State has right to run Purple Line through golf course
Columbia Country Club denies it is negotiating with MTA
Although a report says state officials are negotiating with Columbia Country Club to route the Purple Line through its golf course, a lawyer who worked on county land issues said the Maryland Transit Administration already has the right to build the transit link.
"From a legal perspective, the light rail and permanent hiker-biker path can be built within the right of way," said Diane Schwartz Jones, an assistant chief administrative officer for County Executive Isiah Leggett, and a former county attorney.
The Purple Line would be a 16-mile Bethesda-to-New Carrollton transit link. State officials are in the middle of deciding whether to build light rail or dedicated bus lanes. Depending on the option, the route could cost $1.6 billion, with as much as half paid by the federal government.
Purple Line project manager Michael D. Madden told the County Council on Oct. 21 that each of six possible options meets U.S. standards for cost effectiveness.
During the presentation, the MTA reported that it is "working with (Columbia) Country Club on a possible alignment shift and property swap to reduce tee and green impacts."
One possible route would follow the Capital Crescent Trail, which follows the Georgetown Branch, an old trolley line that passes through the Chevy Chase country club.
But Geoff Gonella of Kensington, a member of the club's board of governors, said discussions with MTA could not be construed as a negotiation. Rather, MTA asked to meet with Columbia's officers to discuss potential adverse effects of the Purple Line, he said.
Columbia has long raised questions about the cost effectiveness of the Purple Line.
"We think there are serious concerns with the project, and none of this has changed. What we're hearing from MTA, their engineers and architects has not changed that," Gonella said Oct 22.
Complicating matters, Maryland Transportation Secretary John Porcari said Oct. 23 that no deal was in the works. "We do not have a land swap proposal in front of anyone," he said. He refused to call the report a mistake.
Councilwoman Valerie Ervin said Oct. 23 that she had heard three weeks ago that Columbia and MTA were discussing a deal that could move the Purple Line forward. She was surprised the state report included the reference, she said.
"I don't know why they're denying it," said Ervin (D-Dist. 5) of Takoma Park.
Porcari and Ervin spoke at an Oct. 23 press conference announcing a new caucus in Annapolis to fight for the Purple Line. One of the members of the new coalition, Sen. Paul Pinsky, took a shot at Columbia and the Town of Chevy Chase, which paid for a traffic study opposing the light-rail option.
"They seem to live in Alice in Wonderland," said Pinsky (D-Dist. 22) of University Park. His district would include the eastern terminus of the Purple Line.
A 1996 settlement and contribution agreement between the county and the club for building security fencing and golf cart access across the trail states, "The Club acknowledges that the County intends to construct a lightrail or transit way and a permanent hiker/biker trail within the full width of the Georgetown Branch Right-of-Way," pending necessary funding and approvals.
Madden said if the Purple Line route ultimately fell outside the county's 100-foot right of way that runs through the club, a land swap would have to be negotiated if the club approved of the change in the route.
"If that is the case … there would have to be some kind of exchange of property," he said.
Ernie Baisden, manager of project development at MTA who worked on the Purple Line project in the past, said any changes would likely involve only "slight alterations" to the project's alignment.
"If we can address their concerns and issues, that's what we try to do," Baisden said.
Town of Chevy Chase Mayor Kathy Strom declined to comment specifically on the MTA's presentation and Gonella's response. She did say that the town did not share exactly the same position on the project as the Columbia Country Club.
In addition to raising concerns about the proposed Purple Line route along the Capital Crescent Trail, the town has also worked with a transportation consultant, Sam Schwartz, to push for rapid buses along Jones Bridge Road as a Purple Line route.
"I really don't have any opinion on it because I don't think we know exactly what is being alleged or stated by the MTA or the country club," Strom said. "The wording in the report is very vague."