Project Expected to Spur Development
By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 28, 2009; A01
The Montgomery County Council's approval yesterday of a light-rail system linking Montgomery and Prince George's counties is a milestone in the more than 20-year effort to move people more efficiently between the two suburbs and spur redevelopment of older neighborhoods, according to officials and transportation planners.
The 16-mile Purple Line would connect Bethesda and New Carrollton, and officials predicted that it would rejuvenate inner-ring suburbs that are beginning to show their post-World War II age. Some transportation experts say the east-west transit line could help transform struggling Maryland communities such as Langley Park and Riverdale Park in the same way that Metro helped bring offices, retail, restaurants and apartments to Northern Virginia's Rosslyn-Ballston corridor.
"It represents a case study for how suburban areas are going to remake themselves for the 21st century," said Robert Puentes, a transportation specialist and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "It's not just the old notion of moving people from point A to point B," Puentes said, "but about remaking those places."
Despite some skepticism from residents about the plan's price and chances of securing federal funding, Maryland transit officials say a Purple Line would give residents of job-starved areas in Prince George's a faster and more reliable alternative to the sluggish buses they now use to get to work in areas such as Bethesda, Rockville and Gaithersburg. The rail line also would run to the University of Maryland's College Park campus and link Maryland's Metro, MARC and Amtrak stations.
Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) is expected to submit a Purple Line project to the Federal Transit Administration for funding this spring, entering the state in a fierce competition for construction money. The light-rail project has been endorsed by the Montgomery council, Prince George's council and both counties' executives and is estimated to cost $1.2 billion to build. State officials have said they can't afford that without the federal government covering at least half.
Transit advocates are optimistic that President Obama's plans to spur the economy by investing in infrastructure will mean more money for such projects. But the demand for construction money will probably continue to far outpace supply, they said.
Webb Smedley, chairman of Purple Line NOW, said the project will compete well, especially if the Obama administration considers how it would limit sprawl and serve lower-income riders.
"It really stands for itself with its ridership, travel time savings and ability to link Metro stations," Smedley said.
The local debate over the Purple Line has centered on its route -- mainly whether it would run along a popular wooded walking and biking trail between Bethesda and Silver Spring and how it would thread through some Silver Spring neighborhoods.
The endorsed proposal would run light-rail trains, which are similar to streetcars and use overhead electrical wires, primarily aboveground and along local streets, except for the four-mile trail portion. Trains would have their own lanes and run beneath or over most major intersections. It is estimated that the line would average as many as 62,600 trips a day by 2030. If the project gets federal funding, construction could begin in 2012, officials said.
Michael D. Madden, manager of the state's Purple Line study, told the Montgomery council that "pretty much all" of the trees on the Georgetown Branch Trail between downtown Bethesda and Columbia Country Club's golf course would need to be cut down. However, he said, trees could be spared in trail areas with wider right of way, such as through the country club's golf course and east toward Silver Spring.
The council voted 5 to 3 to ask Maryland transit planners to study in more detail the possibility of using a single track along parts of the trail to spare more trees. Council member Don Praisner (D-Eastern County), who recently received a colon cancer diagnosis, was absent from the meeting. Madden said his team would reconsider a single track but said such systems generally make trains slower and less reliable.
Council member Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda), whose district encompasses the trail, said he thinks a rail line can coexist with it, particularly with heavy landscaping. Berliner said Montgomery bought the trail route in the 1980s to preserve as right of way for a rail line.
Still, he said, "anything we can do to minimize the impact on the trail, I think we have an obligation to do."
Geoff Gonella, a country club board member and executive director of the Alliance for Smart Transportation, which opposes the trail route, said the council's proposal is too expensive, would increase traffic around stations that draw development and would take relatively few cars off the road.
As for the trail, Gonella said, "I don't think anyone can reasonably look at this and think the trail is going to come back."
The council also asked the state to further analyze a tunnel option beneath downtown Silver Spring and some neighborhoods to the east. Madden said that idea would require more land on Wayne Avenue, which would disrupt nearby homes and Silver Spring International Middle School.
A Purple Line would be the first major east-west transit link to directly connect spokes of the Metro system, a trip that now must be made by car or a series of slow buses. As jobs have moved from cities to fast-growing suburbs over the past 20 years, planners say, the Washington area has joined Los Angeles, Chicago and other areas seeking ways to better move commuters who need to get from their suburban homes to their suburban jobs -- all as space to build roads has diminished.
"Our urban areas are expanding and encroaching on our suburbs," said Sarah Catz, director of the Center for Urban Infrastructure at the University of California at Irvine. Without room for new roads, Catz said: "What do you do? You have to start investing in transit."
Art Guzzetti, the American Public Transportation Association's vice president for policy, said transit systems such as a Purple Line would serve demographic trends. Those include a rise in one- and two-person households, which will increase demand for the kind of high-density housing that can be built around transit stops.
"I'm not saying the American love affair with the automobile is totally over," Guzzetti said, "but the newer generation of people don't seem to need it in the same way as the previous generation did."