The Purple Line brings a transformational promise of convenient transportation and livable communities to the Maryland inner suburbs. And that's not all. The successful conclusion of the 31-year struggle for the light rail line has a much wider significance. The building of the Purple Line shows that even the most intense not-in-my-backyard opposition can be defeated if public support is strong and well-organized.
There is still a long, long way to go to reorient transportation policy in the region and in the country away from focusing on cars ahead of all else. Many struggles lie ahead, and they can learn from the Purple Line experience. Four lessons stand out.
Democracy still works
In 1989, I joined the Action Committee for Transit, an organization which Harry Sanders and Ross Capon founded in 1986 to promote what's now the Purple Line. At the time, opposition to the Purple Line from Columbia Country Club and the Town of Chevy Chase was fierce. Not only did they spend millions of dollars on political contributions, lobbying, and consultants, but the many high-powered lobbyists among the club's membership drew on extensive Capitol Hill connections.
The opponents' strength was also their weakness. The voting public deeply resents the growing concentration of wealth and influence in the hands of the 1%. For ACT, a key strategy was exposing the hidden hand of Columbia Country Club, where the initiation fee alone is $70,000, behind an opposition that styled itself as bicyclists and environmentalists.
This took a while. Local media have little time to look beneath the surface and are loath to criticize the powerful. But ACT persisted with press releases and early-morning picketing in front of the country club. After a few years, the message broke through. In the end, the public perception, and the reality, of the Purple Line opponents as a privileged elite created a climate where supporting the light rail line was the only safe political course.
The Purple Line started out in 1986 as a much smaller project, a single-track trolley between Bethesda and Silver Spring. It always had dedicated advocates, but the expansion in the late 1990s into a 16-mile light rail sparked much broader public support. People looked at a map of the Purple Line and said “of course.”
A longer light rail attracted wider backing. The small coalition founded by Harry Sanders in 1995 grew into Purple Line Now, an alliance encompassing business, labor, environmentalists, and civic groups as well as transit advocates.
Go on the offensive
It's almost always a waste of time to try to convince the active opponents of a controversial project like the Purple Line. They are not deluded; they have reasons for their opposition, even if their real motives aren't the same arguments offered in public. Debating on their terms lets them define the issues.
The strategic objective of Purple Line advocacy was always to mobilize supporters and convince the undecided. The main emphasis was always a positive message about the project's many benefits. At the same time, advocates realized it was more important to expose the opponents' false pose as grassroots environmentalists rather than to make point-by-point rebuttals of their arguments.
The people most resistant to change often dominate local neighborhood associations. ACT reached out past the civic associations and distributed 50,000 pro-Purple Line letters, each signed by a neighborhood resident, door-to-door. Even in the sections of Chevy Chase where opposition to the light rail was concentrated, this turned up many supporters.
Avoid preemptive concessions
In the early stages of a project, there is a temptation to defuse criticism by adopting the critics' suggestions. This is usually counterproductive. When the critics object to the project itself, changes they suggest will not end their opposition, and they will make it harder to build support by lessening the project's value.
For 20 years, Purple Line opponents pushed alternative routes that bypassed Columbia Country Club and the Town of Chevy Chase. Advocates consistently rejected them. Compromises were made in the end, but they maintained the key feature that makes the whole line so valuable, the fast trip between Silver Spring and Bethesda that could only happen on the old Georgetown Branch Railroad right of way through the golf course. Eventually Maryland agreed to move the tracks a mere 12 feet to the side so that two tees could stay where the country club wanted them, and in exchange the club dropped its formal opposition.