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Green Vs. Purple Line--Flared Tempers Over Train Vs. Trail

Pam Browning and Ben Ross have spent decades fighting to get the Purple Line built the right way. Both live where they do, in Chevy Chase and downtown Bethesda, respectively, because they love the convenience of an urban center in a suburban location. Both cherish the Capital Crescent Trail, the former railroad bed that has been transformed into a linear park, a busy pathway for mothers with strollers, exercisers out for a constitutional and bicycle commuters.

But that trail between Silver Spring and Bethesda exists because the government bought the right-of-way from the B&O Railroad in 1988 to build an east-west transit line connecting Prince George's and Montgomery counties. And that plan is where Browning and Ross's paths diverge.

Browning is appalled that Maryland would build a light rail line atop her beloved trail (the passageway is so narrow that at one point, in a tunnel in downtown Bethesda, the pedestrian trail would literally run on a deck above the railway). "Twenty years ago, no one could have foreseen how incredibly popular the trail would become," Browning says. "In the long run, no one will regret saving this trail," just as no one regrets the effort that went into saving the C&O Canal towpath in Georgetown.

She wants the Purple Line to be built either along the Beltway or as a subway beneath the more densely developed urban centers -- or she'd have the state scratch the light rail concept and build an express bus route instead, slicing through Bethesda along Jones Bridge Road rather than through the heart of the downtown.

"The trail is an excuse," says Ross, who can see the path from his apartment in downtown Bethesda. Ross, who doesn't own a car and commutes to downtown Washington on Metro, rides his bike on the trail every weekend and loves its peaceful setting. Still, he believes using the route for transit is simply more important.

The pro-trail advocates' "real objective is to stop light rail," he says. "They want the trail to be a private park for people who live nearby, rather than a transportation facility."

To many outsiders, the clash over the trail looks like a civil war within the left -- with hard-core greens pushing to save the quiet, the tree canopy and the carbon-neutral transportation model of the existing trail, and hard-core smart-growthers eager to pull commuters out of their cars and onto rail cars that zip past traffic lights and road congestion.

A squabble over routes has escalated into angry accusations of elitism, racism and NIMBYism.

"It's an orchestrated campaign," Browning says. The pro-rail side portrays the pro-trail advocates as rich, white, car-addicted suburbanites who want to save their country club from encroachment by public transit, keep less affluent people out of their communities and slam the brakes on growth.

Penina Maya, an East Bethesda resident who works closely with Browning on the movement to save the trail, says: "There's been an unfair effort by proponents to promote this very ugly stereotype of elitist, racist, pretentious people who don't care about less affluent people. The truth is we all want some compromise where we can all enjoy this beautiful park and have excellent transit."

Ross agrees it's overly simplistic to paint the pro-trail crowd as a bunch of elitists, but he insists trail supporters are masking their real intent, which he says is to keep a new transit line out of downtown Bethesda to prevent the development that would follow.

"This is a NIMBY (not in my backyard) movement masquerading as an environmental cause," he says. "Downtown Bethesda is such a popular destination that people who don't want it to grow won't say that flat out. So they talk about the trail, but they're really against urban development, and they're usually the most auto-dependent people in the community."

Browning and other trail advocates protest that they don't have their heads in the sand about growth. They say they like Bethesda's busy collection of retail, housing and entertainment. But they argue that the more densely developed such suburban centers become, the more desperately residents and visitors will need green space as a respite.

"More density and growth are inevitable," Browning says. "They're going to turn this into a city. That's why it defies common sense to get rid of the one piece of green we have. I've seen a fox on the trail. The hawks are out now. The trail is loved because it is safe, green and provides solace."

What makes the Purple Line decision -- which the Montgomery County Council must make next month and which Gov. Martin O'Malley faces soon thereafter -- so difficult is that both sides are right: The trail is unique, precious and popular. The need for transit is palpable and using the trail's route makes the most sense.

The greater good lies in sharing the trail between transit and pedestrians. The greater joy lies in leaving the trail as an oasis of green. The alternative routes, by skirting major population and work centers, simply don't provide as great a service. There is no good answer; the least-bad solution is to build the light rail line along the trail route, creating as much buffer space as possible between pedestrians and trains and hoping that over time, the green and the Purple will survive a marriage of convenience.

By Marc Fisher |  December 28, 2008; 8:52 AM ET
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Whatever it's original purpose, the CCT has become a precious resource for walking and biking. Allowing the Purple Line to destroy the fundamental character of the trail would be a travesty.

Posted by: Shimmer | December 28, 2008 10:58 AM

And spending billions in tax payer dollars for a transit system that does not service major population centers is ridiculous.

If you want green, overpriced, and inaccessible, move to Georgetown. That community did a nice job of boxing itself out of mass transit and is still paying the price. MoCo needs to be more forward thinking. Even if it means one community has to deal with it in their back yard.

Posted by: TheGJ | December 28, 2008 11:15 AM

Fisher is right. Government simply cannot afford to ignore the benefits that light-rail would provide for the greater good. The inevitable compromise is going to be shared use of the trail. The best thing to do now is for those who make planning decisions to do everything they can within the bounds of rationality to insure that the trail remains safe, viable and enjoyable for walkers and bike riders within a dual-use concept. To the extent that Columbia Country Club, via its golf membership or directly, is supporting efforts to ban light-rail, members ought to ask themselves whether such support may just might be counter-productive in the long run. If one believes that this project is going to happen (and it makes too much sense not to happen), then CCC members ought to think about the best way to contribute to the process. Such a positive contribution may pay off when track, siding, and potential noise reduction decisions are considered and implemented.

Posted by: jwerthan | December 28, 2008 11:40 AM

If this were the Netherlands then no question, the proposed light rail would become an improved bike/pedestrian path and it would be used successfully by its citizens that are used to commuting by bicycle. Your "least bad" solution - that it needs to be built with buffer space for trail advocates is the evidence of our ignorance. What is needed is better urban planning from the git-go .. and a change in mindset of our citizens (probably the hardest part). We're just too used to getting our out-of-shape selves carted around because that is what we are used to. Many don't realize that a convenient bike route to work is faster, healthier, cheaper and more rewarding then the alternative. It's a true win-win solution that I wish would be seriously considered.

Posted by: boblas | December 28, 2008 11:42 AM

I can't believe that with all the intelligent people (on both sides of this issue) that we can't find a way to make this work for the benefit of the largest number of people. I still think there are alot of misconceptions about what this light rail line would look like. The engineering involved in these new light rail lines is such that cars make no noise as they pass on precision tracks. The trail can be preserved - not in its current "pristine" right of way but one that can be accomodated to pass through the CCC and adjacent neighborhoods with minimum bother. Yes, many trees will be sacrificed but trees are renewable resource they can be replanted and they grow back!

Posted by: sbg1 | December 28, 2008 12:02 PM

I agree with boblas... the trail can be left as is and still work as a transit route, albeit a self-powered one. What is wrong with using one's own two feet to get to work?

Posted by: bikinibottom | December 28, 2008 12:24 PM

First of all, this is 2009 and biking or walking to work is not a valid option. Only the idiots advocate this approach. Rain, snow different work schedules and crime make the trail only semi useable for commuting. People like Browning try to use this excuse as a cover for their own self serving purposes. We need reliable, cheap mass transit or we need to double the roadways to handle the traffic flow in the metro area. Doubling the roadways would have a greater impact on the area and the ecosystem than building mass transit systems like the purple line. The ironic thing here is, people like Browning (save the planet) in their ignorance actually cause more harm than good. Bike trails are nice but they are not necessary. Mass transit is and there for the purple line should be built regardless of the trail. The land was purchased for that specific reason.

Posted by: askgees | December 28, 2008 12:49 PM

"Allowing the Purple Line to destroy the fundamental character of the trail would be a travesty."

OK. So use the trail for both rail and hikers in a way that does not destroy anything. it is wide enough and rail can be designed to have a narrow path. Look at Metro. it can be done right. Only the propagandist on both extremes think otherwise.

Posted by: gary4books | December 28, 2008 1:16 PM

I know a Purple Line has been discussed for many years.

I'm not sure how much of a study been done on this but; how many people travel back and forth between Bethesda and Chevy Chase on a weekday basis for jobs and a weekend basis for whatever?

If that number is considerable, think of the relief of human traffic that could occur on the Red Line going into DC for their jobs there.

How many people waste over an hour every day either driving 495 that pinches into 2 lanes in certain areas, along with those that take the Red Line all the way into DC, just to return back into Maryland for a job in Chevy Chase.

Certainly is a waste of time that could be better spent with family and relaxation. You know; quality of life.

I know what the argument is though. Move closer to where you work, right? However with most people sometimes changing jobs ever 5 or 6 years; how economical would that be?

Please, be realistic about this! What do the studies show? Can’t it be used as a dual purpose?

Posted by: helloisanyoneoutthere | December 28, 2008 1:42 PM

Both sides are thinking too small. What is needed is both new subway lines AND streetcars, that is, passenger railways that run in the middle of streets. Like the street railways that used to exist in Washington, DC in the 1950's.

A streetcar line should be built on East- West Highway and others along Georgia Avenue, Wisconsin Avenue and Connecticut Avenue to connect the town centers and the District. Auto traffic should be restricted to one lane each direction on these streets or eliminated altogether.

Eventually, the financial collapse and Peak Oil will put auto use into the trash hopper. If any private automobiles or trucks are on the streets in ten years it will be a surprise. Putting transit alternatives into service need to be started now. People will bike, walk and use transit to go to work, so trails for bike and walk use are also necessary.

The sacrifice of user space for transit must be taken from auto infrastructure, not from parkland. The streets are for streetcars and that's where they should be.

Posted by: stev2008 | December 28, 2008 1:52 PM

Just goes to show that developing every quarter acre to maximize profit means there will not be popular amenities like the Capital Crescent trail has become. Oh, well. One alternative would be to tunnel the light rail. Take the money from the TARP gift from Congress. Or the up and coming stimulus package. Or whack those who got rich selling collateralized debt obligations with high taxes.

Posted by: BlueTwo1 | December 28, 2008 1:59 PM

Let's face it: bicycle commuting in the Washington area will never be widely adopted. The terrain and the weather mitigate against it...I finally gave up after a couple of years of being soaked to the skin by a spring cloudburst or oppressed by 95 degree heat with 95% humidity. We don't live in the Netherlands, which is flat and has a moderate climate.

The Capitol Crescent Trail (CCT) is almost exclusively a recreational facility, largely because it is relatively flat (an artifact of it being a former rail bed) and tree shaded. It is not a commuting route quite simply because it doesn't connect to anything (yet).

Why the CCT part of the Purple Line route has become the focus of the controversy is a mystery to me. Aside from residents' concerns about noise, the real issue seems to be that routing the rail line along existing streets through PG County and East Silver Spring will subject it to all the same delays as automobile and bus traffic, thus eliminating any advantage to woo drivers from their cars.

Posted by: jblatt | December 28, 2008 1:59 PM

Supporters of the Jones Bridge Road bus route claim it will benefit the many employees of the NIH and National Naval Medical Center. That's fine for them, but for everyone else it's a bus to nowhere.

Posted by: Greenbean11 | December 28, 2008 2:38 PM

I support the broad premise that the need for better mass transit is dire and significant enough to justify losing some park areas and green space as a cost. But i don't understand why this particular connection is an important gap in our transit system.

Could someone share any needs assessment information on connecting Silver Spring with Bethesda? Maybe I'm missing something, but I just don't see a sizable commuter demand for the route. Personally, I'd rather see an extension of the existing spokes deeper into rapidly developing suburbia (e.g. pushing the red line out further than Shady Gove). And, if I was looking to connect the spokes, I'd first consider a direct connection between Bethesda and Arlington (or thereabouts on either side).

Posted by: jwind | December 28, 2008 3:07 PM

askjeeves, your statement that only idiots would advocate a biking approach underlines a point in my post - that probably the hardest part of making commuting by bike more practical is a change in the mindset of people. I must say I don't feel like an idiot because I have a very consistent 35 minute bike commute (faster then driving) and I've lost about 25 lbs since consistently doing so. Not to mention the reduction of stress associated with the exercise (and not dealing with traffic). I do confess, it is all about me (although I don't poo poo any small environmental impact it might make) it also saves me about ten to thirty bucks a week. Whether it is improving roadways or adding public transport, they are all very, very expensive and logistically challenging solutions that in themselves create other problems. A bikeway is so cheap in comparison and so potentially beneficial to so many - yet not even in consideration.

Another poster jblatt mentioned that the CCT has not taken off as a commuter route, I disagree, I find the trail traffic during commuting hours palpable and growing particularly in the past year. But you have a point in a sense that it could be more widely adopted. I can't tell you how many people I've talked to that could benefit but choose not to for some reason. I does boil down to the fact that it takes effort and planning to do so. Oh, and I find when it rains I put something on - it's called rain gear. I do still get wet, it's unfortunate, but when I arrive at my destination, I dry off and change clothes. I'm fortunate that I have a practical route and employer that is flexible. Not all have that, but certainly more could and should.

Posted by: boblas | December 28, 2008 3:33 PM

We the popularity of big freight moving back to train, it makes no sense for light rail when heavy freight rail is needed. The land should rightfully be reverted back to the railroad lines so we can free up long-haul truckers from the crowded arteries of the DC area. We all knew that was going to come. If you want greenspace, instead of revitalizing brownfields, turn them into greenspaces; but there is simply no economic alternative for the requirements of a "thru" transit line, be it light, heavy, or motor vehicle, those old trails must be used rather than bulldozing billions and billions of dollars of already capitalized property.

Posted by: kl3cb | December 28, 2008 7:14 PM

Shimmer said: "Allowing the Purple Line to destroy the fundamental character of the trail would be a travesty."

The "fundamental character" of the space occupied by the trail is no trail at all. The trail was originally built as a rail line for freight and passenger transportation, thus that would be the trail's fundamental character. The Purple Line would therefore use the trail properly if Shimmer's rhetoric is to be logically applied.

Posted by: beetsnotbeats | December 28, 2008 7:44 PM

Bicyclists are not universally against the Purple Line. In fact, the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, an advocacy group for Metro area cyclists, supports the Purple Line and believes it will improve the options for cycling.

See a full description of WABA's reasoning here:

Posted by: yotman | December 28, 2008 7:47 PM

Many cyclists are in favor of the light rail, in that it would improve the trail for cyclists. Over the last several years the trail has become less and less bike friendly. The lack of hard surfacing and the refusal to enforce existing trail rules for dog walkers and runners. Has lead many cyclists to feel that the best way to improve bicyclists access to the trail is for there to be light rail.

Posted by: crete | December 28, 2008 9:12 PM

The opposition to placing the purple line on the trail has nothing to do with racism or NIMBY or anything else. It is simply that the trail is an incredible resource, used by the young, the middle aged, and the elderly, and people of all colors and nationalities. Women maintaining their cardiovascular health. Athletes training for marathons. Students with backpacks. Young children with dogs. Walk it any Saturday morning and you will see not just folks from the adjacent neighborhood in Chevy Chase, but families and cyclists going to and from Silver Spring, as well many of the senior citizens who live nearby. Maybe it was a train right of way at one time, but now, it is definitely not wide enough for a train. It makes much more sense to run a rail line or express bus line along existing east west thoroughfares -- East West Highway or Jones Bridge Road.

Posted by: fmjk | December 28, 2008 9:55 PM

The great thing about bicycle commuting is that it doesn't have to be an all or nothing endeavor... if it's too cold, wet or hot, drive... but there would be sizeable impacts on people's health as well as a reduction in pollution if more people did commute by bicycle when they could.... even if only 1 day a week.

Posted by: AJohn1 | December 28, 2008 10:01 PM

Those who believe that constructing the Purple Line above ground on the Capital Crescent Trail will reduce traffic are a bit naive. The main reason the Purple Line is not being constructed UNDERGROUND is that a stop on Connecticut Ave. would not be created for an underground transit system since this is too close to the Bethesda Metro stop. Commercial entities who have stake in building up retail on Connecticut Ave. just inside the Beltway are the ones who are pushing the above ground option. Talk about increasing an already nightmarish traffic situation on Connecticut Ave!!
Wake up people and follow the money trail. in the current debate, we have all lost sight of who exactly is driving this proposal forward ---an entity who does not care about green space, mass transit or traffic -- but only about the commercial real estate boon that only an above ground transit system will creat on Connecticut Ave.

Posted by: babs10 | December 28, 2008 10:48 PM

"Maybe it was a train right of way at one time, but now, it is definitely not wide enough for a train."

The width of the right-of-way is way wider than the trail is now. You're probably confused because the Chevy Chase Country Club has fenced in the trail and is using county land for its fairways along part of the CCT. If you read the Purple Line DEIS/AA, you'll see that the plans call for using the entire right-of-way. This is why the country club is so thoroughly opposed to using the right-of-way as part of the Purple Line.

I appear to be in the minority among trail users, but right now the CCT isn't that nice a trail for me. The connection to Silver Spring, where I live, is horrible, and the poor surfacing of the part in between Silver Spring and Bethesda makes it less useful than the part between Bethesda and Georgetown. I think it'll be better with the CCT because there will be a true connection to downtown Silver Spring and the trail will be improved. Plus I actually like trains and can imagine light rail being relatively unobtrusive there.

BTW, actually saving anyone time by running express buses along East-West Highway would require closing that road to traffic, which I am assuming most of the opponents of using the rail right-of-way for the Purple Line would not want to do. And we won't even mention the contingent who seem to think that it's particularly the part of the CCT between Bethesda and Jones Bridge that needs to be preserved as the county-owned backyard of rich folks, while the part between Jones Bridge and Silver Spring is OK to run rail on.

I think Marc was way too kind to the opponents of running the Purple Line along the rail right-of-way. But then, as a transit user, Silver Spring resident, and trail user, I have my priorities too.

Posted by: Lindemann777 | December 28, 2008 10:50 PM

BTW, I couldn't disagree more with these people who are being quoted as saying that the CCT is "the jewel of lower Montgomery County's parks" or something like that. No park can be a "jewel" when a good portion of its length is bounded by chain-link fences running right next to the edges of the trail. Seriously. Rock Creek Park and Sligo Creek Park are both much, much nicer (and, not coincidentally, where I do most of my trail use).

Posted by: Lindemann777 | December 28, 2008 11:35 PM

Classic NIMBY. And the solution is simple:

Since the right-of-way was acquired for the specific use of mass transit, the NIMBY's who are opposed to using it as such can make the decision for everybody with their checkbooks - they can write the check to pay the extra cost for making the Purple line a subway.

No other taxpayers should pay a single penny to satisfy their desire to ride their bikes on state-owned land.

So, for all those who want the Purple line underground - put up or shut up.

Posted by: SoMD1 | December 29, 2008 12:03 PM

Why not a Purple Line Monorail which would ride above all the pros & cons?

Posted by: johnsam1 | December 29, 2008 2:53 PM

If we build it...the NIMBY's will move, relieving traffic and hot air.

Posted by: AngryLiberal | December 29, 2008 3:08 PM

Fisher's take -- i.e., "greater good vs. greater joy" and "left vs. left" -- is facile and misses the real dynamic at play.

The REAL dynamic is developers (chiefly the Chevy Chase Land Company, which owns much of the land adjacent to the Crescent Trail) working behind the scenes in order to have development density ceilings, in the areas adjacent to the Trail, raised.

Specifically, they want to build a MASSIVE commercial/retail complex on Connecticut Avenue, where it intersects the Crescent Trail.

Right now, zoning restrictions/density ceilings prevent them from doing that.

However, if they can get the Purple Line greenlighted, this will change the development density ceilings in the area and they can build as they wish -- with comparatively low-value assets which they own/rent to merchants (such as Chevy Chase Supermarket, etc.) getting torn down and replaced with massive structures, etc.

Of course, such an explosion of development will result in massively increased *CAR* traffic, more stress on roadways, more overload -- but, by then it won't matter. Developers will have got what they want and the public will be left holding the bag, in the form of:

-- 20,000 acres of denuded natural greenspace,

-- a massive public works project (The Purple Line, soon to be known as The White Elephant) with trifling, insignificant ridership -- what an incredible waste of money(!)

-- even worse traffic (thanks to developers' bonanza projects made possible by the Purple Line shell game.)

"Left vs. left" is, on a very thin, cosmetic level, part of the atmospherics of the issue -- but, as usual, the real story is told when you Follow The Money -- and look at who stands to gain from gaming the system -- which is DEVELOPERS.

Too bad the See Spot Run coverage didn't reflect that.

Posted by: dcnews1 | December 29, 2008 5:31 PM

p.s. -- With that said, Fisher's column is that, a column, rather than news reporting, so perhaps I'm being unfair in my assessment.

However, the developer angle is the real end game here and ought to be part of any serious examination of the issue.

Posted by: dcnews1 | December 29, 2008 6:06 PM

Marc, the Jones Bridge Road alternative does not "skirt major population and work areas" -- it, in fact,terminates in Bethesda at the bus/Metro depot -- indeed "the heart of downtown". It is so important because, unlike the CCT alignment, it also reaches BRAC at NNMC with a one seat ride. So, for $600 million you can get 56,000 riders; for $1.2 billion you get 62,000 riders. The JBR BRT alignment is the better bang for the buck, hands down. And, it saves acres of trees, keeps the trail safe for multi types of users in its particularly narrow right of ways, and still gets the trail completed into Silver Spring.

Posted by: aquoxa262 | December 29, 2008 11:33 PM

60,000 bicyclists commuting on a 12-foot-wide trail? Is that with or without lane reversal and a breakdown shoulder?

Whatever it is you guys are smoking, I want some for the weekend.

Posted by: raschumacher | December 30, 2008 1:35 AM

Notice that the opposite of sprawl is high density development. This is a good thing.

Posted by: raschumacher | December 30, 2008 1:56 AM

Marc does have it right about BRT running on Jones Bridge Road skirting a major population center. BRT on JBR takes the long route between Silver Spring and Bethesda, giving the many residents in Silver Spring and Bethesda a long ride so workers at the Medical Center can have a one seat ride.
But there is a better way to give a one seat ride to the Medical Center if that is your real goal. MTA ridership models show that you get the highest ridership and the most cost effective BRT system if you have BRT run directly from Silver Spring to Bethesda along the Georgetown Branch, then extend the BRT up to the Medical Center on Woodmont Ave. You can have both the fast ride between the two major population centers to serve your highest demand and also have the one seat ride to the Medical Center.
But of course there is no interest in this BRT alignment, because it does not satisfy the principal goal of BRT on Jones Bridge Road advocates - to build anything so long as it is not in their own neighborhood.
We need transit to finish the trail into Silver Spring. If the trail is going to be alongside transit, then let's make it a transit system that can carry the high demand expected in this corridor and that is most compatible with the trail - that is light rail transit.

Posted by: silverspringtrails | December 30, 2008 7:30 AM

I used to commute on this section of the trail almost daily from North Takoma Park to Bethesda (apparently it is not actually "impossible.") Most of the gravel trail runs in a flat, narrow strip of land from which you can see a few small factories, a bus depot, the backs of houses, and a golf course. There are 3 intersections with major roads and road noise can be heard for much of the route. Don't get me wrong, it is a perfectly pleasant ride but it is hardly the "precious and unique" unspoiled wilderness that the NIMBYs are painting it to be.

The start of the trail in Silver Spring is in an industrial area near a warehouse and can be quite tricky to find. I can't help but wonder if the NIMBYs are actually also opposed to extending the trail to downtown Silver Spring, because this would attract more users to "their" private secret trail.

One reason I commuted by bike was that doing that same route by transit is interminably slow (an hour+ depending on transfer time, as opposed to a 30 minute drive/45 minute bike). We NEED the Purple Line!

Posted by: wrybread | December 30, 2008 1:00 PM

I would like to make the point that climate-wise Washington DC is actually quite similar to the Netherlands:

DC geography doesn't make biking impractical. People everywhere think up excuses or rationalize their reluctance.

I live in south Florida and everybody I work with agrees that it's too hot here to bike to work, and also that I live too far away and also that it's too much trouble to change clothes at the beginning and end of my workday and so on. Nevertheless I've been commuting to work with my bicycle for more than three years (14.5 miles roundtrip). I have fun going to work and going home. I feel sorry for the people I see every day driving and riding the bus.

When I visited DC last March I jogged the Capital Crescent Trail, the five miles at the Georgetown end. It was chilly but I saw quite a few bicycle commuters.

Posted by: kbertocci | December 30, 2008 3:43 PM

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