Posts about Purple Line
Turnout was low in Maryland's primary election yesterday, but there were some surprises, especially in the local races. What does it mean for urbanism in the state, particularly in Montgomery and Prince George's counties? Our contributors offer their thoughts.
Ronit Dancis: Though primary elections tend to draw out the voters most inclined to oppose change, candidates in Montgomery County who campaigned on an anti-growth platform didn't perform well. In the at-large council race, groups including the Sierra Club threw their support behind anti-growth candidates Beth Daly and Marc Elrich while targeting Purple Line advocate George Leventhal, who had just cast crucial votes against M-83 and Ten Mile Creek.
As in 2010, Marc Elrich won first place, but Beth Daly, who campaigned as "Marc's second vote," took 5th place in a race for four seats. In District 3, developer ally Sid Katz defeated two opponents more attuned to smart growth. As a result, the council will have a three-person pro-development bloc, with Katz, Craig Rice (District 2) and Nancy Floreen (at-large).
Dan Reed: Smart growth supporters got a win of sorts in Montgomery's Council District 5, containing Silver Spring, Takoma Park, White Oak, and Burtonsville. Current state delegate Tom Hucker is leading former journalist Evan Glass by just over 200 votes.
A 12-year resident of downtown Silver Spring, Glass helped start the South Silver Spring Neighborhood Association, bringing together a redeveloping urban district that's one of the region's youngest neighborhoods. He's advocated for more affordable housing, the county's Bus Rapid Transit plan, and changing the county's liquor laws to support local businesses and nightlife.
As state delegate, Tom Hucker fought for the Purple Line and has support from the building trades, who are naturally pro-development. But as a council candidate, he opposed new housing near the Silver Spring and Takoma Metro stations. He also allied with Councilmember Marc Elrich, who received donations from real estate interests even as he lambasted Glass for doing the same.
This tight race suggests that voters aren't necessarily interested in the "growth-vs.-no growth" debate. It also gives Glass has a good place to start from if he ever runs for office in the future. (Full disclosure: I supported Evan Glass's campaign.)
Ben Ross: Legislative results brought some good news for urbanists. Two strong transit advocates will enter the House of Delegates: David Moon, a former Purple Line Now! and Communities for Transit staffer, won in District 20 (Silver Spring and Takoma Park), and attorney Marc Korman in District 16 (Bethesda and Potomac). Susan Lee moved up easily into the Senate in District 16 while Lou Simmons, the county's lone vote against the gas tax increase, failed to advance to the Senate in District 17.
In District 18, containing Chevy Chase, Kensington, and Wheaton, lone Purple Line supporter among the incumbent delegates Ana Sol Gutierrez was easily reelected, while senator and Purple Line opponent Rich Madaleno fended off a surprisingly strong challenge from Purple Line supporter Dana Beyer.
Jim Titus: The primary results for bicycling were as good as we could have hoped. Brian Frosh has been one of the State Senate's key supporters for bicycling rights, and we can expect an informed perspective should the need arise for an official opinion of the Attorney General. That is certainly better than the outgoing Attorney General, who advised state police that stop signs are optional, at least when he is the passenger.
On the Prince George's County Council, the strongest bike supporter has been Eric Olson, who was term limited. But his chief assistant Danielle Glaros will replace him. She will be a strong voice for the eventual urbanization of New Carrollton, thorough technical understanding, and sufficient political skills that she will almost certainly serve a term as Council Chairman.
The most controversial primary in Montgomery County this year might be for the at-large council seat. More so than any race, this one focuses on how the county should grow and whether it can meet the increasing demand for urban, transit-served communities.
There are six candidates vying for four at-large seats on the County Council. The incumbents include Nancy Floreen and George Leventhal, both elected on a pro-growth slate in 2002 and finishing their third terms; former teacher Marc Elrich, who won on a slow-growth platform in 2006; and Hans Riemer, a former political campaign director elected in 2010. The challengers are Beth Daly, director of political ad sales for Telemundo, and Vivian Malloy, retired Army nurse and member of the county's Democratic Central Committee.
All six candidates filled out the Action Committee for Transit's questionnaire for the scorecard, which is based on both their responses and public statements. This year, how ACT rated the candidates' responses has become a story of its own.
Riemer, Leventhal, and Floreen want more housing in urban areas; Daly and Elrich say we'll have enough
As with the Purple Line, all six candidates say they support building in the county's downtowns and near transit, where more people are interested in living and where an increasing share of the county's growth is happening. But they disagreed on where exactly to build, and how much new housing was necessary.
Riemer. Image from Maryland Manual On-line.
Riemer pointed to accessory apartments as one way to increase affordable housing, while Floreen named specific impediments to building more affordable housing, such as the county's parking requirements and developer fees. Both Riemer and Vivian Malloy advocated increased funding for the county's affordable housing programs.
Meanwhile, Elrich and Daly both say the county is growing too fast, though much of the county is pretty stable. Elrich has been especially critical of plans to around future Purple Line stations at Long Branch and Chevy Chase Lake, both of which he voted against.
Daly. Image from her campaign website.
Candidates say they support the Purple Line, though Daly is hesitant
Leventhal. Image from his campaign website.
Malloy. Image from her campaign website.
Both Vivian Malloy and Beth Daly wrote in their questionnaires that they support the Purple Line. Daly has expressed some skepticism about the Purple Line both in the questionnaire and in public appearances, which earned her a minus on the scorecard.
Support for complete streets, but disagreement over how to make them
Floreen. Image from Maryland Manual On-line.
Elrich and Floreen say they support complete streets, but have also pointed to the road code bill they passed in 2008, which encourage pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly street design but allowed wide roads that encourage drivers to speed. Daly wrote that she supported complete streets "in the more densely populated regions of the county."
Strong support for Bus Rapid Transit, and opposition to new highways
Elrich. Image from Maryland Manual On-line.
Daly testified in favor of BRT at public hearings last year, but said she wanted to "look at creative solutions" for creating bus lanes on narrow, congested roads. Floreen, who has been skeptical of the BRT plan, said her support would "depend on the particular location."
Meanwhile, all six candidates say they oppose the M-83 highway, which would go from Montgomery Village to Clarksburg, and would prefer a less costly alternative that involved transit.
Voters face two different paths in this race
The conventional wisdom is that Nancy Floreen, who's raised the most money, and Marc Elrich, who received the most votes four years ago, are safe. That makes the real contest between George Leventhal and Hans Riemer, who have spent their terms encouraging new investment in the county's downtowns and discouraging it in environmentally sensitive areas, and Beth Daly, who's called herself "Marc's second vote" and has mainly talked about slowing things down across the board.
Of all of the races in Montgomery County, this one may offer the starkest differences in candidates' positions when it comes to transportation and development issues. Simply because the voices in the at-large race have been so strong, changing any one of them this year could have a big impact on the county's direction over the next four years.
Full disclosure: Dan Reed worked in George Leventhal's council office from 2009-2010.
Candidate who's "concerned" about Purple Line gets angry when pro-Purple Line organization gives her a low score
If you're running for office, you'd like to get votes from everyone, and avoid angering people. A lot of candidates try to do this by expressing "support" for big projects which have a lot of proponents, while also voicing "concerns" to those against the project.
Muriel Bowser was an avid practitioner of this strategy during the DC mayoral primary, favoring things like development at Takoma Metro or DC's zoning update while simultaneously sharing opponents' views. In Montogmery County, at-large council candidate Beth Daly is trying it with the Purple Line, and crying foul when the Action Committee for Transit didn't fall for it.
Bill Turque talked about the controversy in the Washington Post. Daly wrote on the ACT questionnaire that she supports "the east-west connectivity of the Purple Line," but with a long litany of caveats.
She is "still not certain" of what the county will pay, because she "suspect[s]" that the money the state has promised won't go far enough. She wants more effort to "reduce environmental and economic impacts" on the surrounding communities, like noise, trees, and effect on businesses.
The Purple Line has endured decades of debate and political battles. County and state leaders have made a decision about what route to build, and made tradeoffs about all of these issues. The federal government is on board. But it's pretty clear from reading Daly's answer that she doesn't agree with that decision and isn't willing to endorse the specific project that's on the table.
Why is Daly surprised ACT rated her as a Purple Line skeptic?
It's her right to take this view, but she shouldn't be surprised when ACT, an organization for which the Purple Line (as currently proposed, specifically) is perhaps its top issue, doesn't rate her highly.
What's odd about the controversy Turque describes is not that ACT likes the specific Purple Line proposal or Daly doesn't; it's that Daly is angry with ACT when her answer was pretty clear. According to Turque, Daly's husband said he wanted to "grab [ACT President Nick Brand] by the neck" for the scorecard.
Daly tells Turque that the rating was unfair because other people who expressed "concerns" in the past got plus marks. That particularly refers to Marc Elrich, who also holds an at large seat and is ideologically aligned with Daly. He's been a Purple Line skeptic in the past, but when ACT specifically asked on its questionnaire whether candidates would endorse the current Purple Line project "without qualification," Elrich simply wrote "YES."
That means either Elrich has moved past any former concerns and now supports the project as it's being proposed, or he was not being truthful on the questionnaire. He argued to Turque that Daly's answers were not negative. Sorry, that doesn't fly. The question was pretty clear.
Turque also talks about a lot of inside baseball controversy about whether ACT leaders were trying to help incumbent at-large member George Leventhal. An ACT board member who's close to Leventhal apparently wanted questions about the Purple Line at a recent candidate forum to not focus on affordable housing around Purple Line stations. The Coalition for Smarter Growth's Kelly Blynn, who in her professional role for a nonprofit is not trying to help a particular candidate or another, refused and left the question in.
More information can help voters decide
The Purple Line is very much worth building as proposed, but that doesn't mean candidates don't deserve credit or scorn for their stances on other matters. Affordable housing along the Purple Line is important, and hopefully Montgomery County will take many steps to ensure that the communities around its stations remain mixed-income.
Daly pushed to reduce the amount of development in Clarksburg, which is far from transit, at the edge of the region's core, and not the best place for a lot of new housing. (Leventhal also voted to reduce development in Clarksburg.) The ACT scorecard doesn't cover every single factor voters might use to weigh the candidates.
However, politicians have a lot of incentive to dodge questions and blur their positions. Good reporting (often absent in political campaigns) cuts through the fog and helps voters know who actually shares their values. So do advocacy scorecards.
Muriel Bowser successfully kept the focus off her actual views in the DC campaign. ACT is trying not to make the Montgomery races work this way. Other organizations can do the same for other issues besides the ones ACT focuses on. Any candidate who wants to play both sides of an issue shouldn't be surprised if he or she gets called out for it.
All of the candidates running for Montgomery County's District 5 council seat say they want to bring jobs, shopping, and transit to an area that's long awaited them. But they seem to disagree on whether that investment should go where it's most needed, or where there's the least resistance.
Councilmember Valerie Ervin's resignation last fall left an open seat in Montgomery County's District 5, newly redrawn in 2010 to cover a narrow strip from Silver Spring to Burtonsville. Several candidates jumped in to succeed her.
Joining former journalist Evan Glass, who'd already announced before Ervin resigned, are state delegate Tom Hucker, Board of Education member Chris Barclay, community organizer Terrill North, and preacher Jeffrey Thames.
The majority-minority district struggles with poverty and disinvestment, and has some of the county's highest rates of transit use and lowest rates of car ownership. In ACT's questionnaire and in public forums, candidates said those issues are why the area needs
more transit and economic development.
Candidates want to build near transit, but some aren't sure about actual plans
Most candidates say they support building near transit, notably in downtown Silver Spring, home to the one of the region's largest transit hubs. Glass, who lived in downtown Silver Spring until 2012 and helped start the South Silver Spring Neighborhood Association, supports more development there as a way to preserve other areas and provide more affordable housing.
He's also called for reforms that could help local businesses and draw younger residents. Last month, he wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post with restaurant owner Jackie Greenbaum about the need to reform the county's liquor laws.
Other candidates have been reluctant to embrace specific projects that have faced resistance. At a Conservation Montgomery forum last month, Tom Hucker said the council should have never approved the Chelsea Heights development 5 blocks from the Metro station because it required cutting down old-growth trees.
Meanwhile, candidates have endorsed bringing more investment to Burtonsville's dying village center, 10 miles north. Residents generally support that idea, and State Delegate Eric Luedtke, who lives in Burtonsville, has called on District 5 candidates to start talking about it more.
Candidates have also touted the county's White Oak Science Gateway plan, which envisions a new research and technology hub surrounding the Food and Drug Administration headquarters alongside a town center containing shops and restaurants. The White Oak plan has considerable community support, but is tied up due to concerns about car traffic.
"If we don't build it in White Oak," said Hucker at a candidates forum in Briggs Chaney last week, "those jobs are going to go to Konterra [in Prince George's County], they're going to go to Howard County, they're going to go to DC."
Backtracking on transit
At the core of the White Oak plan are three planned Bus Rapid Transit corridors, on Randolph Road, New Hampshire Avenue, and Route 29, which the county will start studying in detail soon. All of the candidates say they support BRT, and Glass has been vocal about giving buses their own lanes, even if it means repurposing general traffic lanes. "Efficient and timely travel can only be achieved through dedicated lanes," he wrote in his questionnaire.
But others have offered reservations, especially in Four Corners, where a small group of neighbors have fought it for years. Hucker says he supports BRT "in certain places where it makes sense," and wants to focus in fixing Ride On first. "I don't support building BRT on the backs of our current Ride On or Metrobus," he said at a recent forum in Four Corners.
Terrill North wants BRT on New Hampshire Avenue and on Route 29 north of White Oak, but not on Route 29 in Four Corners, which would be the most direct route to Silver Spring. "I don't think we need to take away curbs or take away business from this community, take away business from this community, take away lanes, because I think that could make things worse," he said at the same forum.
Likewise, all five candidates have endorsed the Purple Line, which could break ground next year. Hucker has long supported the light-rail line between Montgomery and Prince George's counties, and represents the General Assembly on Purple Line Now!'s board.
Meanwhile, North and Chris Barclay have expressed reluctance about developing around future Purple Line stations, like in Long Branch, citing concerns about higher density and the potential impacts to affordable housing and small businesses.
Strong support for complete streets
With a state highway as its spine, District 5 can be a dangerous place for a pedestrian, with lots of busy road crossings and fast-moving traffic. All candidates have said they support making our streets safer for pedestrians, cyclists, and transit riders.
At the Four Corners forum and other events, Jeffrey Thames said he'd like to see more Barnes Dance intersections, like the one at 7th and H streets NW in the District, where pedestrians can cross in all directions. When asked if they'd support pedestrian- and bicyclist-friendly streets even if it slowed drivers down, Glass, Hucker, and North all said yes.
After years of watching the rest of Montgomery County draw jobs and investment, it seems like it might finally be East County's turn. Whoever represents the area next will get the chance to determine whether the area can give its residents, especially those of limited means, the investment they want, or if it continues to be a pass-through on the way to other destinations.
Full disclosure: Dan Reed is a member of One Montgomery, an organization that has endorsed Evan Glass, and has contributed to Glass's campaign.
Where do candidates in Montgomery County and statewide in Maryland stand on the Purple Line, pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly road designs, Bus Rapid Transit, M-83 and adding housing? A new scorecard by the Action Committee for Transit helps shed light on these issues.
Maryland voters will be choosing nominees in a primary on June 24th. ACT asked candidates for Montgomery County Council and County Executive, state delegate from Montgomery County, and governor about these issues. ACT then rated the candidates based on their voting records, questionnaire answers, records in office (especially important for candidates who have held executive offices), and public statements.
Here is more detail about the questions ACT asked, and why.
1. Do you support funding and advancing the Purple Line to groundbreaking as described in the Locally Preferred Alternative and the Environmental Impact Statement without qualification?
In the quarter-century and more that activists have worked for the Purple Line, plenty of politicians and citizens have claimed to support the Purple Line. However, that support has sometimes come with qualifications that would make the Purple Line either prohibitively expensive to build or ineffective.
There are those who support the Purple Line only if it were built as a heavy rail line or only if it were bus rapid transit. Some public officials have claimed to be for the Purple Line but then pushed for alternative routes that were impractical or wildly expensive. Others have said they supported the project but then added qualifications that neatly dovetailed with the arguments opponents were making against it.
The Locally Preferred Alternative Governor Martin O'Malley and the County Council selected for the Purple Line includes an at-grade light rail line with a trail alongside it on the Georgetown Branch right of way between Bethesda and Silver Spring.
Although the Purple Line is widely considered a done deal, the fact remains that any public works project this large can falter. The Purple Line has uniquely well-funded and well-connected opponents. As activists, our job is to consistently advocate for the Purple Line until the trains are running and the trail is full of bikers and hikers. ACT only gave candidates pluses if they supported the Purple Line without any qualification.
2. Would you support more transit, pedestrian, and bicycle-friendly road design in our school zones and urban centers even if it slows drivers down?
Many officials claim they want safer and more convenient roads for pedestrians and cyclists, but advocates have consistently found that support vanishes if any design changes would lower speed limits or otherwise inconvenience car traffic. It's easy to support pedestrian and bicycle friendly road design; it is very hard to support it when it requires slowing drivers down. Sadly, this is true even of school zones.
For this question, ACT gave pluses only if candidates were willing to support complete streets policies even when a change might slow down some drivers.
3. Do you support changing existing traffic lanes to dedicated bus lanes for BRT?
The basic idea of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) is that the most efficient use of road space is for those vehicles that carry many passengers. When lanes are reserved for exclusive use by buses, a road can carry more people faster. Stranding buses in the same congested traffic as cars takes the "rapid" out of Bus Rapid Transit; effective BRT requires dedicated lanes for buses.
Unfortunately, if implemented improperly, this gives highway builders an opportunity to further widen roads for extra bus lanes. In Montgomery County, the temptation exists for politicians to support dedicated bus lanes in the upcounty by widening roads, while opposing any bus lanes in the downcounty. That would mollify those who can't imagine taking lanes away from cars. It is easy for a candidate to support generic BRT; it is harder for a candidate to support changing some existing car lanes to bus-only lanes.
The BRT plan approved by the County Council last fall does not rule out widening roads to create dedicated bus lanes, and includes several chances for residents to delay or stop repurposing car lanes to bus only lanes. Advocates must continue to pressure the County Council to make sure Montgomery County gets the rapid Bus Rapid Transit system it needs.
ACT specifically asked candidates if they support changing existing traffic lanes to dedicated bus lanes, and only gave candidates a plus if they supported that.
4. Will you support stopping all spending on the M83 highway?
M83 is an environmentally destructive highway that would run from Montgomery Village to Clarksburg and cost the county at least $350 million to build. It was put in the master plans over 50 years ago, before major modern environmental laws existed.
To be sure candidates opposed it, we asked if they would support stopping all spending on M83. The question covered money from both the capital budget and operating budget, as well as any money to study it further.
The questionnaire answers are the first time all at-large county council Democratic candidates stated their opposition to any further spending on the M83 highway, marking an important turning point in the fight against the "zombie" highway.
5. How would you increase the housing supply in our urban centers?
For transit to work, it has to be where people can use it: near their homes. And if more people live near transit, then more people can use it. Therefore ACT has consistently supported development in urban areas like downtown Silver Spring and Bethesda.
In areas like these, politicians who support this sort of development frequently take a lot of criticism from people who don't want any new development whatsoever, and who feel it threatens the character of single-family neighborhoods.
Two recent projects, the Chelsea Heights townhouse development in Silver Spring and the Chevy Chase Lake plan, have typified this debate in the downcounty. ACT considered candidates' statements on those two development projects when rating them on this issue.
Many candidates chose to interpret this question as one about affordable housing programs, which misses the point. The intense market demand for transit-accessible housing means that less affluent residents will inevitably get squeezed out unless we greatly increase the supply. To ensure that housing near Metro does not become a luxury good, we must promote construction of transit-accessible residences at all price levels, including high-end and middle-income housing as well as subsidized housing.
6. Would you support a 2nd road crossing of the Potomac?
At the moment, there are no plans for a second highway crossing over the Potomac which would make an "Outer Beltway." However, some Virginia advocacy groups regularly bring the idea up at Council of Governments meetings, and there are Marylanders who are very interested. The highway lobby in both states is very supportive.
A second road bridge would invite more highway-building at the expense of funds for transit. Although the issue is currently dormant, it might become active in the future and so the ACT board wanted to know what politicians would say about it. It also seemed to be a good opportunity to find out candidates' general attitudes towards highway building and sprawl development.
7. Do you support including the 3rd track needed to allow all-day MARC service?
Right now MARC only runs a few times a day between Martinsburg, Frederick and DC. MARC runs on CSX tracks, and CSX uses those tracks for its own trains, limiting MARC service. For MARC to run more frequently, it needs a third track.
"Why did my candidate get a minus when their questionnaire answers are perfectly correct?"
Some candidates answered "yes", and then followed that with an answer that made it clear they didn't get it. For example, an imaginary candidate who responded to the M83 question by saying "Yes, there should be no further spending on M83. The money should go to a highway that runs from my house to I-270," would receive a minus because they do support building more highways in our county. For the record, no candidate said any such thing.
Candidates who served in executive offices, such as the County Executive, were evaluated on their records in office as well as their public statements, voting records and questionnaire answers.
There have been a considerable number of candidate forums and other opportunities to hear candidates speak. ACT board members have attended as many as possible, not just because we are political junkies in need of help, but because we wanted to see if candidates were consistent in their positions.
We found that some candidates were inconsistent in addition to just not being clear. If a candidate's statements at a public event conflicted with the answer he or she gave on the questionnaire, that factored into the rating. The questions were deliberately written using very specific language to see who would go beyond generalities and commit to a position that might be unpopular.
Candidates running unopposed in primaries were not rated. However, their answers to the questionnaires, along with those of all the other candidates, are posted in full on the ACT website.
What do you get when you plot onto a single map every known light rail, streetcar, and BRT plan in the DC region? One heck of a huge transit network, is what.
Every planned light rail, streetcar, and BRT line in the DC region. Click the map to open a zoom-able interactive version. Map by the author, using Google basemap.
This map combines the DC streetcar and MoveDC bus lane plan with the Arlington streetcar plan, the Alexandria transitway plan, Montgomery's BRT plan, and Fairfax's transit network plan, plus the Purple Line, the Corridor Cities Transitway, the Long Bridge study, the Wilson Bridge transit corridor, and finally the Southern Maryland transit corridor.
Add the route mileage from all of them up and you get 267 miles of proposed awesomeness, not including the Silver Line or other possible Metrorail expansions.
To be sure, it will be decades before all of this is open to passengers, if ever.
The H Street Streetcar will be the first to open this year, god willing, with others like the Purple Line and Columbia Pike Streetcar hopefully coming before the end of the decade. But many of these are barely glimpses in planners' eyes, vague lines on maps, years or decades away from even serious engineering, much less actual operation.
For example, Maryland planners have been talking about light rail extending south into Charles County since at least the late 1990s, but it's no higher than 4th down on the state's priority list for new transit, after the Purple Line, Corridor Cities Transitway, and Baltimore Red Line. Never mind how Montgomery's expansive BRT network fits in.
Meanwhile in Virginia, the Gallows Road route seems to be a brand new idea. There's yet to be even a feasibility study for it.
Even if governments in the DC region spend the next few decades building this network, there are sure to be changes between now and the day it's all in place. Metro's original planners didn't know Tysons would become the behemoth it is, and contemporary planners can't predict the future with 100% accuracy either.
Last year the Coalition for Smarter Growth published a report documenting every known route at that time, and already a lot has changed. More is sure to change over time.
Holes in the network
With a handful of exceptions these plans mostly come from individual jurisdictions. DC plans its streetcars, Montgomery County plans its BRT, and so on.
That kind of bottom-up planning is a great way to make sure land use and transit work together, but the downside is insular plans that leave gaps in the overall network.
Ideally there ought to be at least one connection between Fairfax and Montgomery, and Prince George's ought to be as dense with lines as its neighbors.
But still, 267 miles is an awfully impressive network. Now let's build it.
Cross-posted at BeyondDC.
While Chevy Chase spends hundreds of thousands of dollars to lobby against the Purple Line, town officials are demanding over $1,000 to provide documents about their campaign. Meanwhile, they've asked Maryland to waive fees for their own information request.
When the Action Committee for Transit filed requests under Maryland's Public Information Act, the town government demanded $1,025 to produce documents about the lobbying effort, but the law provides for fee waivers when requests are in the public interest.
The town's Purple Line lobbying is an issue in tomorrow's election for town leaders. One candidate, Donald Farren, explicitly supports the Purple Line; others have also voiced concerns about the town's move to spend so much money on lobbying.
Chevy Chase puts big money into lobbying against the line
Town leaders have long opposed the Purple Line, which will run through the town for half a mile along its 16-mile route between Bethesda and New Carrollton.
The town's latest step was in December 2013, when it quietly hired the law firm Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney for $20,000 a month to lobby the state and federal governments. This move came after the line had gone through years of planning and public review and won approval from county, state, and federal governments.
In January, when the move became public, it turned out that one of the firm's lawyers is Robert Shuster, brother of US Representative Bill Shuster (R-PA), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Both Maryland and the federal government currently expect federal funding for the Purple Line.
The Town's contract with the law firm has been problematic in other ways as well. A state board found that Chevy Chase violated the Maryland Open Meetings Act in November 2013 when it interviewed the firm. And two of the five town councilmembers have described irregularities in the hiring process.
Nonetheless, the town voted in February to extend the contract, adding two more lobbying firms as subcontractors and raising the cost to $29,000 per month plus expenses, or up to $350,000 total.
ACT files public records requests to find out more
ACT, a transit advocacy group and long-time supporter of the Purple Line, wanted to find out what this $29,000 per month (plus expenses) was going for. (Disclosure: I am a non-voting board member of ACT.) Last month, ACT filed two requests under the Maryland Public Information Act (PIA): one for the town's agreements, contracts, invoices, bills, correspondence, and meeting minutes related to the three lobbying firms; and a second for town records about the public relations firm Xenophon Strategies. ACT also filed a third request for town records about compliance with the new training requirements of the Open Meetings Act.
The PIA is a Maryland law analogous to the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). It applies to state and local governmental bodies in Maryland and gives the public the right to access government records without unnecessary cost and delay.
Under the PIA, anybody can request records. The government may charge a "reasonable fee" for the time spent looking for and preparing these records, although the government may waive the fee if release of the records is in the public interest. The first 2 hours of search and preparation time are free.
On April 17, the Chevy Chase town government responded to ACT's PIA requests with a demand for fees: $700 for 3 hours for the request about the law firms (5 hours total), $250 for 3 hours for the request about the public relations firm (5 hours total), and $125 for 1 hour for the request about the training requirements (3 hours total). ACT would have to pay these deposits before town officials would start looking for the documents.
ACT asks for fee waiver; Chevy Chase says no
ACT promptly asked the town to waive the fees as provided in the PIA, because ACT was seeking this information for public rather than commercial purposes and because the requested disclosures would contribute to public understanding of government operations and activities.
But officials denied the request, stating, "It is anticipated that the Town will expend a significant amount of time researching and processing your requests."
Is this a legal reason to deny a fee waiver request? The Maryland PIA Manual mentions only the ability of the applicant to pay, whether the information is for a public rather than a commercial purpose, and "other relevant factors". For more about these factors, the PIA Manual advises looking at case law for the FOIA. And while the FOIA Guide has a six-factor test for fee waivers, none of the factors is how long it will take the agency to look for and prepare the documents.
In any case, this is how the matter currently stands: if ACT wants a government body's public records on the government body's expenditure of public money, ACT has to pay that government body $1,075. This may not be much for a municipality with an $8 million surplus and 1,000 households. But it's far more than ACT is willing to pay for public records whose release is in the public interest.
And so the Town of Chevy Chase achieves its stated goal of preventing Purple Line supporters from finding out about its taxpayer-funded activities. What Chevy Chase is getting for $350,000 in public money will remain a secret for now.
Ironically, on April 16, the day before the Town told ACT to pay up, Chevy Chase made its own PIA request to the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA). The Town requested all of MTA's records about 3 organizations (ACT, Purple Line Now, and The Purple Rail Alliance) and 54 people belonging to those organizations. (Disclosure: I am one of them.)
And the fees? Chevy Chase asked MTA for a waiver.
When built, the Purple Line could dramatically improve transit commutes in Montgomery and Prince George's counties. To explore that and other changes the line will bring, researchers created a series of maps including this one of the "commute shed" of each Purple Line station, or how far you can get on transit before and after it's built.
Two weeks ago, the Purple Line Corridor Coalition organized a workshop called "Beyond the Tracks: Community Development in the Purple Line Corridor" to bring different stakeholders together and talk about ways to prepare for changes along the future light-rail line between Bethesda and New Carrollton, which awaits federal funding and could open in 2020.
The coalition is a product of the National Center for Smart Growth at the University of Maryland, which hosted the workshop. Members of the group include nonprofit organizations, developers, and local governments in Montgomery and Prince George's counties. At the workshop, they looked at examples from cities like Minneapolis and Denver, which recently built light-rail lines.
The 16-mile corridor contains some of the region's richest and poorest communities, in addition to major job centers and Maryland's flagship state university. When it opens in 2020, the Purple Line will help create the walkable, urban places people increasingly want. However, rising property values could potentially displace small businesses and low-income households. To illustrate and explore these issues, the Center for Smart Growth produced a series of awesome maps.
Like the DC area as a whole, the Purple Line corridor is divided from west to east, with more jobs and affluence on the west side, and more low-income households on the east side. Many of the estimated 70,000 people who will ride the Purple Line each day in 2040 will come from communities in eastern Montgomery and Prince George's county to jobs in Bethesda and Silver Spring.
But today, getting between those areas can be difficult and time-consuming, whether by bus or by car. It's no surprise that many commuters along the eastern end of the Purple Line have one-way commutes over an hour.
These maps, and the map above, show the "commute shed" of three Purple Line stations, or how far you can get on transit in an hour. In all three cases, the Purple Line opens up huge swaths of Montgomery, Prince George's and DC to each community. While the Purple Line only travels through a small portion of our region, it adds another link to our existing Metro and bus network, meaning its benefits will go way beyond the neighborhoods it directly serves.
But better access comes with a price, namely rising property values. The revitalization of downtown Silver Spring has resulted in higher home prices in surrounding neighborhoods because of the increased demand to live there. But Silver Spring and Takoma Park still have substantial pockets of poverty, meaning that low-income residents may not be able to afford to stay in the area once the Purple Line opens.
There are two ways to ensure that neighborhoods near the Purple Line remain affordable for both current and future residents. One is to protect the existing supply of subsidized apartments. Many complexes near the Purple Line have price restrictions for low-income households, but they will expire before it's scheduled to open in 2020.
The other is to build more new housing near the Purple Line. New homes are usually expensive, but increasing the supply of housing to meet demand can result in lower or at least stabilized prices. We're starting to see this in downtown Silver Spring, where thousands of apartments have been built in recent years. But Montgomery officials reduced the number of new homes allowed in Chevy Chase Lake and Long Branch due to concerns about changing the character of each neighborhood.
There are a lot of great and interesting communities along the Purple Line. But many of them are dramatically different places than they were even 10 years ago. They'll be different in 10 more years, whether or not the Purple Line is built. We can't preserve these places in stone, but we should try to ensure that the people who enjoy and contribute to these places can stick around in the future.
The Federal Transit Administration has just issued a Record of Decision for the Purple Line, basically approving the 16-mile light rail line between Bethesda and New Carrollton. It's one of the last pieces needed to build the line, which is scheduled to break ground next year and open in 2020.
Maryland Transit Administration officials made the announcement this morning during a Montgomery County Planning Board meeting about the Purple Line, which Purple Line NOW! and BethesdaNow subsequently tweeted.
The FTA will make a formal announcement next week. The agency's decision means Maryland can start purchasing right-of-way to build the $2.37 billion Purple Line, and makes it eligible for federal funding. President Obama recently included it in his 2015 budget, which Congress will have to approve later this year.
With state funding in place and an ongoing search for a private partner in the works, nearly all of the money needed has been secured. As a sign of how likely the Purple Line is to get built, the Planning Board is meeting today to make detailed recommendations about how it should interact with surrounding neighborhoods, like what materials to use for retaining walls.
Meanwhile, Washington Post columnist Robert McCartney has a column today urging the affluent Town of Chevy Chase, which has been fighting the project for years and recently hired a congressman's brother to lobby on their behalf, to lay down their arms and use their money to make the project better instead.
"Some people have more money than good judgment," he wrote. "The town should end its obstruction of a worthy project. Burning money is unwise even if you have it to spare."
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