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It will be another five to seven years before a proposed light rail project connecting White Plains and the Branch Avenue metro station in Prince George's County could be ready to begin construction, but planners believe it could one day transform the Waldorf area into a development mecca lush with private investment.

As proposed, the 18.8-mile track would include 11 stations, five of them in Charles County, and could handle a daily ridership between 23,000 and 26,000, former Charles County commissioner Gary V. Hodge said during a public meeting last month with the county's state legislators.

Roughly 60,000 people commute from Southern Maryland to Washington, D.C., every day, about 40,000 from Charles County alone, Hodge said.

Two-thirds of the proposed line hugs Route 5 in Prince George's County, while the final third in Charles County initially sticks along U.S. 301 before breaking off and running parallel and south of Old Washington Road.

The five Charles County stations include stops at Sub Station Road, Acton Lane, Leonardtown Road and Smallwood Drive in Waldorf and a terminus at DeMarr Road in White Plains.

The Acton Lane and Leonardtown Road stations would sit inside the 300-acre “Waldorf Urban Design Area,” which has been zoned “for denser, more walkable, transit-oriented development,” Hodge said.

With zoning that allows two- to five-story, mixed-use development near Leonardtown Road and three- to 10-story buildings near Acton Lane, the area has the same growth potential as Clarendon, Va., or the Annapolis Towne Centre in Parole, he said.

A similar light-rail line built in Tempe, Ariz., attracted $4.2 billion of private investment along the route, Hodge added.

Hodge, president of Regional Policy Advisors, a government and economic consulting firm, said it would be “optimistic” to expect the planning phase to be complete in five years, with seven years being more “realistic.”

“I know I will be dead and gone before we see transit here,” Sen. Thomas “Mac” Middleton (D-Charles) said.

The timeline is influenced heavily by the state's current focus on three other light rail projects — the 16-mile Purple Line connecting metro stops in New Carrolton and Bethesda, the 14.5-mile Red Line in Baltimore, and the Corridor Cities Transitway, which would run from the Shady Grove Metro station northwest to Clarksburg.

“For us to try to claim to be in a head-to-head competition with the projects that are already in motion, that already have their planning completed and are now seeking construction funds, would be a fool's errand,” Hodge said. “Being realists, we're going to spend the next five to seven years planning this system so we don't need to be in competition with those three other projects. ... At this stage in our activity, as important as it is that we maintain our momentum and our focus on the end game — which is to actually have our citizens board a train in White Plains or Waldorf and ride 36 minutes to Branch Avenue ... we have to look at how this project would fold into the sequence of other projects in the state.”

Though the push for light rail in Southern Maryland began in earnest more than 20 years ago with a federal study in 1995, Hodge identified a couple of recent “game changers” that have given the project momentum — a 2010 analysis by the Maryland Transit Administration which led to the proposed light-rail track and a resolution passed last November by the Prince George's County Council expressing its support.

Prince George’s has issued policy statements supporting the proposal as the state's next major transit initiative following the Purple, Red and Corridor Cities projects, he said.

But despite the support from both counties, “the state doesn’t have any skin in the game yet,” Hodge said. Given the amount of gas tax paid by Southern Maryland residents over the last 20 years, “we have precious little to show for that investment by our citizens,” he added.

Hodge called the lack of rail transit the prime “showstopper” to locating federal agencies in Charles County.

“You can go anywhere in the federal bureaucracy and talk about bringing jobs here, in terms of federal agency jobs, without that being the first item on the list,” he said.

Planning for the project should cost about $25 million spread over the next five to seven years, Hodge said. Charles County has committed $1.35 million and Prince George's has appropriated funding for the next fiscal year, “but we are going to need the state of Maryland to come up to the plate and help carry this load.”

Hodge acknowledged “we’re going to have to have a new set of cards dealt to us at the federal level and in terms of revenue issues here in Maryland” for the project's construction to become fiscally feasible.

Del. Sally Y. Jameson (D-Charles), Jameson, chairwoman of the Southern Maryland delegation, suggested holding a joint meeting in Annapolis with the Prince George's County delegation and Hodge. She asked whether there was any chance of tying the project into the same national security arguments local officials have made in trying to gin up support for a new Gov. Harry W. Nice Bridge.

“I think those kind of strategies are the ones that are going to unfold when Congress finally settles down after the election,” Hodge began.

“You sure about that?” Jameson asked.

“You got a crystal ball?” Del. John F. Wood Jr. (D-St. Mary's Charles) chimed in.

jnewman@somdnews.com