- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 6, 2005

The Purple Line once seemed like the clear winner in the ongoing debate over whether highways or railways will best solve the D.C. area’s crushing traffic problems.

In 2001, the proposed 14-mile Metro line linking Montgomery and Prince George’s counties had the backing of Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a transit advocate who killed plans to build an east-west highway in the D.C. suburbs. Most local officials preferred the transit proposal to the new road. Momentum appeared to build behind the Purple Line.

But more than three years later, with a new governor in office, the proposal languishes in the planning stages. State officials are studying whether it could be a bus line instead. And the Intercounty Connector, the road once left for dead, has strong support in Annapolis and from local leaders. An extensive study has been completed, and work could begin in fall 2006.

Purple Line supporters say the revival of the Intercounty Connector, or ICC, could hamper the future of the transit proposal. They fear the $2.4 million road will drain limited transportation funds, leaving little left for another big project.

“I think it is another nail in the coffin of the Purple Line,” said Montgomery County Council President Tom Perez after the council, which once opposed the ICC, voted last week to back the highway. “It is going to be much harder to secure political support for the funding for the Purple Line.”

The area’s Metrorail system has no east-west lines running through the heavily populated inner suburbs in Montgomery County, meaning a passenger has to travel into the city to go from Bethesda to Silver Spring on the Red Line. By car, the trip is five miles and takes 20 minutes.

To connect the two Red Line spokes, planners proposed the Purple Line, which would run from the Bethesda Metro station to Silver Spring and possibly on to New Carrollton. Advocates say the new line would draw people off heavily traveled roads and allow low-income workers in Silver Spring to easily reach jobs in the Bethesda area.

Its path has sparked some bitter fights. Many want to build a light-rail system mostly along an old railway bed inside the Capital Beltway. But that route would bisect a powerful country club and might destroy a bike trail. Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan has proposed placing it outside the Beltway to serve growing portions of the county.

In October 2001, Mr. Glendening, a Democrat, stood before a crowd of people waving purple signs in Langley Park and promised to back the inner route. The project fit Mr. Glendening’s smart-growth policies, which emphasized transit over road construction. He already had canceled an environmental review of the ICC, saying the road would be too harmful to the region.

But a little more than a year later, Mr. Glendening was out of office, replaced by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican. One of Mr. Ehrlich’s main campaign promises was to build the ICC, a road linking Interstates 270 and 95 that has been on planning maps for decades.

The Purple Line remains under study, with an environmental report due in spring 2006. But its scope has changed. Although light rail is still an option, planners now envision a cheaper bus system. And it has been renamed the Bi-County Transitway, which Ehrlich administration officials say better reflects the fact that it would extend into Prince George’s County.

Maryland Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan said that the state is still committed to the project and that it is a priority. The ICC will not siphon money away from the Purple Line, he said, because 95 percent of the federal money slated for the road can only be used for highway construction.

The Purple Line “isn’t even competing for federal money,” he said. “The bottom line is we need both.”

Mr. Flanagan noted that the Purple Line was first proposed in the early 1990s, but that Mr. Glendening did not include it in requests for federal funds during his tenure or dedicate enough money to study it properly.

Purple Line opponents say that the project was a bad idea from its conception and that the delays prove that point. A light-rail line running along the Capital Crescent Trail in Chevy Chase would ruin the bike path’s allure, said John Warnock, president of the Greater Bethesda-Chevy Chase Coalition. It also would run through the exclusive Columbia Country Club.

“It was a stupid idea to start with, and the stupidities are becoming more and more obvious,” he said.

Advocates for the Purple Line said the Ehrlich administration has demonstrated that it is more concerned about building the ICC than committing to major transit projects.

“They are just going through the motions,” said Ben Ross of Action Committee for Transit. “They don’t want to tell people they aren’t going to do anything about it, but that is the reality.”

Mr. Perez said he doesn’t think that the ICC dooms the Purple Line. But he doesn’t think that it will get built while Mr. Ehrlich is in office, making it a big factor for the Washington suburbs in the 2006 election.

“The Purple Line is going to be a very important issue in the gubernatorial race,” he said.

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