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Purple Line: Light Rail, Heavy Struggle

The grand and wondrous thing about spending 20 years arguing over building a transit line is that the debate keeps gaining altitude. What was once a simple matter of where to lay the tracks to connect the two arms of Metro's Red Line has morphed into an epic confrontation featuring standoffs between -- deep breath now -- tree-huggers and bicyclists, transit-dependent Hispanic workers and car-addicted Anglo professionals, Prince George's and Montgomery counties, anti-density NIMBYs and pro-urban smart-growth advocates, and bus proponents and rail fans.

The quest to build a Purple Line from New Carrollton to Bethesda even has a subplot that tracks the classic divide in American jurisprudence, pitting master plan fundamentalists against those who argue that plans must adapt to changing times and ways of living.

Spend some time behind the battle lines of the War of the Purple Line (and believe me, there are folks who have devoted decades of their lives to this thing) and my bet is you will come out as I have, concluding that pretty much all of them are right. But they are so right, so committed to their path as the one true way, that their positions have hardened and the very notion of compromise strikes them as abhorrent.

For many years, I refused to write about the Purple Line on the theory that this was one of those permanent wars that would keep doctoral students busy and provide permanent employment to county and state planners, but would never actually result in construction workers getting jobs.

But now it looks (don't hold me to this) like something may actually get built. President-elect Barack Obama wants to spend big money on transportation projects to get the economy moving again, FDR-style. Although Virginia's extension of Metro rail to Dulles airport is much further along in planning and therefore more likely to get a huge pile of money sooner, Maryland's Purple Line project could well be in the mix.

So: Where to put it, and what exactly is it? Is it a light rail trolley or is it what one faction calls Bus Rapid Transit and another faction describes as slightly nicer buses with somewhat fewer stops? Does it slice through the heart of downtown Bethesda or does it swing north to run along residential Jones Bridge Road? Does it take away the back yards of good people who live hard by downtown Silver Spring or does it become even more expensive and tunnel through that burgeoning urban center?

And beyond those granular questions, how about the big ones: What's the purpose of the Purple Line? Is it meant to express Prince George's residents to Montgomery's higher-paying and more-plentiful jobs? Is it a labor supply train for downtown Bethesda and the medical centers to its north? Is it a development tool for Langley Park and College Park, or a way to revolutionize life on the University of Maryland campus? Is it supposed to relieve congestion on the Beltway, or on East-West Highway, or is it merely a time-saver for those who now take the Red Line the long way around through the District?

Here's what the Purple Line won't do: The state's own studies concede that building an east-west transit line inside the Beltway won't do much to ease traffic on the region's most important and dysfunctional highway. But it might siphon some traffic off neighborhood streets that were never meant to be major commuter routes, and it will make it much easier for Prince George's residents to get to jobs in Silver Spring, Bethesda, Friendship Heights and other points west. That's why Prince George's politicians are big fans of the Purple Line.

And here's why the bus alternative won't work: A lot of people, for a lot of reasons, won't ride buses, period. Maybe there's ugly class bias involved (buses are for some ill-defined "them"), and maybe it's a simple matter of perception (buses are slower, lurch badly, and many folks find the ride too sickening to get any reading done.) There's also a more concrete reason -- the proposed Purple Line route is so built-up, so congested, that buses would have to stop too often for traffic lights, negating the possibility of truly express service.

And here's why the light rail concept is so attractive: Long ago, in more innocent times, the state displayed some uncommon foresight and bought up an old freight train route that weaved a path from Silver Spring to Bethesda. The idea was to build a trolley line to connect suburban Maryland's two most important urban centers without competing with car traffic. Secluded from congestion on the avenues, light rail cars could speed across the counties fast enough to lure folks out of their autos.

But as the years went by and the line was not built, that path was put to a different, supposedly temporary use. It became the Capital Crescent Trail, a glorious and popular swath of green beloved by those who jog, walk or bike for fun, exercise or their daily commute.

Among the many battles on the front lines of the Purple Line war, this is the most divisive and difficult, and I'll dive into that clash next Sunday.

By Marc Fisher |  December 21, 2008; 10:55 AM ET
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

First, I was amazed that Fisher used the racist term, Anglo, to identify white professionals. If he is going to identify a white person, just call them white, not Anglo. Now I know that Fisher is a member of the media elite and has to be politically chic to relieve his pathological liberal guilt, but he shouldn’t use racist terms to do it. I never gave anyone the right to call me Anglo and I resent using terms developed by other groups and the media to identify me. Second, the Purple Line will be nothing more than a multi-billion dollar boondoggle.

Posted by: willmarlow | December 21, 2008 2:16 PM

Will - where have you been? Is this the first time you've read Fisher?

Could anybody not have figured out that he fancies himself to be part of the media elite with mighty pen in hand to further liberal guilt.


Better to ask him how many WaPo employees have scrambled up enough dough to own a dinky little brick house in the SS area where the Purple line will run? Or how many don't own houses in Chevy Chase where use of the Capital Crescent Trail will be curtailed for the rest of our lifetimes while this boondoggle is built.

Posted by: RedBird27 | December 21, 2008 5:50 PM

Two questions: 1)Will it serve enough Maryland residents to justify the cost? 2) Will Marylanders be able to afford it without killing the ability to build other state infrastructure projects they so desperately need?

Posted by: jflo234 | December 22, 2008 2:16 PM

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