-mile trolley line into a 16-mile light rail Purple Line linking Maryland's spokes of the Metro system between Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

The state has begun to seek federal funding for the $1.68 billion project.

In 2002, Mr. Sanders co-founded the Coalition to Build the Inner Purple Line, and in 2007, he helped expand the group into Purple Line NOW, a coalition of business, environmental and civic groups. He was Purple Line NOW's president at the time of his death.

Although Mr. Sanders was a purple-shirted fixture at rallies, fellow advocates said the mild-mannered activist was most effective behind the scenes, quietly pressing government officials about the project's progress, particularly when the state's Purple Line plans stalled in the 1990s.

Henry Kay, the MTA's deputy administrator for planning and engineering, said Mr. Sanders encouraged planners under then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) to "think big" about expanding an east-west rail line beyond Montgomery.

"I think he saw the potential to link together communities all across the inner Beltway corridor," Kay said. "He was always there to remind us of how important that was."

The Purple Line has been controversial because under the state's chosen route between Bethesda and Silver Spring, trains would run along a popular jogging and biking trail, which would require cutting hundreds of mature trees. Opponents say a transit line would destroy the trail's wooded, park-like feel to benefit developers planning to build around future Purple Line stations.

Mr. Sanders, an avid walker, said he believed building a transit line would help complete the Bethesda-to-Silver Spring gravel trail as an extension of the paved Capital Crescent trail, friends said. He said transit lines focus growth and offer alternatives to driving, particularly for lower-income people.

"He saw [transit] as the key to a different kind of community that was more livable," said Ben Ross, president of Action Committee for Transit. "That was a much less widespread view 25 years ago than it is now."

Webb Smedley, a board member for Purple Line NOW, said Mr. Sanders was also active in the revitalization of downtown Silver Spring and pushed in the late 1980s for sidewalks to be installed near the Silver Spring Metro station. He was also interested in affordable housing issues and helped the needy through St. Luke Lutheran Church in Silver Spring, family and friends said.

"The thread that tied them all together was a progressive 'help the little guy' outlook toward life," Smedley said. "I think transit just happened to be the issue that he thought he could make his mark on."

Harry Lee Sanders was a native of Springfield, Ill., and a 1968 graduate of the University of Illinois. He moved to the Washington area to work as a computer analyst for the National Security Agency from 1968 to 1976, said his wife, Barbara Marsh Sanders. He then worked as a computer analyst for the U.S. House of Representatives. He retired in 1997.

He also had served as his local Democratic precinct chairman since the early 1980s and as transportation committee chairman for the Montgomery chapter of the League of Women Voters, his wife said.

In addition to his wife, of Silver Spring, survivors include a son, Gregory S. Sanders of Ellicott City; and a sister.


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