Friday, January 16, 2009

MTA Declares War on Chevy Chase, Part Five

MTA’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) contains a set of facts that are extremely problematic for opponents of rail on the Capital Crescent Trail. But the bigger problem for rail opponents is the evolving political dynamic on the issue.

Purple Line rail foes have suffered a string of defeats. In November, the Washington Area Bicyclist Association endorsed rail. On November 16, the Post endorsed rail. In December, County Council Member Roger Berliner, who represents Chevy Chase, restated his support for rail. On December 10, the Gazette endorsed rail. On December 22, the Montgomery County planning staff endorsed rail. On December 28, Post columnist Marc Fisher endorsed rail. On January 4, the Post called for rail again. On January 8, County Executive Ike Leggett told the Post, "It's pretty clear there's overwhelming support for light rail," while saying he was undecided. Yesterday, the Montgomery County Planning Board endorsed medium-investment light rail by a 4-1 vote. The lone bright spot for rail opponents was the withdrawal of the Environmental Defense Fund from the pro-rail coalition.

But these recent events have reinforced, not changed, the basic political alignment on the Purple Line. Here is the order of battle.

The Combatants
Purple Line Now, the primary pro-rail organization, has assembled a giant coalition of civic, environmental, business and non-profit groups and has signed up dozens of state and county politicians. Rethinking the Purple Line, an anti-rail alliance, contains a number of civic groups and municipal governments located near the Capital Crescent Trail. The Chevy Chase opponents do not have close relations with opponents in East Silver Spring, who have different concerns and are themselves divided. The Jones Bridge BRT option has spawned new opposition to that proposal along Jones Bridge Road in North Chevy Chase. The Columbia Country Club, long opposed to transit through its grounds, is rumored to be in negotiations with MTA. Rail supporters are at least as well-organized, at least as well-financed and are much more numerous than opponents – a fact that is not lost on most politicians.

Prince George’s County
The Town of Chevy Chase’s push for buses sets up a dream scenario for Prince George’s politicians. The notion that opposition to rail from one of the state’s wealthiest neighborhoods might condemn Prince George’s residents to further rides on buses provides irresistible propaganda opportunities for many politicians. Senator Paul Pinsky (D-22), who said of the town and the country club, “They seem to live in Alice in Wonderland,” provides just one example. There is zero support for BRT in Prince George’s County (and Town consultant Sam Schwartz did not study it east of Silver Spring). That lack of support will factor into the state’s political decision-making.

Montgomery County
Only Senator Rich Madaleno (D-18) and Delegate Al Carr (D-18) are known to oppose rail for the Purple Line. County Executive Ike Leggett, every County Council Member and every other state legislator in Montgomery except Delegate Jeff Waldstreicher (D-18) is a listed supporter of rail. The inability of rail opponents to break out of their home district exposes a major liability. The anti-ICC coalition was much, much larger and it still lost.

The Administration
The calculus of the administration looks fairly simple. From a policy perspective, if MDOT Secretary John Porcari believes MTA’s data, the only conceivable reason he would not recommend rail is pure cost. The numbers indicate rail superiority in almost every other area. But if he did choose BRT, the data argues for running buses directly on the trail. The on-trail bus options beat Jones Bridge BRT on travel time, speed, ridership, reduction in vehicle miles traveled, reduction in carbon dioxide and cost effectiveness. Medium-investment BRT, which runs buses on the trail, costs $14.01 per hour of user benefit compared to $18.24 for Jones Bridge.

From a political perspective, the Purple Line is a high-profile, high-cost project that could use up a significant percentage of the state's transportation budget. Any rational politician would embark on such an endeavor only if he or she was sure to receive substantial credit for it. (The unpopularity of the $2.4 billion ICC must be galling to the Governor.) If the administration chooses BRT, they would disappoint the entire Prince George’s establishment, most of the Montgomery establishment and the colossal number of groups in the pro-rail coalition. If the administration chooses rail, they would antagonize a few neighborhoods near the trail and receive praise from almost every power player in the Washington suburbs.

So what do you think the state will do?