Rail Gains Momentum As Purple Line Pick

Officials Jumping Aboard Despite Cost Advantage Of Rapid Buses

Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 8, 2009; Page B01

Despite its substantially higher cost, light rail has emerged as the clear front-runner among Maryland officials as they prepare to choose a transit system that would link Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

After more than 20 years of debate, a 16-mile rail line is the widely popular alternative to a rapid bus system, even though light rail could cost three times as much to build and 50 percent more to maintain and operate, according to state estimates.

"It's pretty clear there's overwhelming support for light rail," said Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D), who said he is personally undecided.

A state analysis predicted that light-rail trains and rapid buses would travel about the same speeds between some stations. But even in tight financial times, most local officials say they're willing to spend more on light rail because they believe it would better encourage the economic redevelopment they want transit to bring to communities inside the Capital Beltway.

For developers and future passengers, light rail is commonly seen as "more snazzy," while bus rapid transit is often viewed as "a second-class system," said Montgomery County Council member Nancy Floreen (D-At Large), who chairs the council's transportation committee.

Although Floreen said she believes both systems can offer quality rides, "I do think for long-term permanence and reliability, light rail sends a different message to everybody. It's just a step below Metro. . . . I think we all agree on light rail. The question is: Can we get it done?"

The Montgomery Planning Board is scheduled to become the county's first public body to officially make a choice when it votes Jan. 15 on which mode to recommend to the County Council. The board will also vote on whether the Purple Line should run along a popular walking and bike path between Bethesda and Silver Spring. It is scheduled to hear several hours of public testimony today on its staff's preference for light rail.

Some rapid bus supporters say the intense debate over the east-west line's route has overshadowed the larger discussion of what kind of Purple Line Maryland can afford. Some bus supporters say seeking federal funding for relatively expensive light rail could doom the project's chances of being built soon.

That's because the system would compete for federal construction money against transit projects across the country. The cost to build a rapid bus system is estimated at between $386 million and $1 billion, and a light-rail line would cost $1.2 billion to $1.6 billion.

Montgomery council member Marc Elrich (D-At Large) said he thinks the debate has given short shrift to a state analysis that shows that buses in their own lanes and with priority at intersections "perform virtually identically to light rail."

"If you look at the difference in ridership and the amount of money, you have to ask yourself, 'Is [light rail] worth it?' " Elrich said.

Elrich said he would join his fellow council members in voting for light rail to show unanimous support for a Purple Line. He said the rest of the Montgomery council appears to favor light rail, which the Prince George's council has endorsed.

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