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Purple Line Prose

This summer, I've taken two tours of the proposed route for a transitway across the Maryland suburbs. One was hosted by Maryland Transportation Secretary Robert Flanagan and the other by Montgomery Councilmember Steve Silverman, who is a candidate for county executive in the Democratic primary.

Flanagan wanted to show us how difficult it will be to build the Purple Line between New Carrollton and Bethesda. Silverman wanted to show us why we need it.

Attitude is an interesting thing. On the Washington region's big transportation projects, it often counts for a lot. I remember when the Springfield Interchange reconstruction and the Wilson Bridge project ran into various forms of financial trouble. There were times when I thought neither one would survive. The intercounty connector highway looked dead for years.

But it turns out that when politicians really believe something can and should be done, it gets done. The Rail to Dulles project. which faces some of the same cost and engineering issues as the Purple Line, is going to get done. It may have more obstacles ahead, but there's enough will in the right places to make it happen.

All the political pieces are not yet in place to make the Purple Line happen. Silverman was on the right track. Getting from east to west and back in the region's northern suburbs is a nightmare for travelers that has economic consequences for Maryland.

For Maryland candidates, the transitway should be this year's intercounty connector. See if you hear them making a firm promise to get it done, the way Gov. Robert Ehrlich pledged to get the highway done. Yes, the Purple Line is expensive and the engineering complicated. It's all expensive and complicated. When they really want something done, it gets done.

By Robert Thomson  |  August 9, 2006; 5:00 AM ET
Categories:  transit  
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The Action Committee for Transit has sent out a candidate questionnaire that asked these two questions about the Purple Line:

A) Do you support building the light rail Inner Purple Line from Bethesda to New Carrollton, with a hiker/biker trail running alongside it between Bethesda and Silver Spring?
B) For the Purple Line segment between Bethesda and Silver Spring, do you favor proceeding immediately with the design now under study that runs primarily at grade rather than further delaying the project to study more expensive underground options?

A chart summarizing the results (as well as a few other transit-related issues) is on-line at:
and will also be passed out at Metro stations in Montgomery County and door-to-door in some neighborhoods.

Posted by: Ben Ross | August 9, 2006 7:31 AM | Report abuse

These are the same issues as Dulles metro.. go under and risk not getting it done or go over and get it done. What I don't understand is this... who decided that going under was the "preferable" option anyway? Apparently people who have never visited ANY european city and seen the immense character that their light rail systems add. I say, go to amsterdam and experience that unique fun of trying to dodge 1 light rail, 4 cars, and 17 bikes all trying to share the same roadway and you tell me they should have built that underground. And I know it sounds sarcastic, but I'm dead serious - that's what makes those cities awesome! Visible above ground trains add tons of character. I love the way the light rail in baltimore looks running right up along side lexington market, whatever street that is.... THAT is character.

Posted by: PJB | August 9, 2006 9:52 AM | Report abuse

PJB - The Dulles Metro project is NOT light rail, but heavy rail (Red line, Orange line type vehicles) with the third rail. As such, it absolutely requires grade separation from the surface traffic (vehicular and pedestrian). That means underground, or on elevated track thirty or more feet above ground level. Imagine the Blue line elevated tracks at National Airport through Tysons - who would want to see that out their window? Ground level is a better view, but then you'd need to take the vehicular and pedestrian traffic above and/or below the rails.

On another note, have you ever stood on the platform of an elevated station (for example, East Falls Church, or National Airport) on a winter day with a heavy breeze? How about during heavy rain with lots of wind? Uncomfortable really doesn't express how a person can feel at such a station in those weather conditions.

As to the Baltimore light rail running on Howard Street past Lexington Market - If the traffic lights were changed to allow the trains to go through that area more smoothly and much quicker, the ridership of light rail would probably double. As is, it takes 20 minutes or more to go from Camden Station to Penn Station, a distance of a couple miles. MTA has stated it will install controls on the trains that will allow the operator to override the light controls to keep the light green for several seconds, or change them from red to green earlier than the light controls would make the change. That will help speed up the trains to some extent in that section of light rail, but still not completely eliminate the conditions that make that section so extremely slow.

Posted by: Mike in Baltimore | August 9, 2006 10:26 AM | Report abuse

Personally, I think rail to Dulles is going to be a waste of money, I doubt it'll ever reach the ridership levels they think it will.

The problem with transit surveys is everyone ALWAYS says "Sure, I want more transit options and would likely use mass transit." But when it actually happens, those people are nowhere to be found.

As for the Purple line, I have real doubts whether any of the ideas will work. So far everything sounds like they're trying to build heavy rail without really doing it.

And considering the ICC is far from a done deal in terms of lawsuits, I fully expect the Purple Line will face a even longer wait than the 30 years mark of the ICC.

Posted by: dgc | August 9, 2006 10:47 AM | Report abuse

I can't help thinking that if we had more professional jobs located in Prince George's County, we who live in Prince George's wouldn't have to spend so much time jamming the roads to get to Montgomery....

Posted by: Greenbelt Gal | August 9, 2006 11:29 AM | Report abuse

Has any one considered running the Dulles line into DC to the new National's Stadium?

It would run down the Orange line to Court House.
Follow the Blue line through Arlington Cemetery.
Cross the Potomac on the Yellow Line.
Connect to the Green Line at Waterfront.
It could then follow the Greeen Line across the Anacostia.

By providing an alternate route into DC in case of delays, it would increase passenger capacity of existing tracks, while not requiring any new stations.

Another option might be having the Dulles line turning south at the Stadium District before Navy Yard (Green Line) add a new station or two and then head across the Anacostia and down to National Harbor. This would require new tracks and stations but could open up a great deal of commecial development in SE DC.

Posted by: Christopher Kane | August 9, 2006 11:52 AM | Report abuse

Greenbelt Gal - I think PG is positioned perfectly for some big changes right now. Bringing in business requires $$, and PGs tax base is lower than surround areas. However, with rising housing costs in MoCo, I think PG is going to have stronger and stronger appeal. It's setup beautifully, with 3 metro lines running into it. Personally, the problem I found with PG, and probably the only reason I don't live there now, is the lack of walkable neighborhoods. When we moved down here, we drove to every single metro stop in maryland, looking for a walkable comunity where we could live, get our groceries, get to work, etc... without ever getting in the car. Silver Spring and Bethesda were pretty much the only 2 in MD we found! PG development seems to have mirrored NoVA in it's "come live here and drive to everything in your life! Drive to the metro station! Drive to the grocery store! drive to the movie theater!" attitude. The way I see it, people with similiar mindsets to myself first were priced out of DC - MoCo responded when they built up downtown silver spring. Now we are slowly but surely being priced out of MoCo, and I think PG has the perfect opportunity to step up to the plate. More residents bring tax dollars and lower crime, which brings business investment (back to your original point)... I'd love to see PG step up and create liveable, walkable neighborhoods.

Posted by: PJB | August 9, 2006 12:22 PM | Report abuse

Christopher Kane, the route you propose cannot currently be done because the trackage doesn't exist. The only way for a train to follow the route you suggest would be for it to stop at Rosslyn and then back out of that station and cross to the other track, do the same thing at the Pentagon, and then do the same again at L'Enfant Plaza. The reason is that there are no connections between the tracks going in the directions you mention (it's like a partial highway interchange--consider how the Dulles Access Road has ramps towards and from DC at I-66, but not in the other direction). The idea of reversing direction repeatedly is not attractive to WMATA because it would delay all the other trains.

The current plan is for the Dulles Line to end at Stadium-Armory using the Orange and Blue Line tracks from just east of West Falls Church all the way to RFK. The reason is that there is no other place for a train to terminate because there are no pocket tracks (that is, a third track in between the other two) anywhere prior to just east of Stadium-Armory.

If you want to see the layout of the Metro tracks, go here:

Posted by: Rich | August 9, 2006 12:37 PM | Report abuse

Kudos to Councilman Silverman for his campaign's heavy push of the Purple Line and for organizing the tour, and to Dr. G for taking the bus ride and trumpeting the project. East-West transit north of DC is miserable as everyone can see unless they have blinders on. It is a normal response, throughout the world, for such a situation to result in bus lines being upgraded to quiet, environmentally friendly LIGHT RAIL TRANSIT. This is even true in Houston and Dallas Texas!

It is only a bonus that this transit upgrade will be accompanied by the completion of the bicycle beltway as the Capital Crescent Trails join in downtown Silver Spring.

There is another positive about this project. Greenbelt Gal has it right - Prince George's needs to focus on building more pedestrian-oriented communities. College Park and New Carrollton can have great town centers with good design AND a good Light Rail Transit line. If these and other communities build on their tremendous assets, Prince George's will get the boost in their tax and job base that is needed to ensure an equitably balance of resources in this region.

As for Silver Spring, the Purple Line will ensure that the fantastic turnaround, for which Douglas Duncan deserves tremendous credit, is not lost in the traffic.

The Purple Line should not end with the 14 mile segment. On to Largo and Prince George's Community College! We must grow slowly, but we must grow smartly - limiting the distruction of forest and fields by sensitively revitalizing existing communities.

Posted by: BuilditNow | August 9, 2006 4:31 PM | Report abuse


The image at the URL you provided is quite difficult -- if not impossible -- to discern. Are there any better images available?

Posted by: Nat | August 9, 2006 4:39 PM | Report abuse

I am a candidate for the MD House of Delegates in District 16, and have made a "firm promise to get it done," as you say. The Purple Line is the top priority in my transportation plan. Further, I have signed the Pledge to build the project and cast the necessary votes if elected.

Regarding the Prince George's County comments, that is another benefit of the project. Finally, there will be world class transit options for residents in areas such as Langley Park.

The Dallas comparison is accurate. That city's light rail is what the street-level conceptual drawings brought to mind at the MTA's Purple Line meeting.

On the possibility of many years of delays, let's hope not. The existing right-of-way along the Georgetown Branch is legally sound. We have a lot of catching up to do here on transit, which is why this year's election is so vital. We need more elected officials who apply 2006 solutions, instead of 1966 solutions, to gridlock.

Posted by: Robert Dyer | August 9, 2006 5:21 PM | Report abuse

The proposed purple line will provide a benefit to people who won't use it at a monstrous cost. Plus, it will only carry people - not products and goods, like your organic fruits and veggies that still will stew in traffic. Seriously, if you can afford to live in Chevy Chase / Bethesda (I can't), you have enough money to buy whatever car you want and think that your own time is too valuable to take mass transit. Although it will help those people shuttle their maids and indentured servants from PG and Silver Spring easier...

Posted by: Turning purple | August 10, 2006 9:34 AM | Report abuse


Thanks for the schematic. I got a readable copy to fit onto a letter-size landscape view.

I know a tunnel from Court House (Orange Line) to Arlington Cemetery (Blue Line) would be necessary. Also connections from Arlington Cemetery (Blue Line) to Potomac Park (Yellow Line) and from Potomac Park (Yellow Line) to Waterfront (Green Line) would be needed. Wouldn't be simple but would be relatively inexpensive when considering the value added.

Posted by: Christopher Kane | August 10, 2006 2:50 PM | Report abuse

This is GREAT NEWS!! I'll be such a happy flier once the metro goes all the way to Dulles! They couldn't complete this project quick enough, in my opinion.

Greenbelt Gal's ideas here about extending the metro farther into SE DC is a great one. The terrible violent crime in that's so prevalent in that area might be reduced if people could get to work more easily! And I agree with Robert Dyer's idea above that it's important to provide this great transportation option to people who need it, not to the people who shun public transport in favor of cars. We should focus on building more metros in DCs walkable neighborhoods.

I also believe that WMATA should stop charging more for longer rides on metro. This practice discourages people from using public transport for their commutes from the suburbs. It would make a lot more sense for every ride to cost $1.35, and I'm sure that the increased ridership would make up for any drop in revenue that might prevent this move.

Posted by: ellocin1 | August 11, 2006 1:07 PM | Report abuse

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