Many Chevy Chase residents favor lawsuit to stop Purple Line
Some in town say challenging the MTA would be waste of money
Legal action that would halt light rail along the Capital Crescent Trail appeared to be favored by a majority of Town of Chevy Chase residents testifying on the Purple Line mass transit project July 23.
Nearly 50 people gave their opinions on the Purple Line during a public hearing that lasted nearly three hours. While some said the Town Council had a duty to file the lawsuit to protect residents and expose shoddy analysis by the Maryland Transit Administration, others argued that legal action would waste the town's reserve funds and cast the community as selfish obstructionists.
Council members stressed that they have made no final decision on whether to file a lawsuit to stop light rail for the Purple Line, a 16-mile transportation line that would connect downtown Bethesda to New Carrollton via Silver Spring. Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) is expected to decide soon on the state's preferred location and mode of the project, which in its current form as light rail is estimated to cost $1.68 billion.
While the County Council and other public bodies have favored light rail that includes tracks along the Capital Crescent Trail and the town's northern border, the town has been the most vocal opponent of light rail, arguing instead that rapid buses on Jones Bridge Road would be more efficient, preserve the trail and cost approximately $1 billion less. In its own public comments, the town has argued that the state's analysis is flawed and does not reveal how estimated ridership numbers were achieved.
Of the 49 people who testified, 28 seemed to favor town legal action, which council members have said could cost $500,000 to $750,000 for a year's worth of legal work that would challenge the validity of the MTA's environmental impact statements. The town presently has $5.7 million in the general fund balance that could be used to fund a lawsuit, and estimates that at the end of fiscal 2010 it will have $2.9 million in the general fund.
If the town's lawsuit was successful, the MTA would have to undertake a new Purple Line environmental analysis.
Joan Rood said the light rail would bring unwanted development and more pollution to the area, and that she did not want Chevy Chase to end up looking like Crystal City, an urban area in northern Virginia.
"The town has a fiduciary duty to protect those of us who live along the trail," Rood said.
Mary Anne Hoffman compared the town's position to former Supreme Court Associate Justice William O. Douglas' successful efforts to keep a highway off the C&O Canal, a portion of which runs through Potomac, when the odds were initially against him. "Remember the Canal tow path," she said.
David Salzman, in addition to promoting a local network of rapid buses, argued that the construction of light rail would cause real estate values in the entire town to plummet by $100 million.
"Failing to stop it is poor public policy," he said.
John Keppler noted that the town's last meeting on the Purple Line, June 22, coincided with the crash of two trains on Metro's Red Line that killed nine people. To him, light rail on the trail represented "a near-term and direct threat."
Veda Charrow, compared light rail to an ill-made sausage that had been "shoved down our throats" by the MTA. "They keep changing the numbers to support themselves," she said.
But 19 residents questioned or criticized the wisdom and effectiveness of a lawsuit. They argued that the legal costs could well exceed the town's $750,000 estimate and that the effort itself provided scant hope of success.
Jon Meyerson compared the current fight between light rail and buses to the argument over a north-south expressway and Metrorail in the 1960s. "I think we will look back at the Purple Line in the same way," he said.
John Whitty argued that the town's spending on the Purple Line, such as a pro-rapid bus analysis performed by Sam Schwartz Engineering, had been ultimately ineffective. He said the town should spend money on "making the best of the LRT (light rail) eventuality."
Bruce Russell also warned against an "endless black hole of consultants and lawyers" connected to a lawsuit.
Rather than Douglas' fight for the C&O Canal, Jacob Bardin compared the town's current stance to the opposition to Metro in Georgetown in Washington, D.C.
"We're not in the wilds beyond Gaithersburg," he said.
"I haven't decided anything as to where we stand or don't stand," said Councilman Al Lang at the end of public testimony, a comment seconded by Councilwoman Linna Barnes. Lang later added he guessed a town referendum would probably result in more votes for a lawsuit.