Monday, August 3, 2009

guest blog: a jones bridge road resident's view of the purple line

The following post comes from Jon Prater-Lewis, a North Chevy Chase resident who lives on Jones Bridge Road, one of the proposed alignments for the Purple Line, a transitway that would connect Bethesda to New Carrollton. An alternative route along the Capital Crescent Trail would pass through the Town of Chevy Chase, which may file a lawsuit against the Maryland Transit Administration that could stall the project entirely.

purple line at columbia country club
A rendering of the Purple Line in Chevy Chase, courtesy of MTA.

It has been several years since former Governor Ehrlich made the statement that 'under no circumstances' would the proposed Purple Line cross Columbia Country Club, even as the Maryland Transit Administration was supposedly undertaking an impartial study of precisely that route. The resulting interference by Governor Ehrlich produced the so-called Jones Bridge Road option, in which the MTA was required to study the possibility of the Purple Line being diverted onto Jones Bridge Road in the form of a Bus Rapid Transit system, in order to bypass the Country Club's golf course. Coincidentally, many of the Country Club's members were supporters of Governor Ehrlich's campaign.

Years, many millions of dollars, and a new governor later, a light rail version of the Purple Line running from New Carrollton to Bethesda along the former CSX railroad right of way now known as the Capital Crescent Trail has emerged as the preferred option. It has been unanimously approved by Montgomery County Council, which bought the CSX route for millions of dollars in order to build a light rail on it. It has been selected as the preferred option by the Planning Board and endorsed by the Washington Post. The MTA's own lengthy public forums on the subject have produced overwhelming public support for the light rail, and soon Governor O'Malley is expected to make his choice on whether to formally approve it. Federal funding is expected to follow.

It is at this eleventh hour that the Country Club, as well as the Town of Chevy Chase, are spending inordinate amounts of money lobbying to have the Purple Line derailed, and the Jones Bridge Road bus option revisited. The Country Club objects to the presence of any form of public transportation encroaching on its exclusive preserve, where memberships exceed $70,000, even though it does not actually own the land on which the Purple Line would run. The Town of Chevy Chase does not want vulgar public transportation skirting the northern boundaries of its million dollar homes, and recently paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to an engineer from New York, named Sam Schwartz, to prepare an alternative study claiming that it would be far better to divert it onto less affluent Jones Bridge Road.

Last year, the Schwartz study was largely discounted by the MTA, which described portions of it as misinformation, and recently some residents of the Town of Chevy Chase have begun questioning the large sums of money paid to Mr. Schwartz.

The Bus Rapid Transit option has also been opposed by the US Navy Hospital, which sits at the end of Jones Bridge Road and is soon to become the new Walter Reed Military Medical Center. With traffic congestion expected to increase as a result, it does not want the Purple Line compounding the problem, although the Schwartz study claims it would lessen it. The Schwartz study claims that commuters to Walter Reed would ride the Purple Line, but BRAC studies suggest that most commuters to Walter Reed would drive their cars to Walter Reed from the Beltway exits on Rockville Pike and Connecticut Avenue, where the increased traffic stream would collide with the Purple Line if it were diverted onto Jones Bridge.

In fact, it is difficult to imagine anything lessening the congestion that now affects Jones Bridge Road, especially where it crosses Connecticut Avenue, and where waiting through two or more lights at rush hour is the norm. If the Purple Line were built as a Bus Rapid Transit system there, it might as well be renamed the Gridlock Express.

The worst impact to Jones Bridge Road would be at it opposite end, where it is a two lane road passing through a quiet residential community, with North Chevy Chase Elementary School situated on one side, and the National Audubon Society on nearby Jones Mill Road. I have lived on this part of Jones Bridge Road for 33 years, during which time commuter traffic has already reached maximum sustainable levels. To the residents here, the campaign by the Country Club and Town of Chevy Chase to divert the Purple Line onto Jones Bridge has been, at best, a callous exercise in class warfare and, at worst, an indifferent threat to the safety of children. Many live within walking distance of the school, and cross Jones Bridge Road to attend it. Despite claims made by Mr. Schwartz that high speed buses could co-exist with existing traffic and navigate a two lane road without the need to widen it, it is clear that scores of homes would have to be pulled down and dedicated lanes would need to be built. And the danger to children crossing the path of high speed buses passing every few minutes would remain.

The issue became acute when the Town of Chevy Chase voted to limit traffic and reduce speed in front of its own elementary school, where coincidentally the mayor's children attended. The double standard it represented provoke outrage in the North Chevy Chase community. It has become a test for both the citizens of Montgomery County and the State of Maryland whether a much-needed commuter rail system carrying thousands of passengers along a publicly owned right of way can be diverted into a quiet residential neighborhood as a speeding bus line, and made to pass in front of a school, merely in order not to disturb millionaires at their golf game.

And the questions arises why, when the Maryland Transit Administration has vetted the entire process in open forum, and elected officials have endorsed it, private money spent on lobbyists has any expectation at all of circumventing the process?

For many decades, large, heavy CSX freight trains ran across Columbia Country Club and the northern edge of the Town of Chevy Chase without harm. Now this publicly owned right of way is being considered for a smaller light rail running on quiet grass tracks, which will bypass most congested roads and avoid the area of North Chevy Chase Elementary School altogether. The choice is obvious. The time has come to move forward with the Purple Line as a light rail on the Capital Crescent Trail, and end the corrupting effect of private big money on the legislative and planning process. Is that not what Governor O'Malley was elected to do?

Disclaimer: the statements above are those of Jon Prater-Lewis and belong to him alone. I am an aide to Councilmember George Leventhal, an ex-officio board member of Purple Line Now!, a group advocating the project's completion.


Jason Blum said...

They have fences on our (public) land. Legally, can we not take wire-cutters to them today?

silverspringtrails said...

Under the terms of the agreement between Montgomery County and the club that was signed in 1996, the County has the legal right to remove the fence at any time. The club lost the legal challenge to the right-of-way that it had underway at the time the temporary agreement was signed.

Jason Blum said...

I'm sorry: I'm only ramping up on this issue. So what is the County waiting for? And is there a map online of the boundaries between what we own versus what the columbia country club owns? Is the map recognized by both sides? What's to stop us from cutting the locks on their gates to demarcate and access our land?

I'm completely serious about this. There are already too many ecologically wasteful golf courses in the area - let them play at Sligo!

silverspringtrails said...

phenotypical said:
"I'm sorry: I'm only ramping up on this issue. So what is the County waiting for?"

No need to apologize, this issue is driving lots of us nuts!

There is nothing stopping the County from taking down the fence, except inertia and perhaps the reluctance of politicians to take on the Club.

My blog post chain link fences are historic? at has a brief history of the legal agreement, a link to a pdf file of the agreement, and a link to the contemporary analysis the CCCT had of how the public was being abused by the agreement.

It is time to reopen this issue and get the fences taken down.