The change in administration in Annapolis has flipped the fortunes of two projects designed to help people travel across suburban Maryland: A long-languishing plan to build an east-west highway through Montgomery County suddenly has new life, while a planned Metro line connecting the inner suburbs now is in jeopardy.
Support for the intercounty connector from Republican Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and the election of a pro-connector Montgomery County Council have revived a road project debated for the past 40 years. County and state officials are trading guesses on when it actually could get built.
"You have the governor, the legislature, the Montgomery County Council and the executive all supporting this," said Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D), who has championed the connector for years. "I don't know if we've ever had that. I think there's a real possibility this is going to move forward and get done."
Meanwhile, people who were expecting a light rail line connecting the older suburbs of Bethesda, Silver Spring, College Park and New Carrollton -- the project that outgoing Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) called the top transit priority for the region -- are getting a governor who does not support that plan and instead wants to study a subway line much farther north, outside the Capital Beltway.
"It's going to make it a real uphill challenge," said Steven A. Silverman (D-At Large), president of the Montgomery County Council and a supporter of the light rail plan known as the inner Purple Line. "It doesn't mean we throw in the towel. But it becomes much tougher."
The Intercounty Connector While state officials are concerned about a growing shortfall in Maryland's budget, Ehrlich made restarting a required environmental study of the intercounty connector part of his appeal to traffic-weary voters. Supporters say they hope a Republican governor can persuade a Republican White House to accelerate the federal study.
Glendening, who once supported the highway, halted the study in 1999 after the Environmental Protection Agency said the long-preferred route would harm too much parkland and too many wetlands and watersheds to win federal approval.
Another study could take two to five years, depending on whether the federal government allows the state to update the previous one or requires it to start over. Ehrlich and Duncan have asked the U.S. Department of Transportation to put the environmental review on a fast track.
"If it's possible, we hope to restart the former study," said Paul E. Schurick, Ehrlich's spokesman. "Bob has made it clear that whatever it takes to fast-track the approval of the project needs to be done."
The 18-mile highway would run about four miles north of the Beltway, beginning just north of Rockville and running east to Laurel. The cost is currently estimated at about $1.3 billion. Maryland has spent $53 million studying the proposal and buying land for it, said David Buck, a spokesman for the State Highway Administration.
The connector has been one of the most controversial transportation proposals in Montgomery for decades. Supporters say the state needs to connect Interstates 270 and 95 to lessen east-west congestion on local roads. Opponents say the environmental harm would far outweigh any traffic benefits.
Even if the state finds a route that wins federal approval, supporters acknowledge that problems with money and potential lawsuits loom. As the last election showed, the people in power change -- and that counts.
"The ultimate decision point on the ICC -- whether it's authorized by the federal government and whether there is money for it -- unfortunately may not be in the next four years," said Silverman, a supporter of the connector.
Opponents say they are not worried about Ehrlich or the Montgomery council's new pro-connector majority because they do not believe it will ever clear federal environmental hurdles.
"You can change the council, but you can't change the facts," said Montgomery council member Philip Andrews (D-Rockville), an opponent of the connector. "The facts are the ICC would do tremendous environmental damage for a relatively small benefit in congestion relief and at enormous cost."
The Purple Line Under Glendening, the state has spent $18 million on an environmental impact study of the first phase and most controversial section of the inner Purple Line, a double-tracked trolley that would run 4.4 miles between Silver Spring and Bethesda.
The state had planned to seek federal approval early next year and begin lobbying for federal construction funds. Maryland has given an additional $10 million to Metro to begin environmental studies for the second phase of the project, which would run 10 miles between Silver Spring and New Carrollton.
The inner Purple Line is designed as an east-west transit system that would move passengers at surface level between Prince George's and Montgomery. It would provide transit connections to Metro's Red Line in Silver Spring, its Green Line in College Park and its Orange Line in New Carrollton.
While a majority of the Montgomery County Council as well as the state and congressional delegations support the $1.4 billion light rail inner Purple Line, Duncan opposes it. Instead, he wants to build a $5.6 billion underground rail line that would go from New Carrollton to College Park and Langley Park before heading north of the Beltway to serve White Oak, Wheaton, Grosvenor and Rock Spring Park and then turning south again to the American Legion Bridge and over the river to Tysons Corner. His alignment would skip over Chevy Chase and Bethesda.
On Friday, Schurick said the governor-elect is still learning the details but "does not support" an inner Purple Line because of "the impact it would have through the Chevy Chase neighborhood. It seems to have a greater impact on a developed, mature community, on things like property and noise."
Schurick said an inner Purple Line also would not remove as many cars from the Beltway as Duncan's outside-the-Beltway alignment.
The inner Purple Line would run through some of Montgomery's wealthiest neighborhoods, bisecting fairways at the Columbia Country Club near the Bethesda Metro station. A group of Bethesda and Chevy Chase landowners have hired lobbyists and worked to stall the project for more than a decade.
"We're very excited by this election," said Bo Jacobson, a Chevy Chase resident and member of Save the Trail, a group opposed to the inner Purple Line. "A trolley is a 19th-century technology that will not solve the traffic problems in Montgomery County."
Glendening had argued that the inner Purple Line was valuable because it would give the Latino and low-income residents of Silver Spring a reliable transit link to jobs in Bethesda. Many of those residents are without cars and must ride unpredictable buses in heavy traffic to reach jobs in the restaurants and hotels of bustling Bethesda.
Ehrlich's spokesman said providing poor residents with fast transit should not be the top reason for building a light rail line. "I question whether or not a public works project on this scale should be a social justice project," Schurick said. "It has to be rooted first in economics, not social justice."
Ben Ross of the Action Committee for Transit, an advocacy group backing the inner Purple Line, said Ehrlich's choice of alignment will demonstrate whether he is committed to cost-effective transportation that can be built within a decade. "What he does will say something about his character, about whether he really wants to get out there and solve the problem," he said.
Ross and other backers of the inner Purple Line are hoping that Ehrlich will be swayed to their side by cost and timing.
At roughly four times the price of an inner Purple Line, Duncan's outer Purple Line is so expensive that Glenn Orlin, who analyzes transportation projects for the County Council, has dismissed it as "a fantasy."
State officials say the cost per rider is so great, it is doubtful the Federal Transit Administration would approve the project. "We selected the inner alignment because it's cost-effective," said Andrew J. Scott of the Maryland Transit Administration.
Congress is set to reauthorize the nation's transportation funding plan next year, which means that states are readying project proposals and will be jockeying for federal dollars in earnest next spring.
If Maryland does not submit the inner Purple Line for funding on Capitol Hill in 2003, it will be at least five years before the next opportunity arises.
If Ehrlich allows the inner Purple Line to proceed and it wins federal funding, construction of the Silver Spring-Bethesda phase would start in 2005 with service to begin in 2008, project officials said. Service on the Silver Spring-New Carrollton leg would begin in 2012.