Wednesday, August 15, 2007
purple line haze: paralysis by analysis
Chevy Chase wants to do its own study of the Purple Line, but will it stall discussion? Check out part ONE of a series on the Purple Line. On FRIDAY, we'll continue our adventure in Chevy Chase with a visit to local activist Pam Browning. Chevy Chase councilman/former mayor Mier Wolf on the Capital Crescent Trail. Wolf has proposed a $250,000 study on the Purple Line, which may run along the trail. Check out this slideshow of the Purple Line route through Bethesda and Chevy Chase. I am walking through Chevy Chase with Mier Wolf, a man who for the past quarter-century has alternated between being a town councilman and being town mayor. Every block, it seems, someone stops to say "hello" to him. A Latino garbageman is throwing refuse into the back of a truck. "Thank you," Wolf says. "This is a friendly town," says Wolf. "The strength of this town is there's a lot of community - but there's a lot of privacy." Chevy Chase likes to keep to itself. All but one side street leading into the town from Connecticut Avenue is marked with a forbidding "DO NOT ENTER" sign, while the entrances of the town's two very exclusive country clubs - Columbia and Chevy Chase - have no signs at all. In June, Chevy Chase residents even voted to take regional transportation matters into their own hands by approving a $250,000 study of the Purple Line, commissioned by Wolf himself. The town's got concerns about the proposed transitway between Bethesda and New Carrollton, which would skirt the town's northern edge for a few blocks - and even if the state of Maryland's already doing a multi-million-dollar study, Chevy Chase needs to look out for its own. so much more AFTER THE JUMP . . . the Capital Crescent Trail directly east of Bethesda in Chevy Chase. "We want what's good for the County," Wolf says, but "the town is almost entirely in favor of undergrounding the Purple Line." The study will look at the line's impacts on Chevy Chase. "If they are what we think they are," he adds, the town will press the State to change its plans. We're walking through a playground and into the Capital Crescent Trail now. Chevy Chase's chunk of the Purple Line falls in this "wildly popular" and heavily forested hiker-biker trail that swings around from Silver Spring to Georgetown. Until not long ago, it was a freight line, running slow trains a few times a week on a single track. ("People used to wave at it from their backyards," Wolf says.) But the Purple Line, however, would involve faster light-rail trains passing through every six minutes, posing a danger to users of the trail and neighboring houses. "We don't think you could feasibly put a train and a trail here and not have it ruin the experience of the trail," says Wolf, gesturing to the majestic trees that blot out the sun and sounds of urban life. "You don't get a [tree] canopy like this overnight." "Because this trail has existed, it's easier for [Purple Line] proponents to say 'let's just put the tracks here,'" says Wolf. There are 11,000 people who use the trail each day, Wolf points out. That's half a million each year. The Purple Line can't claim that kind of ridership, he suggests. The Maryland Transit Administration "couldn't find ridership justification for the route," he snorts. "There is not sufficient demand - especially from Bethesda to New Carrollton. There isn't enough to say people would go from Bethesda to New Carrollton." I point out that, since Bethesda is a large job center, the majority of commuters would be headed from New Carrollton to Bethesda, and ask if Wolf has ever driven or used transit along congested East-West Highway before. "No, I haven't driven it because that's not the route I take," says Wolf, adding, "I think the people on that transit should have a better understanding of the history of the trail." Soon enough, we reach the East-West Highway underpass - the end of the Purple Line in Chevy Chase. Mier Wolf suggests that I speak to Pam Browning, a local activist and head of the Save the Trail Petition, which claims over ten thousand signatures of trail users who want it kept just the way it is. We walk back to the Chevy Chase Town Hall and Community Center, a sprawling complex at the rough center of town, to make a phone call. In the lobby, Chuck Norris appears on a TV hanging from the ceiling. There's a black woman at the front desk; like everyone else in Chevy Chase, she says "hi" to Wolf and they briefly chat about how hot it is. "How do you get to work?" I ask the woman at the desk. "Do you live in Chevy Chase?" "Oh, no!" she says, explaining how she takes the Metro from Naylor Road in Temple Hills across D.C. to work. "It was congested. It's horrible. On several of the trains it was no air." "And they barely run any trains after eight or nine," Wolf commiserates. I'm reminded of every night coming home from the 9:30 Club, waiting twenty minutes for a train to arrive. Could the Purple Line be the same? Trains wouldn't come every six minutes the whole day, right? Surely, Chevy Chase could live with that. I propose this to Wolf. He frowns. "You know, when you talk about ridership estimates on a train that would only run during the rush hour, I have problems with that cost-wise," he says. "But if it's undergrounded, I don't have a problem with that." Mier Wolf walks me the block-and-a-half to Pam Browning's house, one of a few dozen that actually backs to the trail. On the way, he explains how he'd ridden the Metro "since it was built" to his job at the department of Housing and Urban Development, better known as HUD. "I'm a big Metro advocate," Wolf says.