Going Purple Now, For a Greener Future
Sunday, June 29, 2008; B08
With the Senate's debate this month on climate change, the federal government at long last has started to grapple with a response to global warming.
A related debate about energy use, environmental protection and intelligent trade-offs is unfolding now in Maryland as the state develops options for its proposal to build the Purple Line [editorial, May 31].
Today, we can travel from suburb to downtown Washington using Metro, but travel within the suburbs typically requires getting in a car and polluting the air. A light-rail Purple Line would give us an important new option. It would run from Bethesda to New Carrollton and help people travel to jobs, schools and entertainment. Riders would take more than 65,000 trips each workday [Metro, May 30]. Some would be first-time transit-users; others would use the line to travel faster and more reliably than they can on buses.
Sound like a no-brainer? Not so fast.
The challenge for the Purple Line is to provide the benefits we need -- better transportation, cleaner air, less traffic -- while accommodating legitimate neighborhood concerns.
This can be tricky. New transit systems need to operate where there are people -- namely, in existing neighborhoods. Those living closest to the new transit will benefit from easy access to rapid transit and fewer cars on the roads. Some worry, however, that their neighborhoods may be asked to bear an unfair burden, pointing to concerns about traffic and pedestrian safety. But these problems are already growing exponentially as more cars clog our streets. In fact, the only way to address such problems and protect our quality of life is better mass transit.
In Chevy Chase, the Columbia Country Club straddles the defunct rail bed that is the logical Purple Line route. The rail bed has long been designated for use as a hiker-biker trail and a transit way, and there is space for both with attractive landscaping. But the club has free use of much of this public land, and in March, it took the extraordinary step of dipping into its reserves to fund Purple Line opponents. The club and local residents want the Purple Line in someone else's back yard.
In College Park, University of Maryland students strongly support the Purple Line. Administrators also support the project, but they have asked the state to shift the line away from the center of campus. This would repeat an earlier mistake when College Park's Metro station was constructed far from campus, discouraging transit use.
Near my home in Silver Spring, the Purple Line would probably travel on surface streets, because an underground route -- which many favor -- would be prohibitively expensive. Tunnels cost on the order of $150 million to $200 million per mile. Today's budgets simply won't allow that luxury. But a well-designed street-level route could give my neighborhood a cleaner, greener, renovated streetscape, with fewer cars on the road.
New public transportation is hard -- but essential. State and local political leaders need to stay focused on creating systems that serve us where we live, work, study and play. Planners must reject special pleading but heed valid community input, addressing local problems and even offering new amenities to reinforce local support.
Change can be uncomfortable. But smart mass transit offers the only prospect to enhance our communities and reduce our impact on our globe. If we do not find ways to build the Purple Line, then a decade from now we will still be sitting in cars wondering what to do about our traffic and our warming climate.
-- Jonathan Elkind
The writer is a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and founder of Silver Spring Advocates, a grass-roots pro-transit organization.
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