The Purple Line: A Long, Strange Trip for 16 Miles of Track

By Josh Kurtz

When former Gov. Parris Glendening (D) first publicized his support for the Purple Line during his tense 1998 re-election campaign, his Republican challenger, Ellen Sauerbrey, ran ads in Baltimore warning voters that Glendening wanted to spend billions of dollars for new subway service in Washington, D.C.

Former Gov. Bob Ehrlich (R), who replaced Glendening in 2003, tried to kill the east-west transit project linking Montgomery and Prince George’s counties – even as he was reversing Glendening’s decision to mothball the long-proposed Intercounty Connector highway.

On the national level, Republicans have generally been hostile to new transit lines with big price tags – for fiscal, philosophical and political reasons.

So it was something close to miraculous to see Gov. Larry Hogan (R), who worked for the Ehrlich administration and expressed skepticism about the project on the campaign trail, and Elaine Chao, President Trump’s Transportation secretary, front and center at the groundbreaking for the Purple Line in Landover Hills on Monday.

The two signed an agreement guaranteeing the state $900 million in federal aid and symbolically moved dirt with other officials. Then Hogan, operating a John Deere excavator, began demolishing a warehouse building that stands in the way of the planned 16-mile, 21-station rail route.

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Gov. Larry Hogan and U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao after signing a document guaranteeing $900 million in federal aid for the Purple Line.

“For a lot of time, people didn’t think this was going to happen,” said Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker (D).

It was an understatement.

The Purple Line has seen an amazing number of twists and turns since it was first proposed in the 1980’s — endless debate at the federal, state and local levels, funding fights, lawsuits, expensive lobbying campaigns, political treachery and so much more. The drama has touched every prominent Maryland politician of the past three decades, with a changing cast of heroes and villains.

But a determined band of state and local elected officials, along with certain business leaders, activists, labor unions and community groups, kept the dream alive – ensuring that instead of wailing the blues about the Purple Line, advocates would be whistling “Blue Skies.”

Now more than ever, with the first shovels finally in the ground and some $2 billion in federal, state, local and private funds committed, the project carries potent symbolism and national as well as local political implications.

If, as the saying goes, success has a thousand fathers and mothers, they were all there to take credit on Monday.

“From the beginning, we have been one team – Team Maryland,” Hogan said.

But that isn’t quite true.

At least two of the elected officials who shared the dais with Hogan and Chao – U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D) and Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett (D) – started their careers as Purple Line skeptics. Some of Leggett’s earliest political backers were well-funded foes of the rail proposal – including those affiliated with the posh Columbia Country Club in Chevy Chase, a hub of opposition; Van Hollen represented the legislative district in Annapolis where objections to the Purple Line were – and remain – the strongest.

But both evolved on the project as they moved up the political ladder.

Van Hollen described the process of securing funding for the Purple Line as “a long-distance run…a long-distance relay run,” with one set of officials handing off the baton to others. Leggett sounded one of the true grace notes of the ceremony Monday when he paid tribute to Harry Sanders, the late Silver Spring transit advocate who pushed for the Purple Line for two dozen years until his death in 2010 at the age of 63.

“Before there was a name called Purple Line, he was there,” Leggett recalled. “He was not an elected official. He was just a community activist.”

Sanders’ fellow transit advocates popped a bottle of champagne at the groundbreaking site Monday, minutes after Hogan began the demolition.

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Transit advocates prepare to pop the champagne in honor of their former colleague, the late Harry Sanders.

“This is the first concrete step to Harry’s vision of connecting people and communities,” said his widow, Barbara Sanders.

Putting Wins on the Board

For Hogan, the images of him signing an oversized document with Chao, wearing a hardhat and operating heavy machinery are undeniable winners. So was the genuine praise and gratitude from his fellow elected officials – all Democrats, including his vanquished 2014 rival, U.S. Rep. Anthony Brown – for seeing the project through.

Hogan demanded bigger contributions from Montgomery and Prince George’s counties and got them. He insisted that state transportation officials find ways to reduce the cost of the project – which they did, to the tune of about $550 million. And he worked the feds behind the scenes, drawing on a personal friendship with Chao.

“The Purple Line is just one more way in which we are truly changing Maryland for the better,” the governor said.

But the project may never have happened without Glendening, who made it a priority despite opposition from within his own party. Former Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) – whose legacy Hogan essentially campaigned against – made more money available for transportation projects by pushing a hike in the state gas tax and shepherded through legislation enabling public-private partnerships (developments Brown mentioned Monday in passing).

And even as Hogan basked in the accolades in the D.C. suburbs Monday, his decision to kill the proposed Red Line transit project in Baltimore remains a sore point – and critics there no doubt took notice of the celebration 30 miles to the south.

The green light for the Purple Line also does not solve the vexing challenge that Hogan and other regional leaders face of how to properly fund the failing Metro system. A few hours after the Purple Line ceremony, Hogan, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) and D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) held their quarterly meeting in Mt. Vernon, Va., and transit funding was one of the leading topics.

At that meeting, one of Chao’s predecessors, Ray LaHood, a former Republican congressman and President Obama’s first Transportation secretary, laid out suggestions for increasing Metro funding and changing the transit system’s governing structure.

Hogan sought to dampen expectations for the regional leaders’ session. “We haven’t reached any final agreements,” he told reporters after the Purple Line groundbreaking.

But Hogan did say he had already asked Chao for greater federal funding for Metro, noting that 40 to 45 percent of all riders of the system are federal employees.

Even with much of the federal bureaucracy focused this week on the horrifying ongoing natural disaster in Texas, Chao’s appearance at the groundbreaking was a no-brainer. The Trump administration is desperate to show its commitment to bolstering the nation’s infrastructure even with a limited amount of federal funding available, and the Purple Line project may show the way.

Chao said it became easy for the U.S. Transportation Department to fund the project after the state and local governments and the private sector demonstrated their commitment.

“The administration’s comprehensive infrastructure plan seeks this innovative approach,” she said.

No one Monday uttered the name Donald Trump.

Pete Rahn, Hogan’s Transportation secretary, said the project is still, as of now, on target to open in the summer of 2022. He said construction work would begin at several locations along the Bethesda to New Carrollton route.

“The Purple Line,” said Brown, who might have once imagined presiding over a ceremony like Monday’s as governor, “is now a reality.”

Long-time observers of the drama could be forgiven for not completely believing their eyes.

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Gov. Larry Hogan begins demolition of a building along the Purple Line route.

 

8 comments

  • Here are my photos https://www.flickr.com/photos/42288250@N08/albums/… and here is a link to a composite of articles photos, etc. http://tinyurl.com/PLgroundbrk  
    Great event. My deepest gratitude to Harry Sanders who envisioned the Purple Line and championed it for many years and to his family who maintained their support for this vital project.

  • Don’t forget it began as a limited transit way between Bethesda and Silver Spring. I approved it as a Planning Board member when it was The Georgetown Branch, so we could buy the CSX right of way, after they abandoned the line in the 80’s. It was Annapolis that extended it to New Carrollton to get the votes for funding years ago. Glendenning I guess.

  • There will be a heavy bill due for both Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties in the not too distant future wherein citizens will be taxed even more to pay for Metro and Purple Line. Unrealistic future rider estimates for Purple Line will require revenue support from both Counties. Better to ditch Purple Line and transfer that funding to the much more needed Metro!

  • My photos

    https://www.flickr.com/photos/42288250@N08/albums/72157685727615154

    Updated package of articles, photos etc

    http://tinyurl.com/PLgroundbrk
    Many thanks to Harry Sanders who led the way, to his family Barbara and Greg for their continued support, to the leaders of PURPLE Line Now and ACT for all their efforts and to all the elected officials for their support

  • Investment in effective public transportation is wise and has positive impact, direct and indirect) throughout our personal lives and boosts our businesses. Increased funding of Metro is also needed.

  • Here is a video of the speeches at the groundbreaking:

  • Thomas Reinheimer

    A huge boondoggle and waste!

  • Purple Line, Inter-county Connector, and bus rapid transit (BRT) services will turn Montgomery County into a transportation matrix that doesn’t depend on the Beltway and Metro as its weak links. Of course it comes out of our pockets, but then most investments in the future do. Is it wasteful? Not compared to the costs of clogged highways, ever-longer commutes, increased air pollution, and missed opportunities. Our children, grandchildren and the growing Montgomery County population will thank us for our foresight.

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