NIMBY By Any Other Name

Light-rail proponents in Maryland just won support from their Republican governor. Why is a self-styled “environmental” group standing in their way?

July 16, 2015

A Maryland light-rail train.
Photo: Ali Eminov/Flickr

If it’s true that politics makes for strange bedfellows, then the corollary is every bit as true: NIMBY makes for strange enemies.

A dispiriting example of that phenomenon is playing out right now, just outside of Washington, D.C., where a much-needed light-rail project is being opposed by a group that boasts of its environmental credentials but that’s ignoring the streetcar’s real environmental benefits. While the organization’s members—many of whom happen to live a few blocks from the rail line’s right-of-way—are couching their opposition in the language of ecosystem preservation, the only interests that would be served if they succeed would be those of a few dozen homeowners in one of the area’s wealthiest zip codes.

In late June, Governor Larry Hogan of Maryland announced that he was finally conferring his administrative blessing upon the Purple Line: a proposed 16-mile light-rail system that would connect a string of communities in Montgomery and Prince George counties—home not only to fast-developing suburbs like Bethesda and Silver Spring but also to the University of Maryland’s College Park campus. Hogan, a Republican, is said to have required much persuading from his administration’s transportation secretary before signing off on the plan. That he did so over the objections of many of the same people who helped put him into office is testimony to his pragmatic governing style—as well as to the manifest good sense that the Purple Line makes for this swath of suburban Washington. (Currently, if you live in Silver Spring and want to take a train to Bethesda—essentially the next town over—you have to go through D.C., which turns what ought to be a five-minute trip into a 45-minute one.) 

Having won over a skeptical Republican governor, the Purple Line’s many supporters probably weren't expecting to encounter opposition from a self-proclaimed environmental group. Yet that’s exactly what happened: Claiming that construction of the rail line near certain creeks would irreparably harm the habitat of endangered amphipods—think itty-bitty shrimp—the organization, called Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail, filed a federal lawsuit last year as part of a larger attempt to stop the Purple Line project. The group suffered an initial setback, however, when its researchers couldn’t find any evidence of these amphipods in the affected areas. The little shrimpies simply weren’t there.

Undeterred, the group has gone back to the drawing board and expanded its original lawsuit—assuming your definition of “expanded” is “stretched like saltwater taffy until it’s so ridiculously attenuated that it couldn’t support the weight of an endangered amphipod.” OK, fine, forget the shrimp, their new and improved suit suggests. We’ve got plenty of other complaints! Just hear us out! At which point commences a litany of anything-goes grievances that only serves to reveal the Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail for what it is: a coalition of NIMBY-minded neighbors from the upscale community of Chevy Chase who would really prefer to be thought of as stalwart defenders of the environment or clear-eyed fiscal watchdogs or pretty much anything other than a bunch of folks worried about things like train noise, blocked sightlines, or the (potential) decline in their property values.

Their modified complaint certainly covers all the bases. Still fishing around for that environmental-impact angle? According to the Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail, the Purple Line will be a regular stormwater spigot, generating untold amounts of runoff. Do you doubt people will actually ride on the Purple Line? So do they: They point out studies suggesting that the bulk of Montgomery County’s job growth is taking place well to the north of Chevy Chase and Bethesda—which happens to be far, far away from where they live. Are you wondering if the line’s route will really do anything to ameliorate traffic congestion in the D.C. area, some of the worst in the nation? Most of the jams in Montgomery County, the group asserts, are on streets that run north/south…but the Purple Line will, generally speaking, run from east to west! (Take that, light-rail supporters! Because as anyone who has ever driven a car knows, you never, ever have to take a northerly or southerly road to get to your easterly or westerly destination.)

None of it is true, of course. The Purple Line, which has been in the works in one form or another since 2003, has already been the subject of numerous environmental-impact studies and cost-benefit analyses—the conclusions of which can all be viewed, in their entirety, on the project’s admirably transparent website. The results of these studies have been more than enough to earn the Purple Line the support of major environmental groups, including the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Sierra Club, Clean Water Action, and NRDC (disclosure). These groups all know that the Purple Line is poised to deliver on light rail’s promise of fewer cars on the road—and hence less carbon-based exhaust polluting our air and less exhaust-based particulate matter blending with stormwater runoff to poison our creeks, streams, and bays. As for the social and economic benefits that will come with a project like this, the road-to-Damascus-style conversion of Governor Hogan, a libertarian conservative who once headed a think tank that was openly hostile to light rail, speaks for itself.

The Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail has every right to protest the building of a light rail line close to their homes. And its members even have the right to be clever about it, by making it seem like they are motivated by a concern for the public good. But invoking the mantle of environmentalism for self-serving purposes isn’t just cynical: It’s actively damaging to the cause. When every grievance is cast as an environmental one, it only makes the real battles—of which there are many—that much harder to win.


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