UM support might put light rail on fast track; College Park campus calls for connection to D.C. suburbs


COLLEGE PARK -- The call to build a light rail line to link Washington suburbs and ease traffic in one of the nation's most congested regions has grown by one large and powerful voice.

The University of Maryland has written to the governor and top local elected officials, urging them to give high priority to building a rail line that would run through the College Park campus to Bethesda in Montgomery County and New Carrollton in Prince George's County.

The letter from Charles F. Sturtz, vice president for administrative affairs, was sent Sept. 23, a day after Gov. Parris N. Glendening announced that he was killing the planned $1 billion Intercounty Connector highway between the two counties.

Sturtz pointed out that with 50,000 students, and faculty and staff members, the campus generates a large volume of traffic that could be lessened by building a "Purple Line" connecting to the four Metro lines, Maryland Rail Commuter (MARC) trains and Amtrak.

The line also would help the university's attempts to build its image as a research center by improving transportation to the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institutes of Standards and Training, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Goddard Space Flight Center.

"In the high-tech economic sphere, the Purple Line can be a powerful tool in a far-reaching bi-county marketing effort," Sturtz wrote.

Prince George's County Councilman Peter Shapiro and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan said the university's endorsement is significant because of its high profile and ability to round up support from its graduates.

"Any time you're talking about major transportation, you're talking about setting priorities. You need lots and lots of citizen voices, and you need institutional voices. One of the largest institutions is the University of Maryland," said Shapiro, a member of his council's transportation committee.

Duncan said, "It's very helpful. It shows that this is a regional issue, and that one of the major players wants to be involved."

'They have a need to grow'

George Cardwell, special assistant in the Prince George's Department of Transportation, said the university's interest is understandable.

"They're no different than any large property holder or developer. They have a need to grow and, to do that, they have to have a way to connect to the world," Cardwell said. "Right now, they are somewhat hampered by the lack of transportation."

Although the school has a substantial bus system and many parking spaces, it has only two main access roads, U.S. 1 and University Boulevard. The nearest Metro stop is about a half-mile from campus.

Duncan, who favors heavy rail but would accept light rail, said he hopes the governor will commit more money to accelerate the program.

"Ideally, we want all the studies done so that when the federal government reauthorizes the transportation act in five years [for funding], we're ready to go," Duncan said.

Six options studied

Neil Pederson, chief planner for the State Highway Administration, said it will take two years to study the Purple Line and five other options for the Capital Beltway corridor for potential ridership, cost-effectiveness and environmental impact.

Planners are reviewing two light rail proposals, three heavy rail proposals and an express bus system, Pederson said.

Sturtz wrote that the Purple Line could also give Maryland basketball and football fans another option for getting to games and be a boon for the new 2,600-seat Clarice Smith Center for the Performing Arts.

In addition, a light rail line would be consistent with Glendening's Smart Growth program by helping to revitalize older communities close to the District of Columbia, he wrote.

"Given the importance of our counties to the economy of Maryland, the project becomes one of significance at the state level," Sturtz wrote.

Pub Date: 10/04/99

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