All Aboard

After 30 years of planning and years of political bickering, the Purple Line is finally scheduled to break ground. The cost has ballooned and the argument for building it has morphed from relieving traffic to fostering community and economic development.



Rendering courtesy of Lukmire Partnership

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It first emerged nearly three decades ago as the “Georgetown Branch Trolley,” a proposed streetcar running on a single track between Bethesda and Silver Spring, utilizing a portion of an abandoned railroad line—the so-called Georgetown Branch—over which freight trains hauled coal and building materials beginning in the late 1800s.

“When it was just a Montgomery County project, it could have been a Toonerville Trolley, a very modest little thing that just went back and forth all day long,” says County Councilmember Nancy Floreen, a member of the county planning board when the use of the old railroad right-of-way was first being considered. “It did turn into a bigger bread box than had initially been assumed.”

Indeed, the original 4-mile trolley route has since been incorporated into a 16-mile light-rail project—dubbed the Purple Line midway through its evolution—that would encompass 21 station stops across two counties. Extending from Bethesda east to New Carrollton in Prince George’s County, the project would connect communities of diverse ethnicity and varying incomes by rail. Purple Line trains would make 280 runs per day—140 in each direction—at an average speed of just under 19 mph, reaching 45 mph on some portions of the Georgetown Branch right-of-way.

The debate over creating an east-west transit line in the lower portion of Montgomery County has been the local equivalent of the Thirty Years War, fought at times with such acrimony that one state official formerly involved in the project likened the warring activists to “two scorpions constantly trying to sting one another.” But today, many of the county’s elected officials who once questioned the project have become supporters, or have at least lowered their profiles on the issue.

Some say publicly that they have become convinced there are significant upsides to what is now a two-county venture, citing in particular the advantages of a transit link tying Montgomery County more closely to the University of Maryland’s main campus.

Others privately acknowledge that the Purple Line is all but certainly headed toward brick-and-mortar reality, and are reluctant to get in the way of what soon could be a moving train.

The latest official estimates peg the price tag of this ambitious undertaking at nearly $2.45 billion (about $150 million per mile), underwritten by a mix of federal, state, county and private financing. These figures are up from estimates of $1.52 billion in 2009 and $1.2 billion in late 2001, when then-Gov. Parris Glendening embraced a similar light-rail route—which he hoped, at the time, would be up and running by 2012.

Officials at the Maryland Transit Administration say that the 2009 estimate was stated in current year dollars while the 2014 figures are in so-called “year of expenditure” dollars, and contend that a direct comparison of the two unfairly inflates the true cost increase over the past five years. Still, no one argues that the cost continues to balloon, and officials openly acknowledge that delays in the schedule—they aim to have construction underway by the middle of 2015, with the line to begin operating in late 2020—could add to the price tag.

“I am troubled by many of my colleagues who are willing to say that they are absolute supporters of building this project without a complete understanding of what the total costs are going to be,” says state Sen. Richard Madaleno, a longtime Purple Line critic who says he remains a “skeptic” of the project. “Is it so important that, no matter what the cost, it has to be done?”

Madaleno’s district includes the affluent Town of Chevy Chase (population about 2,800), where officials are among the few remaining public voices of opposition. Their resolve has been fueled by a determination to keep the light-rail project off the stretch of the Georgetown Branch that skirts the town. (Another well-heeled foe, the Columbia Country Club in Chevy Chase, dropped its longtime opposition last year, after state and county officials agreed to a Purple Line route adjustment that spared several holes on the club’s golf course.)

“It’s not just a trail—it’s a linear park,” Town of Chevy Chase Vice Mayor Pat Burda declares as she walks along the Capital Crescent Trail on a late summer day. As of this writing, her town had spent in the neighborhood of $650,000 in legal and consulting fees to challenge the route as now proposed, and it was poised to spend more. Though plans call for the trail to share the right-of-way with light-rail, Burda says the town is concerned the space allotted for the trail will reduce it to “a high-speed bikeway.”    

But the battle over the trail—amid Endangered Species Act-related lawsuits from one side and jabs about “NIMBYs” from the other—has tended to obscure a broader discussion about what the Purple Line hopes to accomplish—and whether it could be done for less money.

When first proposed as the modest “trolley” connecting Bethesda and Silver Spring, a major selling point was to relieve traffic on the increasingly clogged streets of downtown Bethesda. Three decades later, however, if there is a point of consensus among advocates and opponents of the project, it is that the Purple Line is unlikely to take a significant number of cars off the roads.

Today, the discussion has shifted from relief of traffic congestion to community and economic development, with leading advocates regularly employing adjectives such as “transformative” and “game-changing” to describe its potential.
It’s easy to understand why Prince George’s County, long regarded as the dowdy sister of the Washington metropolitan area, embraces that argument. County Executive Rushern Baker is banking on the Purple Line to attract development, boosting its tax revenues as well as its image.

But while officials in Montgomery County do see some development opportunities—particularly in lower-income areas east of Silver Spring—their attitude is less bullish. “I don’t think anyone ever expected this to be a support system for a lot of major redevelopment,” Floreen says. Still, like several other local public officials who started out as opponents of the project—including the last two county executives, incumbent Ike Leggett and his predecessor, Douglas Duncan—Floreen now counts herself among the supporters.

“I think that the major upside is that it connects communities,” she says of the project, citing what she calls “a new recognition” that the Purple Line corridor is part of an increasingly urban area. “You can’t dispute it,” she says, “as much as some of the folks in Chevy Chase would like to disagree.”

From her 13th floor office on Connecticut Avenue, Miti Figueredo can see the site of the future Chevy Chase Lake stop on the Purple Line. It will be the first station east of downtown Bethesda. Figueredo is vice president for public affairs at the Chevy Chase Land Co., the Montgomery County developer that arguably has the most to gain from the development of the Purple Line.

Her company, which owns land on both sides of Connecticut Avenue north of East West Highway, intends to convert an aging strip mall—now home to the Chevy Chase Supermarket and several other shops—into a mixed-use development with about 600 units of multifamily housing, including a 120-foot high-rise apartment building. Figueredo says the firm plans to move ahead with the construction with or without the Purple Line, but admits, “Of course, we think the Purple Line will enhance the value of the project.”

A second phase of the project, contingent on Purple Line construction being underway, would involve redeveloping another shopping center immediately on the other side of Connecticut Avenue into apartments or condos atop street-level retail.   
She says Chevy Chase Land Co. envisions its development primarily as neighborhood-serving retail. “This isn’t Bethesda or Silver Spring—it isn’t intended to be,” Figueredo says. “The goal is to provide more amenities for residents who live here, and more opportunity for new residents to live at this location, hopefully near a future transit stop.” Figueredo adds: “This isn’t intended to be commuter rail.”

Gerrit-Jan Knaap, executive director of the University of Maryland’s National Center for Smart Growth, says that idea—that the Purple Line is as much a community development investment as a transportation one—can be hard for people to grasp.

He says many people think of the Silver Line, the newest part of the Metro system that opened in July in the Tysons Corner area of Northern Virginia, and the Purple Line as cohort projects. “But they’re really not,” he says. “The Silver Line is about getting people out to the airport and back, and getting people from Virginia to jobs in D.C.” The Purple Line, on the other hand, will run suburb to suburb, and will largely operate at street level. “As a result,” Knaap says, “its ability to stitch communities together in a significant way is really quite different.”    

The project’s final environmental impact statement, issued a year ago, supports the notion that the Purple Line isn’t necessarily about getting people to and from work faster. It found that a trip from New Carrollton to Bethesda by Metro via downtown D.C., takes 55 minutes. By comparison, it would take longer—63 minutes—to travel the length of the Purple Line.

The same report, however, shows an advantage in traveling from stop to stop along the Purple Line’s east-west corridor where alternatives to cars and conventional buses do not currently exist. For example, travel from Bethesda to Silver Spring would take nine minutes via light-rail, about half of the 17 minutes now required to cover that route by bus. Car travel between the two downtowns now takes 15 to 24 minutes at peak travel times, and is getting longer, according to the report.

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