Purple Line has taken a circuitous path
Mar. 24, 2000
Josh Kurtz
Staff Writer

ANNAPOLIS -- Deep in Gov. Parris N. Glendening's $19.7 billion operating budget proposal is $6 million to complete an environmental study of the proposed Georgetown Branch light rail line linking Bethesda and Silver Spring.

It sounds like a simple enough proposition -- and a drop in the bucket, given the size of the governor's spending plan. The concept of a rail link between the two downtowns has been around for 15 years, and a final study could determine the feasibility of the project once and for all.

But nothing has been simple where the Georgetown Branch is concerned.

The light rail proposal -- which is sometimes referred to anachronistically as a trolley -- has been the topic of endless debate in Rockville, Annapolis and Washington, a debate tinged with class warfare. It has become one of the most intensely lobbied issues in the State House, frequently at a sub rosa level. It has energized neighborhood groups that oppose the idea and transit advocates who like it. It has divided the environmental community. And it has politicized one of Montgomery County's most exclusive country clubs.

Meanwhile, way off on the horizon is something called the Purple Line, which transit planners have quietly explored for years. It was first discussed publicly by Glendening in the final days of his 1998 re-election campaign. Conceptually, it is an extension of Metrorail, running somewhere from Rock Spring Park in Bethesda to at least New Carrollton, and possibly all the way to Oxon Hill. It would cost billions of dollars to build.

The Georgetown Branch trolley and the Purple Line are not one and the same. But the trolley, if it is ever built, could become the first piece of the Purple Line puzzle because it would cover part of the envisioned Purple Line route.

So inevitably, in the minds of the politicians and the planners and the advocates, the two projects have become at least tenuously linked. In fact, Joel D. Rozner, the State House lobbyist for an anti-trolley group called Committee to Save the Trail, is using the Purple Line as an argument to delay or kill funding for the final light rail study.

"Why would you spend $6 million of taxpayer money until you know whether or not there's a feasibility to the longer line?" he said. "The real question is, what is this project? Is it a 4 1/2-mile trolley, or is it the Purple Line?"

The answers to those questions will not be known for several years, if ever. But as budget leaders in the state Senate and the House of Delegates prepare to negotiate terms of the trolley funding this week, there are lessons to be learned in the Georgetown Branch history for friends and foes of the Purple Line. And political ramifications to consider.

Genesis of a plan

The debate has ensnared every big name in Maryland politics, past and present, from William Donald Schaefer to Constance A. Morella, from Sidney Kramer to John Adams Hurson.

Kramer, the former Montgomery County executive, was one of the earliest proponents of a plan to link Bethesda and Silver Spring by light rail, using an old freight railroad bed that roughly parallels the East-West Highway. The argument then, as now, was that it would ease traffic congestion.

The County Council inserted the trolley in the county master plan in 1989, saying the right of way also should be developed as a hiker-biker trail. The county now owns three quarters of the 4.4-mile route.

The bike path quickly became a well-established and popular destination and is part of the Capital Crescent Trail that links Montgomery County to Georgetown. And the trolley proposal seemed to be gaining momentum as well. Gov. Schaefer, who was trying to get light rail built in Baltimore, offered Montgomery County $70 million for the Georgetown Branch.

"The project was promised by Gov. Schaefer in the first term of his administration," recalled Del. Dana Lee Dembrow (D-Dist. 20) of Silver Spring, a trolley advocate. "It was promised for Montgomery County's support for a gas tax increase to pay for the Baltimore light rail (state gas taxes fund all transportation projects in Maryland). That was two gas tax increases ago."

Several things happened to stall the project. Kramer was defeated by Neal Potter, a lukewarm trolley supporter, in the bitter 1990 Democratic primary for county executive. The state economy went south, making government funding scarce. But most significant, a sleeping giant was awakened.

Solid opposition


In the long history of the trolley debate, several names in the opposition movement come up again and again. At the top of the list is Hurson, who is now the powerful House majority leader in Annapolis.

For years, Hurson (D-Dist. 18) of Chevy Chase has been active in the Greater Bethesda-Chevy Chase Coalition, which helped him launch his political career. The organization's board of directors is a veritable who's who of Montgomery County players. It includes Patricia S. Baptiste, the frontrunner in next month's special County Council election to replace Betty Ann Krahnke (R-Dist. 1) of Chevy Chase; Beverly Denbo, who is associated with Committee for Montgomery; Catherine Titus, a Republican activist and donor whose husband, Roger, is a well-connected Rockville lawyer; and I. Dean Ahmad, a national expert on ballot access laws.

The coalition begat the Committee to Save the Trail. Anthony Czajkowski, a former chairman of the coalition, is now chairman of COST. COST volunteers have been raising money and collecting petition signatures in their ongoing campaign to defeat the trolley. And COST hired Joel Rozner, a former top aide to Glendening in Prince George's County and one of the most respected lobbyists in Annapolis, to further its cause in the State House.

Czajkowski, Hurson and Ira Shesser, chairman of the GBCCC, also helped launch a political action committee called SMARTPAC -- Smart Alternatives for Rail Transport. Czajkowski is the current chairman; Shesser is the former treasurer, and Hurson is the first contributor listed on the PAC's first campaign finance statement in 1990.

But behind all these groups is the Columbia Country Club, the regal oasis at the busy intersection of Connecticut Avenue and East-West Highway -- whose golf course would be bisected by a rail line.

"It affects our major asset, which is our golf course," said Vincent Burke III, the country club president. "If the transitway becomes a reality, our golf course is ruined."

The country club sits on a gold mine: property valued at almost $6.8 million, according to records at the state Department of Assessment and Taxation.

Through the years, the country club has taken on almost mythic proportions in the debate over the trolley. To advocates of the transitway, it is the windmill against which they must tilt, a great and powerful Oz controlling dozens of pliant politicians behind the scenes.

To retaliate in the early 1990s, Dana Dembrow -- who may be the closest thing the legislature has to a Don Quixote -- introduced a bill that would have taken away the tax break Maryland country clubs receive for preserving agricultural land with their golf courses. It went nowhere.

Burke works for Furey, Doolan and Abel, a Chevy Chase law firm whose partners have contributed to SMARTPAC. One partner, Devin J. Doolan, is a well-known lobbyist in both Rockville and Annapolis. In years past, his client list has included the Columbia Country Club.

Burke said the 1,500-member club is merely working with other groups in the neighborhood that oppose the project.

"We kind of follow their lead and try to be supportive," he said.

But the club has been the main source of income for the PAC, which raised and distributed more than $21,000 in 1990, sending contributions to powerful Annapolis lawmakers.

The PAC also gave money to Montgomery County Council candidates like Nancy H. Dacek ($1,000), Gail Ewing ($2,000), Isiah Leggett ($1,000) and Marilyn J. Praisner ($2,000). Dacek, Ewing and Leggett have been consistent opponents of the trolley, while Praisner is a supporter.

In 1994 and 1998, the PAC focused on local elections exclusively. In 1994, it handed out more than $22,000, including $2,150 to Leggett, $2,150 to Ewing, $1,650 to Dacek, $1,650 to Krahnke and $1,650 to Douglas M. Duncan, who was then running for county executive.

In 1998, the PAC spent more than $13,000, distributing $1,000 to Duncan, $1,000 to Leggett, $500 to Krahnke, $500 to Dacek, and $1,000 to Baptiste in her unsuccessful first bid for council.

Duncan, who also held a fund-raiser at the country club, has become one of the most significant opponents of the Georgetown Branch trolley -- preferring the broader Purple Line vision.

"Silver Spring to Bethesda doesn't get you anything," he said. "Spending millions to go nowhere just doesn't make sense."

Joel Rozner, whose client in Annapolis is, officially, the Coalition to Save the Trail, not the country club, insisted that the organized opposition to the light rail is widespread. He said COST volunteers have raised about $10,000 in the past few months, and not a penny has come from the country club.

"It's not a shell," Rozner said. "It's a real coalition. We're not just agents of the country club."

But documents filed with the State Ethics Commission, which regulates State House lobbyists, revealed that the country club is the chief financial source for COST's lobbying efforts. COST is not required to disclose how much is spending on lobbying -- or what it is paying Rozner and Laurence Levitan, the former Montgomery County state senator who is also a registered COST lobbyist -- until late May.

Harry L. Sanders, a leader of Action Committee for Transit, which has made the trolley its top priority, said his organization looks at the opponents' resources with awe.

"Our budget is $1,000," he said.

And solid support

Still, the trolley has its vocal and influential supporters. Sen. Ida G. Ruben (D-Dist. 20) of Silver Spring, the dean of Montgomery County's Senate delegation, is one. So is Del. Peter Franchot (D-Dist. 20) of Takoma Park, the chairman of a key transportation subcommittee. So is Councilman Derick Berlage (D-Dist. 5) of Silver Spring, who kept the project on his colleagues' radar screen even when most of them would have preferred to ignore it.

Regional business leaders have also supported it, but without the fervor that they show for the proposed Intercounty Connector highway.

Then there are the activists at Action Committee for Transit. Through a combination of zeal, creative planning and sheer will, they have helped keep the Georgetown Branch -- and the Purple Line -- alive. They have studied similar projects in other cities. They have worked to develop proposed routes for the Purple Line. They have conducted opposition research to quickly rebut any arguments the trolley opponents put forward.

Ben Ross, ACT's chairman, said the opposition to the Georgetown Branch is being fueled by 500 property owners.

"If 500 votes could stop a project of that magnitude, nothing could be built in the state of Maryland," he said.

The proponents had enough support to convince Schaefer to pay for a draft environmental impact statement, which was completed in 1996. Among its conclusions: It would cost $257 million to build a single-track rail line from Bethesda to Silver Spring.

Schaefer's final transportation budget in 1995 included $4 million to fund a final environmental study. But Hurson, backed by the newly elected county executive Duncan, vehemently objected. Ruben tried to protect the money but failed.

In the end, they reached a compromise: Part of the $4 million was used to study a proposed busway along U.S. 29. The rest was used for intersection improvements in downtown Silver Spring.

A new Metro line

On Oct. 3, 1998, Parris Glendening stood in front of the Bethesda Metro station and announced his support for the Purple Line, a new Metro route linking Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

Although details of the plan were sketchy, it became a major issue in the campaign. Ellen Sauerbrey, Glendening's Republican challenger, ran ads in Baltimore saying the governor wanted to spend billions of dollars on new subway service for Washington. Glendening used the proposal -- and his vow to double transit ridership in Maryland by 2020 -- to burnish his environmental credentials. Duncan (D) and Prince George's County Executive Wayne K. Curry (D), who have both had shaky relationships with the governor through the years, endorsed the concept.

Duncan said the Purple Line is superior to the trolley concept because "we need to be thinking about 2020 or 2030, not 2002."

The Purple Line idea was born of a Maryland Department of Transportation study on the feasibility of widening the Capital Beltway. As the evidence mounted that substantial widening of the Beltway in Maryland was next to impossible, a circumferential rail line is now seen as a viable alternative, said Henry Kay, chief planner for the state Mass Transit Administration.

Throughout the campaign season, despite all the talk about the Purple Line, Glendening never did mention the Georgetown Branch light rail.

But the elections of 1998 did jumpstart the trolley on another front, propelling a strongly pro-light rail Montgomery County Council into office. The very first thing new council did was send the state a letter stating its strong support for the Georgetown Branch. Opponents groused that the council had held no public hearings and offered no opportunities for the opposition to state its case.

Meanwhile, in Annapolis, the persistent Ida Ruben was making her case again.

Last fall, Glendening agreed to complete the environmental study.

"I think he's spending $6 million because he made a commitment to Ida Ruben," Hurson said.

Michael Morrill, a spokesman for Glendening, admitted that the governor is probably more enamored of the Purple Line proposal than the Georgetown Branch.

"In the end, he still sees the larger arc as being the essential piece," Morrill said.

Testing the waters

Shortly before the General Assembly session started two months ago, the Montgomery County chapter of the Sierra Club, which had once enthusiastically supported the trolley proposal, decided to switch its position and become officially neutral.

"The trolley issue has been divisive within the club, pitting trails advocates against transit supporters, and weakening our ability to work together on other issues," the club's executive committee said in a statement released last fall. "Reasonable arguments have been made on both sides of this issue."

A few weeks into the session, John Hurson floated a proposal in The Washington Post to find a new route for the trolley line, roughly north of the East-West Highway, skirting the country club property. Rail supporters squawked that this was a tactic to delay or kill the project. Hurson denied it.

"I can figure out much more clever ways of delaying it," he told The Gazette.

Hurson also expressed confidence that he could persuade Glendening to include his alternative in the final environmental study. Whether he will succeed is hard to say.

"It's not the most expeditious route to a final decision," said Henry Kay, planning director for the Mass Transit Administration.

Meanwhile, lobbyist Joel Rozner has made the rounds in the State House armed with a thousand reasons why the state should not spend the $6 million this year: The projected ridership does not justify the cost. If it was supposed to cost $257 million in 1996, think of how much more expensive it is now. The government does not own the final mile of the proposed 4.4-mile route. Why not admit that the trolley route is really part of a "College Park to Hudson Bay line," and study the cost and environmental impact of double-tracking the right of way?

Someone listened. The Senate, at the suggestion of Sen. Patrick J. Hogan (R-Dist. 39) of Gaithersburg, has placed strings on the $6 million allocation.

Hogan has insisted that the state not proceed with construction of the light rail line until it is confident that it can receive federal funding for the project. He also wants the state to study the possibility of double-tracking the route, instead of the single track currently proposed by the MTA. And he wants the state to complete a cost-benefit analysis of the project before allocating more money.

Until Thursday, Franchot, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee transportation subcommittee, was insisting that the $6 million would remain in the version of the budget the House will pass this week with no strings attached. But he admitted Thursday that under pressure from Hurson, he was working up some language of his own to attach to the allocation. It would be less restrictive, he said, than the Senate version of the budget.

Nevertheless, it means the $6 million will become part of a House-Senate conference committee on the overall budget, where anything can happen.

What's next

If the money remains intact, it will take the state 18 to 24 months to complete the final environmental study, Henry Kay said. If officials want to proceed, something called a feasibility study would follow.

If the recent results of the special primaries for a Montgomery County Council seat are any indication, many neighbors do not think it is O.K. In the Democratic primary, Pat Baptiste, who is strongly opposed to the transitway, swamped Roger Berliner, who campaigned in favor of it. She will face Republican Howard A. Denis in the special general election, who is also opposed.

"The best measure of the opposition comes if you look at the election returns of Pat Baptiste," said Anthony Czajkowski, a trolley foe. "It was overwhelming, almost a landslide."

But Ben Ross of Action Committee for Transit takes some comfort from his analysis of the Democratic primary returns. He is telling people that the numbers show that people who already rely on public transit -- those who live near Metro stations -- turned out big for Berliner.

Nevertheless, Duncan, who is aggressive in his support for the Intercounty Connector, is far less vocal about his opposition to the Georgetown Branch. Some political observers privately suggest that he is less than comfortable about the issue, fearful especially about being linked with a ritzy country club should he decide to run for statewide office in 2002.

A question of class

Still, the most telling thing that happened during the primary may have been the quote vanquished GOP council candidate Mary Kane gave The Gazette about the trolley in the newspaper's voters guide. She said she could see the need to travel from Silver Spring to Bethesda, but not from Bethesda to Silver Spring.

Her comment put on record what has been an undercurrent throughout the Georgetown Branch debate. Why should the lower and middle classes of Silver Spring be allowed easy access to tony Bethesda? some trolley supporters imagine the opponents thinking.

But the same arguments could be played out when the debate begins over the Purple Line. Already there are two camps when discussing the Purple Line: Those who favor an "inner Purple," running roughly from Bethesda to downtown Silver Spring, along University Boulevard to College Park and beyond; and those who favor bringing the rail line north from downtown Silver Spring to White Oak, and then east.

Doug Duncan is among those who lean toward the "outer Purple," and has argued that this will be the best way to connect emerging job centers. But Prince George's County Councilman Peter A. Shapiro (D-Dist. 2) of Mount Rainier, a proponent of the "inner Purple," believes that route will attract more riders.

"It comes down to who you want to serve," Shapiro said. "We would be saying we value our inner Beltway communities, we value the University Boulevard corridor."

But the $6.2 million preliminary study of various Purple Line routes won't be completed until sometime next year.

All the potential routes, Henry Kay said, "have serious challenges." Acquiring land, for starters, could cost billions of dollars.

Nevertheless, the state is likely to schedule public meetings in Montgomery and Prince George's counties to discuss the project sometime in late April.

"Is the picture there? Yes," said Morrill, Glendening's spokesman. "Are we anywhere near making plans? No. But we do know that if we're going to reach the governor's goal of doubling mass transit ridership by 2020, we're going to have to have much more mass transit, and all different types."