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Beyond Chicagoland

Ben Ross: Citizen Activism Can Overcome NIMBY Opposition to Transit

"Dead End" by Ben Ross.

At a talk Wednesday at City Lit Books, transit advocate Ben Ross, author of the new book “Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism,” discussed the battle for a new light rail line in the D.C. suburbs. This well-run campaign offers lessons for Chicagoans pushing for sensible transportation and development policy, whether the issue is bus rapid transit on Ashland Avenue, or high-density housing near ‘L’ stations.

Ross works as a consultant on environmental issues, and for 15 years he served as president of Maryland's Action Committee for Transit, which grew to become the country’s largest transit advocacy group during the fight to build the Purple Line. This 16-mile line, which has been in the works for more than two decades, will extend from Bethesda to New Carrollton, paralleling the D.C. Beltway and connecting several existing rapid transit, commuter rail, and Amtrak lines.

At the event, Ross discussed how the Purple Line campaign in affluent Montgomery County influenced “Dead End.” The book covers the history of American suburbanization and how urbanism can address 21st Century transportation and housing challenges.

“The Purple Line was very controversial, mainly because it went through the golf course of one of the most expensive country clubs in Washington D.C.” he said. The opposition was well-funded, and in 1994, residents elected a county executive who was against the project, and a nine-seat county council with a bare one-person majority in favor of it. “At that point, most people gave the project up for dead.”

However, ACT succeeded in resurrecting the rail line. The coalition outed the country club as the main source of the opposition by standing in front of their main entrance with signs during the morning rush hour. In 1998, the committee printed 20,000 scorecards rating the candidates’ positions on the Purple Line and other transit issues. The county council picked up another vote in favor of the project, for a six-to-three majority, with one of the six saying crediting the scorecard for his margin of victory.

Ben Ross at City Lit Books. Photo: John Greenfield

The day after the new council members were sworn in, ACT sent a letter to the state, asking them to start the Purple Line studies again. In 2001, the governor announced that the state would build the line, and a coalition of business, labor, environmental, and social justice groups, along with several neighborhood associations, had voiced their support.

“All my previous experience in politics was that, if all these people are for something, not to mention that we have like 80 percent polling numbers, everybody’s for this thing, it happens,” Ross said. “But that’s not what happened to our project. It’s often not what happens with transit projects and with urbanism. And that’s why I wrote the book, to figure out why that is.” In 2002, Maryland elected a governor who was against the Purple Line, vowing that it would never go through the country club.

In 2006, ACT helped elect a pro-transit governor and, last year, the state legislature raised the gas tax 20 cents a gallon, largely to pay for the Purple Line and another light rail line in Baltimore. In June of last year, the state made a deal with the country club that involved moving the rail alignment 12 feet to the side, along with a small land swap, in exchange for a contractual agreement that the club would drop all opposition. In this year’s federal budget, President Obama recommended $900 million in funding for the Purple Line. “If nothing more goes wrong, we will start the project next year,” Ross said.

Screen Shot 2014-06-06 at 2.45.13 PM
The planned Purple Line Route.

Ross said urbanism faces the same kind of NIMBY challenges. “It’s much harder to build a mixed-use, lively building than it is to build a strip mall or a subdivision of single-family houses,” he said. “Even when you finally get the building, it’s very often compromised: There’s too much parking, the streets are too wide, traffic moves too fast, it’s hard to walk.”

In his book, Ross explores why good urban planning often faces opposition from neighbors. “My conclusion is that we’re really seeing a clash between two value systems,” he said. “Over more than a century in this country, we’ve built up an attitude that living in a single-family house and moving around by automobile are socially superior to other ways of living. That’s now under challenge, but it still has a lot of strength.”

Ross said negotiations about transportation and land use can turn into such a morass, it’s easy for advocates to get discouraged. “But what our experience shows, and what other experiences around the country show, is that citizen activism can make a tremendous difference.”

He cited the example of Los Angeles's Expo Line light rail project, which was slated to run through expensive neighborhoods and got killed by politicians. “A group of citizens like ours started going to all the meetings and it revived, and now the first phase is about to open and the second phase is under construction,” he said. “Citizen involvement does make a huge difference. We wouldn’t have our Purple Line without it.”

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