April 14, 2011
Chevy Chase Patch
Purple Line Project Planning Goes Public
Area residents voiced their concerns about the Purple Line at a public meeting hosted by the Maryland Department of Transportation.
By Laura L. Thornton

The future of the popular segment of the Capital Crescent Trail linking Bethesda and Silver Spring along an abandoned railroad route was the subject of a public meeting held Wednesday night by representatives of the Maryland Department of Transportation for concerned area residents.

The meeting room at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School (which is next to the trail) was packed, and few attendees appeared to be in support of the state’s intention to build a light rail — the Purple Line — along their beloved neighborhood trail.

Outside the meeting room, representatives of Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail manned an information table, where nearly every meeting attendee stopped by “except maybe five or six people,” said Pam Browning, the organization’s founder.

The Purple Line is still at least a year away from construction, if it is built, said Michael Madden, chief of project development for the Maryland Transit Administration’s Office of Planning.

Because federal funds would be used to finance half of the Purple Line’s construction (currently estimated at $1.6 billion, Madden said), an environmental impact statement must be prepared for the Federal Transit Administration, which has final say over how federal funds can be used in transportation projects. Federal funds have yet to be allocated to the project. And, public input must be considered.

Meeting attendees expressed concern that the building of the light rail — “really a modern day trolley,” said transportation consultant Harriet Levine — would ruin the hiker-biker trail and its shady green canopy.

During the projected two-year construction of the Purple Line, certain portions of the trail — which was created when an old CSX Corp. railway bed was taken down in the 1990s — will have to be closed, Levine said.

“But make no mistake about it — (the trail) will be built” along with the Purple Line, Madden assured the audience.

When Montgomery County purchased the land on which the Purple Line is to run from CSX Corp. in 1988, the agreement called for the construction of a single-track, slow-moving trolley to be built alongside the trail, explained Chevy Chase resident Jim Roy of Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail.

Building a two-track light rail goes against the original purchase agreement, he says.

Designs for the Purple Line are still in the planning stages. Twenty-one stations along the Purple Line are projected between Bethesda and New Carrollton — a 16-mile stretch of double tracks that will take just under an hour to travel, transit officials estimate.

The Purple Line will connect with the Red Line in Bethesda and Silver Spring, with the Green Line in College Park and with the Orange Line and MARC and Amtrak trains in New Carrollton.

The paved trail will run alongside the rail, and will be 10 to 12 feet wide with two-foot-wide shoulders where possible, Levine and Madden said. For the most part, the trail will not be at the same level as the railway bed — the plan is to sink the railroad below the level of the trail so that it will be less intrusive.

Roger Berliner, who represents Bethesda, Chevy Chase and Potomac on the Montgomery County Council, supports building the light rail.
“My objective is to make sure the trail is as lovely as it possibly can be,” he said, citing successful examples of rail-trail combinations in Europe.

The trolleys will operate on electricity — from wires hanging above the tracks – either between the tracks, or to either side of the rail, Levine says.

Battery-operated or hybrid trains are being considered, but the technology for them is still very new, and trains with batteries are very heavy, transit officials said.

Meeting attendees were concerned about the safety of the street crossings over the tracks, and about the noise and vibrations that are sure to emanate from the trolleys, which will operate on a similar schedule to the Metro subway, Levine said. (The Purple Line will be SmarTrip-card compatible, she added.)

Concerns were also raised about the construction process and how it could infringe upon properties abutting the light rail.

“How is it that the council would sacrifice our quality of life and allow trains to go through our backyards,” asked Ajay Bhatt, of Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail.

Madden and Levine do not foresee any need for construction equipment to occupy private land when the light rail is built, although they cautioned that some of the fences surrounding abutting properties might actually be standing in the public right-of-way, in which case they might need to come down.

But concerns over the Purple Line were not only about property rights, noise and safety.

The estimated cost of the line is just too high, opponents say, and they don’t believe the estimates are accurate, either.

Lynda Williams of Chevy Chase would rather see a rapid transit bus route — with road lanes dedicated for bus travel only, and with permanent bus stops at grade level — built. Rapid transit buses would be cheaper and would preserve the greenery of the trail, she said.

Still, one voice did speak up in support of the Purple Line.

“I’d ride it,” said Richard Zorn, who lives in Chevy Chase and works in College Park.

But Jim Roy estimated that Zorn was probably only the fourth area resident he’d met yet who actually wanted the line to be built.