Rising cost of Purple Line reignites bus vs. rail fight

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Local,Maryland,Transportation,Real Estate,Liz Farmer
New cost estimates pushing the price tag of the planned Purple Line between Montgomery and Prince George's counties up to $2 billion have given more fuel to opponents who say a new route and different transit mode would better serve taxpayers.

For nearly a decade, most of the fight against the planned light rail system has come from Montgomery County, where residents protest the proposed path of the rail line, now projected to open in 2020. Prince George's County, however, eagerly awaits the redevelopment boom a new transit line could bring to areas like Langley Park.

Opponents say it's not that they don't want a new transit link between the two counties -- it's just no one can agree on how to do it.

"The Purple Line is like this orphan mode of transit," said Pat Burda, a Town of Chevy Chase councilwoman who said the council supports a path further north that connects with the National Naval Medical Center. The council also prefers a bus rapid transit line, which experts say can be built for a tenth of the cost of light rail.

Back to the bus?
Maryland is still forging ahead with light rail for the Purple Line, even though new estimates put the total cost at $1.925 billion, up from the $1.5 billion estimate made two years ago. But Wes Guckert, president of the Traffic Group and a proponent of bus rapid transit, says the state needs to rethink its spending choice. Here's why:
"Bus rapid transit can be built for $5 million to $10 million a mile versus $75 million a mile. The naysayers say it costs more to operate buses than light rail ... but combine with capital costs plus operating costs and there's no comparison."
Projected cost: less than $200 million for 16 miles.
BRT's projected lower ridership can be solved: "You can create iconic station, have onboard Wi-Fi ... all the frills you can get with rail you can get with rubber tires."

"For the amount of money it's costing, you're not getting the bang for your buck that we need for this region," Burda said.

The route, planned through Chevy Chase, runs along the Georgetown Branch Trail, a former railroad route the county bought in the 1970s

with the intention of reinstalling a rail line there. The trail passes by residents' backyards and bisects the exclusive Columbia Country Club's golf course. A proposed stop at Chevy Chase Lake Drive at Connecticut Avenue would trigger mixed-use development in an area with minimal neighborhood services.

Trail users and environmentalists have cried out over the paving and massive tree-cutting a light rail line would bring. But the country club has emerged as one of the most forceful opponents of the line.

The club's board announced in 2008 it would begin funding opposition efforts directly, and its powerful members have questioned whether the line's price tag is worth the service it would bring.

Advocates for the line say Chevy Chase just has a "Not in My Back Yard" attitude.

"Throughout this region, NIMBYism is the greatest challenge we've had to overcome in any transportation project, not just the Purple Line," said Suburban Maryland Transportation Alliance spokesman Richard Parsons. "Yes, people have their right to be heard and express their point of view but ... there's a lot more who can benefit [from this project] than the few people saying, 'Over my dead body.' "

But in Silver Spring some favor an option that would raise the cost even more. The Seven Oaks/Evanswood Citizens' Association wants the line moved underground instead of the planned Wayne Avenue path, which would cut across Georgia Avenue and Fenton Street, creating more delays in already snarled intersections.

"The [trains] are going to be 180 feet long and traversing every six minutes each way during rush hour," said group President Kathleen Samiy. "That's like adding six car lengths."

The Maryland Transit Administration rejected the idea of an underground line, citing the high cost of tunneling, but Samiy said MTA hasn't thoroughly studied the issue.

Even Prince George's County, which stands to benefit the most from development opportunities, has had trouble lining up its ranks. University of Maryland officials just last month dropped their long-held opposition to a planned stop in the center of campus.

Some say the line in Prince George's runs along existing bus routes, making it redundant. But County Councilman Eric Olsen said light rail is more stable.

"It's more of an economic development driver because a light rail line isn't going to go anywhere. A bus line can change."

lfarmer@washingtonexaminer.com

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