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They might not agree about when it will finally come to fruition, but the speakers at last week's meeting about a proposed light rail line connecting White Plains and Waldorf with the Branch Avenue Metro station in Marlow Heights agreed it will benefit Charles County greatly, if only county officials could get their acts together.

As a part of Citizens for a Better Charles County’s annual meeting, former Charles County Commissioner Gary Hodge, 1000 Friends of Maryland Executive Director Dru Schmidt-Perkins and University of Maryland College Park professor and Silver Spring-based architect Ralph Bennett spoke to the dozens gathered about the future of transit and smart growth in the county. Before the meeting got underway, Charles County commissioners’ President Candice Quinn Kelly (D) acknowledged the turmoil among both the commissioners and the planning commission, but stressed that all is not hopeless.

“It’s a struggle. These things don’t always happen quickly ... but we manage to do it,” Kelly said, speaking of the proposed light rail line, in the works since 1988. “It’s our future. ... It’s the right kind of planning for here in Charles County, and we’re going to do it. We might not see a lot of these things in our time, but won’t it be wonderful for people to remember you were the ones who stood for this? Someday, these things will happen because people like you were willing to come out on nights like this.”

Hodge said he sees the rail as “the most significant project in the history of the county.”

“If we are successful ... the magnitude of that project will approach anything we’ve seen at Paxtuent River Naval Air Station, at Calvert Cliffs and other major regional programs in Southern Maryland,” he said, acknowledging that there are “thousands of challenges and obstacles” to overcome to make the project happen. “We’ve broken through hugely significant barriers.”

Currently, Hodge said, the project is the fourth transit issue in line for state attention, but turmoil surrounding federal funding is a perpetual barrier.

“We have failed to keep pace with the needs of the county,” Hodge said. “Assuming that Congress gets its act together, the planning on our project can move forward.”

If in the fall the county receives a commitment from the state to begin project planning, that would be “the first step ... and very significant,” Hodge said.

“That’ll be the starting gun. Then we’ll have a page with a budget,” Hodge said. If all goes according to plan from there, Hodge, now a consultant on local government issues, said he anticipates five years of studies at the state level, two at the federal level followed by a groundbreaking, and another five years of construction.

When the rail line opens, Hodge projected an initial ridership of anywhere from 23,000 to 26,000 people on the 18-mile-long route, a number that exceeds comparable light rail lines in Norfolk, Va., Charlotte, N.C., Tempe, Ariz., and Phoenix.

Elsewhere in the state, other projects like the proposed Purple Line, which would run from New Carrollton to Bethesda, would be in direct competition for funding with the light rail. Despite his involvement in the Purple Line project, Bennett took to the floor to give the meeting attendees suggestions on how to make smart growth workable in the county, thus increasing the population in the area and providing the adequate ridership base required.

Bennett presented a series of pictures of areas in the state, along with some from Canada and Holland, that he said were examples of the sort of growth the county should work to build in Waldorf. With the addition of buildings that incorporate both residential and commercial use into one package, Bennett said, combined with an emphasis on walkable streets, Waldorf could become the sort of urban center well-suited to light rail.

“It’s a terrific opportunity,” Bennett said. “This is a terrific town ... and you still want to look for some ways to preserve its rural character. Many correct impulses are being observed here.”

Although Schmidt-Perkins agreed that the light rail would be a boon for Waldorf and the county as a whole, she did not share Hodge’s optimism that it would be achieved in the relatively near future. The county, she said, has all but strayed too far off the path of smart growth.

“We should be smart about what we see. With the developments happening right now, you’re in a truly historic place,” Schmidt-Perkins said. “The decisions made now will determine if we fail miserably, because it is just that stark.”

Speaking in terms painted by an admittedly “snarky, broad brush,” Schmidt-Perkins used a running metaphor comparing the county to a high school student preparing for college, and compared spreading development all across the county to “smearing mayonnaise” all over it.

“If the county chooses that mayo spread, it’s about $2 billion extra” in terms of development costs compared to concentrating growth in Waldorf, Schmidt-Perkins said. “These are real economic engines. If we instead go for that and add 54,000 homes, we risk the people who already live here. We have to find a balance, and make sure it makes sense for the county.”

Schmidt-Perkins likened the county’s situation to that of a senior making college choices.

“This is a test, and we have to score high. The county is in high school and looking ahead. ... You won’t be able to compete if you don’t,” Schmidt-Perkins said, noting the dearth of funds and amount of competition. “We can’t have it all. You have to make some very tough choices here.”

Schmidt-Perkins then turned her attention to the controversy surrounding the current version of the proposed comprehensive plan update.

“You’re thumbing your nose at the state plans and goals for smart growth,” Schmidt-Perkins said. “You haven’t made the state happy. You shouldn’t be [ticking] off ... the people that you need the support from. When did you ever get in a fight with mom and dad, and then go right back and get $20 from them? It’s going to be these projects that need to pass the test. It’s decision time.”

Kelly backed Schmidt-Perkins, saying that the disconnect and discord could be rooted in the county commissioners’ not meeting with the planning commission.

“My concern is that ... the disconnect comes from not meeting board to board,” Kelly said. “I’d like to see planned, formalized meetings ... to do that sort of brainstorming. I don’t know what could be said that’s much more clear.”

lrenner@somdnews.com