The community activists who toiled for decades in support of the Purple Line weren’t on the stage Monday as Gov. Larry Hogan announced the start of the light-rail line’s construction.
They weren’t holding the shovels during the official groundbreaking.
But soon after Hogan exited an excavator—which he used to partially tear down a building at a site that will become the Purple Line command center—the activists were nearby, popping open a bottle of sparkling wine.
Then they handed out little plastic glasses to everyone around them, with big smiles on their faces.
It was time to celebrate.
“I feel so good,” Ben Ross, a transit advocate and former president of the Action Committee for Transit, said. “It’s been hard to absorb that it’s really happening.”
Ross said he’s been advocating for the light-rail project for 28 years.
He was joined in the toast by Barbara and Greg Sanders, longtime advocates with Purple Line Now, and the wife and son of the late Harry Sanders. Harry Sanders, who died in 2010, is often referred to as the godfather of the Purple Line project.
Greg Sanders said his father first came up with the idea of turning the former CSX right-of-way between Bethesda and Silver Spring into a transit way while he was in the family’s living room in 1986 with other longtime advocates, such as Ross Capon.
“He didn’t get to see his vision through to the end, but one of the great things about a project that brings a lot of people together is that we can all share that legacy and we can all claim that legacy,” Sanders said. “I know he’s so proud of all the work everyone has done to get us here.”
Barbara Sanders even mixed in a little bit of Harry’s ashes into the dirt that was used by officials to mark the groundbreaking.
Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett gave a tribute to Harry Sanders during his speech at the groundbreaking event. Leggett said federal, state and local officials would not have been there without Sanders.
“Before there was a name called the Purple Line, he was there,” Leggett said. “Before there was a coalition to fight for it, he was there. Before there were many supporters and funding, he was there. He was there because he believed in this project and in many ways what happened is a result of his vision, his commitment.”
Greg Sanders holds a photo of his father, Harry Sanders, during the Purple Line groundbreaking on Monday. Credit: Andrew Metcalf
Gus Bauman, a former county Planning Board chairman in the late 1980s, said he remembered when the county bought the right-of-way from CSX. The right-of-way is planned to be part of the Purple Line’s route in the county.
“We paid $10 million for that right-of-way between Silver Spring and Bethesda—that old freight railroad right-of-way,” Bauman said. “We were going to go from coal to people and we built the trail as an interim trail. Then the opponents in Chevy Chase, they used that as, ‘Well, now there’s a trail here. You can’t build a transit way.’ But the trail was always meant to be interim and the master plan that was adopted by Montgomery County in 1990 says there will be a transit way.”
Bauman said he still has the large $10 million check signed by the transportation secretary that was used to purchase the right-of-way.
Over the next three decades, the project faced constant challenges.
Ross said he counted five “near-death experiences” the light-rail project survived, including:
- Maryland Gov. Donald Schaefer running out of money on a plan to build a trolley between Silver Spring and Bethesda.
- Former Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan putting the project on a back burner and proposing alternatives.
- Former Gov. Robert Ehrlich stalling for years on it and considering making it a bus route.
- Gov. Larry Hogan weighing whether to cancel it shortly after winning the 2014 election.
- The three-year long legal battle now in the federal Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C.
Hogan said he ultimately decided to move forward with the project after slashing about $500 million in state costs from it and getting additional funding from Prince George’s and Montgomery counties.
The 16.2-mile light-rail line will be built, operated and maintained by a private team of finance and construction companies, Purple Line Transit Partners, under a 36-year, $5.6 billion contract with the state. It will run from Bethesda to New Carrollton with 21 stops, including four connections to Metro stations in Bethesda, Silver Spring, College Park and New Carrollton.
Rep. Anthony Brown, the Democrat who lost to Hogan in the 2014 election, said former Gov. Martin O’Malley’s administration, in which Brown served as lieutenant governor, helped generate funding for the project and other public infrastructure in the state by raising the gas tax in 2013.
“Its tracks figuratively and literally lead to the kind of inclusive growth that Montgomery County and Prince George’s County need right now,” Brown said at the groundbreaking.
In the crowd on Monday, other supporters of the project held “Build light rail” signs that had been altered to “Building light rail” and lots of purple ties and shirts.
Barbara Sanders held a sign that said, “I’ve been waiting decades to ride the Purple Line!”
Missing at the event was any sign of the opposition to the project.
On Twitter, the trail group Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail, a plaintiff in the ongoing lawsuit, tweeted “MD voters will remember who dug them into a $6B hole” in response to a Hogan tweet about the groundbreaking.
Last week, the group had asked that no irreversible construction take place until the Court of Appeals rules on the lawsuit that has delayed the start of construction for nine months.
Leggett and Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn both said they believe the state is on strong legal grounds to have a judge’s decision overturned that called for a new environmental analysis for the project.
“We believe the law is on our side,” Rahn said. “Construction will start right now.”
That was made clear when Hogan climbed into the excavator and ripped down a shed to make way for the new Purple Line Operations Center.
“So much for no irreversible construction,” Greg Sanders joked after the building was demolished.
Editor’s Note: This story was updated to correct the year Harry Sanders died. It was 2010, not 2011 as first reported in the original story.