Montgomery Planners Back Rail

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 16, 2009; Page B03

The Montgomery County Planning Board yesterday became the first county agency to endorse a light rail system for the proposed Purple Line, approving a controversial plan to send several trains an hour through Chevy Chase and Silver Spring along a popular walking and biking trail.

The panel, voting after more than 20 years of debate on the proposed 16-mile suburb-to-suburb transit link, concluded that a light rail line is preferable to a rapid bus system and selected a route along the Georgetown Branch Trail, a segment of the Capital Crescent Trail. The street-level system would traverse a country club along its way through Silver Spring and into Prince George's County.

The board's 4 to 1 vote is expected to be ratified this month by the County Council. The Prince George's County Council has long supported a light rail system. Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) also is expected to weigh in, but so far he has declined to describe his views.

The proposal ultimately will land on the desk of Gov. Martin O'Malley (D), who must decide whether to pitch light rail or a rapid bus system to the federal government as he seeks transportation dollars.

"We are extremely pleased with the vote," said James W. Clarke, a former Sierra Club transportation expert who is allied with Purple Line Now, a consortium of labor groups, developers and environmental activists. "This is a strong signal to move the Purple Line forward as light rail."

Montgomery Planning Board members said they chose the more expensive option -- light rail could cost several times as much as a rapid bus system -- because they think it will be a quieter system, will be able to carry more passengers and will cause less pollution.

"I have been a skeptic of light rail, but in dense areas, I think, rail has a lot of advantages," said Royce Hanson, the Planning Board chairman.

The board also supported a staff proposal to put the light rail system at street level in Silver Spring, but members agreed that further study could be useful. Nearby residents have said that placing the rail on or near streets could clog traffic and disrupt nearby residential neighborhoods.

Jonathan Jay, a lawyer and neighborhood activist from Silver Spring, said many residents want the system underground. "If this could be built for a day, people would realize the folly of having long, lumbering trains through the central business district in Silver Spring," he said.

Rail proponents say light rail trains, powered by an overhead electrical source, would attract more passengers than a bus system. The state's study estimated that by 2030, bus rapid transit would generate as many as 58,900 daily trips, and light rail, as many as 68,100. A light rail line's capacity also could be increased more easily than a busway's, supporters say.

But the estimated cost of building a rapid bus system is $386 million to $1 billion; the estimated cost of a light rail line is $1.2 billion to $1.6 billion. Still unknown is how the federal, state and county governments would split the tab.

Rapid bus advocates say such systems often resemble trams and light rail lines and are more flexible than light rail because routes can be more easily redesigned to accommodate population shifts. Some bus proponents also have suggested that a better plan for the Purple Line would use rapid buses along Jones Bridge Road in Bethesda, closer to the National Naval Medical Center and the National Institutes of Health.

Prince George's officials have long sought a light rail system, saying it would help bring development to the county, improve access to jobs and shopping and cut commuting time. The current options for riding public transportation between the two counties involve either long bus rides or Metrorail trips in and out of the District.

Amy Presley, the lone dissenter in today's vote, said that she favors light rail but that "it's not going to happen soon enough for us to see any of the benefits compared to what we could get to at half the cost with rapid buses." Two other board members, Joseph Alfandre and Jean Cryor, said that they were also worried about the cost of the system and harm to the trail but that, in the end, they decided to vote for light rail.

The Montgomery County Council could vote on a Purple Line plan as soon as Jan. 27. O'Malley (D) will have the final say, but local officials' views are expected to carry significant weight.

Pam Browning, a Chevy Chase resident who has long opposed placing the rail line next to the trail, said a state environmental study did not address the effect on the trail, the trees or the communities along the trail.

The opponents, she said, "are not against transit. This should be in another location or underground. It's a quality-of-life issue."

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