Metro has made suburban Maryland a more dense, pleasant place to live. There are 12 lanes available to Montgomery drivers on I-270, but there are also frequent trains all the way out from Shady Grove to the center of the city.
But traveling on rail in Montgomery and Prince George’s to other Maryland destinations can be a pain, requiring going through the city or backtracking to reach a destination. Silver Spring to Bethesda takes 35 minutes when it should take 10. There are buses, but they are less frequent and slower than a separated right-of-way rail would be. It need not remain that way. Maryland voters will get to decide if a new rapid-transit link, currently dubbed The Purple Line, will appear in the suburbs in the form of a bus or a train.
Re-elect Martin O’Malley (D) and he will spend a lot of money, about $1.6 billion, to deliver suburb-to-suburb car-free travel on frequent light rail service. Much of the route, which would run from New Carrollton to Bethesda initially, is already developed to D.C. levels of density. Others places like Langley Park and Adelphi would see speculative land buying and gentrification. The Purple Line would increase mobility, but also increase density inside the Beltway and make this part of the suburbs even more urban than it already is. Some people want that, and others will fight to the death to prevent it (Chevy Chase).
“If Ehrlich wins, the whole thing is gone,” said Ralph Bennett, president of Purple Line Now, a light rail advocacy group.
“He thinks it’s important for people to understand the money to build light rail simply doesn’t exist,” Barth said.
Ehrlich would likely scrap the light rail component, of both the Purple Line and its Baltimore cousin the Red Line (badly needed in such a big city). He says he would replace it with rapid buses. Bus rapid transit, which suffers from a wide array of definitions, would likely make the trip faster and increase mobility. But the development component would not follow to the same degree. And buses could potentially be more expensive over the long run, due to lower capacity (more drivers) and lower life expectancy for buses over trains.
The choice between O’Malley and Ehrlich is a clear one. O’Malley will spend more money, but provide a higher level of service in an area that is begging for it. Furthermore, a rail Purple Line could begin the conversation for an entire circular line around the city. Ehrlich’s option may save money in the short-term, but could encourage sprawl by not pursuing the light rail option. Let’s face it, rail will attract more riders. And Ehrlich’s plan would be back to the drawing board: The light rail Purple Line is not far away from construction with O’Malley as governor. If you think the Purple Line is far away now, watch what happens if Ehrlich is elected.
This is not a poor area; if any state can afford to do these large projects, it is Maryland, where the average income is high and the unemployment rate comparatively low. If Dallas and Houston can push forward with plans for more rail in the face of their blistering sprawl, surely so can Maryland. Let’s see how smart the Smart Growth state behaves on Nov. 2.
Second in a two-part series.