The metro area's arbiters of all things transit, the National Capital Transportation Planning Board (NCTPB), today voted unanimously to endorse light-rail as the preferred mode of transport for the 16-mile Purple Line project between Bethesda and New Carrollton. The light-rail option, which has already received the support of both the Montgomery and Prince George's County Executives and County Councils, along with the Coalition for Smart Growth and the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, has faced a long string of criticisms from Bethesda/Chevy Chase area residents who fear that the project will render their three-mile spur of the Capital Crescent Trail system both physically and environmentally unsound.
Trail supporters lobbed various critiques at the Purple Line prior to the vote, including claims that it would make the area unsafe for schoolchildren, lead to the deforestation of Bethesda’s last remaining green space and the system will amount to little more than a “two billion dollar trolley line.” Others reasoned that the planned location of the Purple Line’s Bethesda depot at Woodmont East is too far away from the Metro, the National Institutes of Health and the soon-to-be relocated Walter Reed Army Medical Center to have any impact on traffic in the area. Anti-light rail advocates instead proffered that the NCTPB should endorse rapid bus service from Bethesda to Silver Spring as the Purple Line’s preferred mode of transport.
“Some of my constituents in Chevy Chase will advocate…bus rapid transit on Jones Bridge Road - [an alternative that] is not supported by the residents of Jones Bridge Road,” said Montgomery County Councilmember and Purple Line Now! founder, George Leventhal. “The difficulty that we have in proposing an alternative that is preferred by both counties, and that is likely to be endorsed imminently by Governor O’Malley, is that anywhere you try to move this transitway, you encounter other problems…This alternative, which is included in our master plan and has been endorsed by both counties, is indeed the right transitway for our congested, urban, inside-the-Beltway corridor.”
Leventhal went onto to point out that his county initially acquired the Capital Crescent Trail for the express purpose of having both a “recreational hiker/biker trail” and future transit line at the same site.
“There would not be a trail today had not Montgomery County, back in 1990, acquired that right-of-way for the purpose of building what is now called the Purple Line,” he said.
Though some area organizations- most notably the Bethesda Civic Coalition's Save the Trail campaign, which collected some 18,000 signatures in support of their cause – opposed the plan, the majority of testimony submitted to the NCTPB was overwhelmingly favorable. With an estimated daily ridership of between 42,000 and 46,000, many believe that the “Rail on the Trail” will provide a crucial east-west link between Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties, resulting in an economic boom for outlying communities and a more efficient Metro system. Even frequent trail users spoke out in support of the plan, illustrating just how multifaceted the Purple Line debate had become.
“The media, unfortunately, portrays the issue of the Purple Line as black and white. You either support the Capital Crescent Trail or you support the Purple Line, but not both. That’s not the case with WABA,” said the cyclist organization's Executive Director, Eric Gilliand. “When finally constructed, the Purple Line will include a direct bike-ped link with the Silver Spring Transit Center, where it will eventually link with the Metropolitan Branch Trail coming out of DC. This is a critical bike/pedestrian transit project that must move forward.”
With NCTPB approval now in hand, the Purple Line’s next stop is with Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, who is expected to endorse the light-rail option and announce a timetable for construction by year’s end. In the meantime, NIMBYs on the other side of the Potomac can get ready for another Metro-centric debate now that plans for a proposed Silver Line, running from downtown Washington to Dulles Airport, are being openly discussed.