June 25, 2010

Purple Line and local races

For about six years, I lived in my car. It was a long time ago, but I still bear the emotional scars of those days and nights of danger, dread and hardship ... when I drove into D.C. for my 9-to-5 job. In truth, I had a home, but I spent more time sitting on I-270 every day than I did with my family. Sometimes I lived on the train, just like a hobo in a country-western song. That's why I'm so awfully glad that mass transit is going to be a point of discussion as the Maryland gubernatorial race gets into full swing. The Baltimore-Washington area has some of the worst traffic in the continental United States, according to a January 2010 study -- with the Capital Beltway coming in third nationwide for the worst bottlenecks and most time wasted sitting in a jam. The Baltimore Beltway made a respectable showing at number 21, so this is not just a D.C. problem.

There are two mass transit projects that could ease some of the pain, and the O'Malley administration is looking for federal approval and funding to get them rolling. Both are proposed light rail projects and both have huge price tags, so naturally both are political hot potatoes.

The Purple Line would create an east-west corridor between Cheverly and Bethesda and reduce traffic congestion between Prince George's and Montgomery counties, without having to connect in downtown D.C. Baltimore's Red Line would run from Woodlawn to Bayview, with tunnels running through downtown Baltimore and Fells Point. The estimated cost of the two projects is $3.4 billion, give or take, with the feds picking up half the cost.

Unfortunately, at this point, the candidates for governor are just using the transit issue as a political dart to toss at each other in hopes of chalking up points. The challenger, former Gov. Robert Ehrlich, says he would "scuttle" Gov. Martin O'Malley's plans and develop something called "bus rapid transit" instead. Ehrlich says light rail is unaffordable. But his old-school alternative is fossil-fuel-guzzling, and the ongoing operating expenses are nearly twice those of light rail.

I know -- mass transit in Maryland probably won't be the hottest issue in the upcoming elections. Jobs and the economy still make the best sound bites. But in the wake of the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, transportation and energy are creating opportunities for lots of colorful partisan posturing and pugilism.

The O'Malley camp has already released a couple of "attack ads" against Ehrlich, saying he is a pawn of Big Oil. I'm not really buying it -- although there are some questionable items on Ehrlich's record, like working for a firm that represents Citgo, Exxon Mobil and Shell Oil, and votes to open up the Gulf to drilling exploration or to reduce corporate liability for hazardous waste cleanup. So why should Fredericktonians care about traffic and transit problems in Baltimore or Washington? Simple. Because so many are living in their cars. And because more traffic means more idling, which means more wasted gas, more offshore drilling, more potential for accidents, more devastating pollution and dead pelicans. And more finger-pointing and body-slamming between political candidates. SOURCE: Frederick News Post

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