If it gets built, commuters could bypass the Beltway's most congested sections while being whisked to suburban Maryland's largest employment centers - Bethesda, Silver Spring, and the University of Maryland - aboard modern light-rail vehicles cruising along at up to 55 miles per hour. Proponents say it will also reduce air pollution, promote job creation, encourage mixed-use and transit-oriented development and increase property values. Finally, the transit corridor would also support a recreational trail that would enable runners, bikers and skaters to enjoy an uninterrupted route from Bethesda to Silver Spring.
Yet its construction has become a highly contentious issue that has been debated for 20 years, according to Washington Post columnist Mark Fisher.
"What was once a simple matter of where to lay the tracks to connect the two arms of Metro's Red Line has morphed into an epic confrontation featuring standoffs between -- deep breath now -- tree-huggers and bicyclists, transit-dependent Hispanic workers and car-addicted Anglo professionals, Prince George's and Montgomery counties, anti-density NIMBYs and pro-urban smart-growth advocates, and bus proponents and rail fans."One of the biggest sticking points has been the fate of a popular recreation trail, the Capital Crescent Trail, which was built along an abandoned Baltimore & Ohio Railroad branch line from Silver Spring to Bethesda. Planners in Montgomery County want to reclaim that route for the light rail line, but they would maintain the trail and add plantings as a buffer.
The project has a current price tag of $1.2 billion. The final decision about whether it will be built as light rail or as bus rapid transit rests with Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, who is expected to decided early next year. No doubt one of the factors influencing his decision will be what is likely to pass muster with the Obama administration, which will decide where to spend infrastructure funds incorporated into economic stimulus now being discussed in Congress.
Even if the line offers little relief to Beltway congestion, it might provide relief to secondary roads that can not handle all the commuters heading from Prince George's County to jobs in Bethesda and Silver Spring. More important, it will be a bellwether for suburban transit lines that could be built in the future in the suburbs of New York and Chicago.