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Who's Behind the ‘Save the Trail’ Myth?

With polls showing overwhelming voter support for the Purple Line from Bethesda to New Carrollton, opponents of the project have adopted the deceptive tactic of disguising themselves as supporters of hiker-biker trails and misleading the public about what the Purple Line will do to trails.

Organized hikers and bikers support light rail. Endorsements of the Purple Line have come from the Washington Area Bicycle Association, the area's largest cycle advocacy group, the national Rails to Trails Conservancy, the Maryland Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee, and Bethesda-based Perils for Pedestrians. What “Save the Trail” wants to save is a private preserve for local residents that excludes outside trail users as well as transit riders. At a January 2009 Planning Board hearing, its president Mier Wolf denounced the Purple Line because, among other things, it would “create a bicycle raceway.”

Against the Trail They Want to Save

When light rail from Bethesda to Silver Spring was first proposed in the 1980s, the opponents made no secret that stopping the transit line was their real objective. Columbia Country Club initially proposed turning the railroad right of way adjoining their golf course into a nature preserve [Wash. Post, 6/13/87]. When that proposal failed, it filed a lawsuit to take ownership of a portion of the right of way and prevent construction of any trail past their property.

The Greater Bethesda Chevy Chase Coalition (GBCCC), the umbrella group of Purple Line opponents, filed a petition with the Interstate Commerce Commission to forbid the county to use the railroad right of way for any purpose except freight railroading [Wash. Post, 10/18/89]. Had this petition succeeded, we would have no trail at all -- not in Chevy Chase, and not between Bethesda and Georgetown.

But when trail and transit supporters prevailed in the courts and regulatory agencies, the light rail opponents changed their tune. The same GBCCC that had tried to stop the trail from being built invented the slogan “save the trail”. And in 1999, when they set up a new committee to pay for Annapolis lobbyists, they had the nerve to call it the Committee to Save the Trail, or COST. Reports filed with the State Ethics Commission reveal that COST's largest source of funding is Columbia Country Club.

The names and slogans were adjusted, but the objective of stopping needed mass transit did not change. The State Ethics Commission requires lobbyists to list clients and state what they are lobbying on. COST employed Rifkin, Livingston, Levitan, and Silver, the lobbying firm that previously represented Columbia Country Club. And the purpose of the lobbying was almost the same as it was when the Country Club was against the trail: “Preserve and protect the client's interests with respect to matters affecting the Georgetown Branch Light Rail line and other transportation projects.” Nothing about trails, bicycles, or trees.

“Rethinking the Purple Line”

In early 2008, Purple Line opponents regrouped under the leadership of the Town of Chevy Chase in a new coalition called “Rethinking the Purple Line.” This Coalition proclaimed that its objective was to “preserve the Capital Crescent Trail as a natural and safe green space," but its actions showed the real objective is still to keep mass transit away from the homes and golf course of its backers.

The Rethinking group staunchly backed the Town of Chevy Chase's plan to run diesel buses next to the Silver Spring portion of the trail. Only in Chevy Chase, apparently, does green space need to be preserved.

The future Purple Line and Capital Crescent Trail will use a 100-foot-wide publicly owned right of way that passes between the two sections of Columbia Country Club's golf course. The current interim trail in that area is penned in between fences 16 feet apart. The country club uses the remainder of the right of way rent-free. Notwithstanding its rhetoric about protecting the trail, the Town declined to sign a letter asking to have the fences moved back to create more public green space.

Rethinking charges that the Purple Line would “destroy a beautiful natural buffer that protects residential communities and the trail from pollution and noise.” Yet they offered not the slightest objection when the Town of Chevy Chase called for elimination of shrubbery buffers between the Town and Trail in order to make the trail visible from surrounding streets.

“Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail”

Yet another name has now been adopted by Purple Line opponents. Many of the leaders of “Rethinking,” with continued backing of the Town of Chevy Chase, have formed a new organization dubbed “Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail.” This group has identified itself to the IRS as a continuation of the Greater Bethesda-Chevy Chase Coalition. It initially carried on many of the same activities as Rethinking, including an annual road race. Since the Record of Decision was issued for the Purple Line, it has taken the lead in filing lawsuits against the project.