Maryland needs the Purple Line

Jan. 26, 2006, midnight | By Ravi Umarji | 14 years, 12 months ago

Every day, 200,000 cars sit idly in the 64-mile-long parking lot that is the Washington Capital Beltway. This spring, Maryland transit authorities will hold public forums to pitch their latest solution: toll lanes running in either direction around almost the entire Beltway.

Their plan is to add one lane in each direction next to the median and make that and the adjacent lane toll lanes. Drivers would pay tolls based on the traffic congestion at the time at which they were driving, meaning that getting to work quickly during rush hour could cost as much as $30.

Widening the Beltway this way is expensive, impractical and predicated on invading property surrounding I-495, including Four Corners. The pragmatic solution to congestion is the proposed Purple Metro Line connecting Bethesda, Silver Spring and College Park.

The Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA) and the Department of Transportation are conducting a study, due to finish in 2007, assessing the feasibility of constructing toll lanes on the Maryland side of the Beltway between the American Legion Bridge and the Woodrow Wilson Bridge — a distance of 42 miles.

Blair and the houses around it are in the middle of this stretch, essentially guaranteeing the destruction of homes and some of the school's property. The medians in the Montgomery County section of the Beltway are narrow, making it impossible for toll lanes to be built without widening the actual road, said SHA Project Manager Sue Rajan.

This infringement wouldn't be limited to the Silver Spring area; every region in the 42-mile stretch would experience significant construction. Homeowners would have to submit to eminent domain, the process through which the state takes private property for its own use. Already, between 30 and 40 Silver Spring residents have been informed that their houses may be demolished, according to Ben Ross, president of the Action Committee for Transit.

The proposed Purple Line neatly avoids these obstacles because much of its route would run along an abandoned train track, meaning no land would be cleared. Even the part of the potential line that is not on a pre-existing track — from Silver Spring to New Carrollton — a would run through open land, said Ross. Very few houses, if any, would be destroyed.

Apart from being less destructive than the proposed Beltway expansion, the Purple Line would also be far more effective in helping commuters avoid the daily gridlock. Toll lanes could, according to a December article in The Washington Post, cost up to $1 per mile depending on traffic levels. This means that a commuter could potentially spend $20 in a toll lane for a trip that would cost under $5 via Metro.

There is also no doubt that the Purple Line's route would take commuters where they need to go, according to Jim Clarke, a legislative vice president of the Action Committee for Transit. "The three largest employment centers in the region are Bethesda, Silver Spring and College Park," he said. "What [the Purple Line] would be is a direct rail between those employment centers."

The proposed Metro line will transport travelers for a Metro fare, far less than the exorbitant projected cost for toll-lane drivers. It will also be less destructive and more effective in allowing commuters to and from work. The state of Maryland should aggressively pursue the Purple Line — the most efficient way to solve its current transit woes.

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