ACT & The Purple Line

ACT’s Great Success – The Purple Line

The Purple Line was ACT’s original reason for being and is our greatest success.

In 1986, an old freight railroad line from Silver Spring through Bethesda to Georgetown closed. Harry Sanders, the first executive director of Maryland Common Cause, and Ross Capon of the National Association of Railroad Passengers saw that the Bethesda - Silver Spring section of the line was the perfect route for a new light rail line. They teamed up to organize the Action Committee for Transit.

ACT's few dozen members proselytized for light rail and the project won the support of County Executive Sid Kramer and a majority the county council. In 1989, Governor William Donald Schaefer announced that the state would build light rail between those two downtowns. But before the county could complete the lengthy process of amending its master plan, the state entered a budget squeeze and the offer was withdrawn.

Prodded by Delegate (later Maryland Attorney General) Brian Frosh, the state began environmental studies needed to qualify for federal grants. But the project had powerful opponents in the wealthy Columbia Country Club, whose golf course the Purple Line bisects, and the club’s neighbors in Chevy Chase. In 1994 Doug Duncan was elected county executive with their support, and the new county council was closely split. All planning work halted and most observers thought light rail was dead.

ACT did not give up. Harry Sanders began the slow work of putting together a broad coalition of interest groups. He recruited Ben Ross to chair ACT.

The battle over light rail settled into a war of attrition. Opponents sought to make a bicycle trail, already planned to run alongside the tracks, a substitute for light rail. They convinced the county to build an “interim” graveled trail, and then made their slogan “save the trail.” The two sides battled for support of environmentalists and bicyclists. Retired ACT members haunted the state capital, watching for killer amendments hidden in the state budget by Columbia Country Club's lobbyists.

The logjam broke in 1998. Before the primary election, ACT members distributed 20,000 scorecards that rated candidates on light rail and other transit issues. The new county council had a six-to-three majority for the light rail line, with one member crediting the scorecard for his margin of victory. The day after the new council was sworn in, it voted to ask the state to resume planning of the transit project.

Meanwhile, the State Highway Administration was working on plans to widen the Beltway. At ACT’s suggestion, the study in early 1997 added an additional option – an extended version of the Bethesda-Silver Spring light rail line, continuing eastward to College Park. The terminus of this route was soon fixed at New Carrollton. With five other colors already spoken for on the map of the Washington Metro, the project became known as the Purple Line.

As the state study proceeded, the advantages of the Purple Line became obvious. In March 2001, ACT launched an intensive grass-roots campaign. Thirty thousand flyers passed out at Metro stations brought a flood of new members. Then letters from neighborhood leaders were passed out door-to-door, reaching 50,000 homes in the course of five years. By early 2003, our paid membership exceeded 1200.

In October 2001, Governor Parris Glendening gave the Purple Line a high-profile endorsement. But the victory was short-lived. In 2002 Maryland elected a Republican governor, Robert Ehrlich, who opposed the project.

Ehrlich, under heavy pressure from business lobbies, did not stop the project entirely. But planning of light rail ground to a halt while a low-cost bus alternative was studied. In 2006 Governor Ehrlich was defeated for re-election by Martin O'Malley, mayor of Baltimore and a Purple Line backer. With light rail design moving forward, O’Malley won a rematch in 2010. Most of the few remaining opponents among elected officials now reversed their positions, and the councils and executives of both counties gave unanimous support.

By now an extraordinary coalition had lined up behind the Purple Line. Purple Line Now included business, labor, environmentalists, ethnic minorities, and many neighborhood associations. ACT was the activist core of this alliance. Equally important, it was able to communicate with voters at election time with a focus that the broader alliance could not. Massive distribution of scorecards before state and county elections continued.

In March 2014, the Federal Transit Administration gave its formal approval, and construction money was included in President Obama's budget. But the election of Governor Larry Hogan in November 2014 brought new uncertainty. Hogan had opposed the light rail line during his campaign, but he announced on June 25, 2015 that the project would go forward.

One more obstacle remained to be overcome. In August 2016, just four days before the scheduled signing of a $900 million federal grant agreement, Judge Richard Leon responded to a lawsuit filed by Chevy Chase residents and issued a stop-work order. The signing of the federal grant agreement and groundbreaking took place on August 28, 2017 in Hyattsville, MD. 

But two years later, the project hit another roadblock. The construction contractor, facing rising costs due partly to the lawsuit delays and partly to its own misjudgments, demanded more money. After Hogan turned down a settlement worked out by his Transportation Secretary, the contractor walked away from the project in May 2020. More than two years was lost in choosing a new contractor and getting them up to speed.

Despite this delay, the Purple Line is still on track to be a transformative project for the communities and region it will serve. When the Purple Line opens in 2027, its predicted strong ridership, economic stimulation, and climate benefits will demonstrate the value of transit even in suburban settings.

ACT’s achievement in creating the Purple Line is a testament to the power of involved citizens. But our work is far from done. All of Montgomery County deserves the benefits that the Purple Line will bring to the communities around it.

[For a more detailed account of the Purple Line’s history, see the book by ACT’s former president Ben Ross, Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism