By Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 15, 2009; 3:47 PM
The Montgomery County planning board today endorsed a light rail system for the proposed Purple Line, choosing it over a rapid bus system for the suburb-to-suburb transit link.
In its 4 to 1 vote, the panel also backed a route along a popular walking and biking trail that traverses Chevy Chase and a country club before it crosses into Silver Spring and Prince George's County.
The planning board is the county's first public agency to officially take a position on the system. Its recommendation is expected to be ratified later this month by the County Council after more than 20 years of debate on the proposed 16-mile rail line. The Prince George's County Council previously endorsed light rail.
The proposal ultimately will land on the desk of Gov. Martin O'Malley (D), who will have to decide whether to pitch light rail or a rapid bus system to the federal government as he seeks transportation dollars.
Montgomery planning board members said they chose the more expensive option--light rail could cost about three times the price of a rapid bus system--because over the long term, it will be a quieter system capable of carrying more passengers and would create less pollution than buses.
"I have been a skeptic of light rail, but in dense areas, I think rail has a lot of advantages," said Royce Hanson, planning board chairman.
The board also backed a staff proposal that would keep light rail at street level in Silver Spring, despite community concerns that it could clog traffic and disrupt nearby residential neighborhoods.
Jonathan Jay, an attorney and neighborhood activist from Silver Spring, said many residents prefer putting the system underground. "The discussion has completely ignored...the impact on traffic. 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."
The vote came after almost five hours of debate during which the planning board hashed out the competing benefits and disadvantages of light rail and rapid buses. Board members also worried that placing the system near the popular Georgetown Branch Trail, a segment of the Capital Crescent Trail, could harm the environment and interfere with well-established residential neighborhoods in Chevy Chase and Bethesda.
The cost to build a rapid bus system is estimated at between $386 million and $1 billion; a light-rail line would cost $1.2 billion to $1.6 billion. Still unknown is how the federal, state and county governments would split the tab.
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 while light rail would attract as many as 68,100. A light-rail line's capacity also could be increased more easily than a busway's, supporters say.
Rapid bus advocates say that those systems often resemble trams and light rail cars, and can be more nimble than light rail because routes can be more easily redesigned to accommodate population shifts. Some bus proponents also have suggested that a better route would use rapid buses along Jones Bridge Road in Bethesda, closer to the National Naval Medical Center and the National Institutes of Health, and avoid the Georgetown Branch trail.
Prince George's officials have long sought a light rail system, saying it would help bring new development to that county's side of the route and improve access to jobs and shopping, while lessening commute time. The current public transportation options linking the two counties involve either long bus rides on an east-west axis or Metrorail trips that force riders to travel south into the District and north into either Prince George's or Montgomery County--trips that can take at least an hour.
Last week, the Montgomery planning board heard three hours of often-heated testimony from residents of several nearby communities, as well as from political and business leaders.
A planning staff report of more than 100 pages urged the board to endorse light rail over rapid buses, and recommended a route paralleling the popular walker-biker trail. The Prince George's planning department did not do a similarly detailed analysis of the merits of light rail and rapid buses.
Rapid bus advocates say that a decision to push for light rail actually could doom the project's chances of being built any time soon, because of its price tag. Amy Presley, the lone dissenter in today's vote, said she favors light rail but is doubtful it will be built quickly enough.
"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," she said.
Two other board members, Joseph Alfandre and Jean Cryor, said they were also worried about the cost of the system and harm to the trail, but in the end decided to vote for light rail.
The Montgomery County Council could vote on a Purple Line plan as soon as Jan. 27; on Thursday, a council transportation committee will review the planning board's recommendation. 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 opponents flooded the planning board with more than 1,000 emails and 17,000 signatures on petitions.
"They are saying 'don't put the Purple Line along the trail'," she said. "This is irreplaceable green space. This is too precious."
The opponents, she said, "are not against transit. This should be in another location or underground. It's a quality of life issue."