Saturday, October 18, 2008

Purple Line to Require Demolition, Sound Walls

Study Looks at Impact of Montgomery Transit Route

By Katherine Shaver and William Wan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, October 18, 2008; B01

Building the Purple Line through Montgomery and Prince George's counties could require demolishing up to 31 private properties, including some Silver Spring apartments, and constructing sound walls to shield residents from a high-pitched "squeal" noise caused by turning train wheels, according to a six-year state study released yesterday.

Although Maryland officials have released parts of the Purple Line plans over the past year, the highly anticipated 250-page report provided the first overall detailed look at its potential impact, from the number of estimated riders to the sights and sounds for those who would live, work and attend school along the 16-mile route between Bethesda and New Carrollton.

Among the findings: Some of the 64 intersections with stoplights in that east-west corridor would need improvements, such as new turn lanes, to prevent traffic from worsening if vehicles shared travel lanes with light rail trains or express buses. Some street parking would vanish, and some property owners, including as many as four Montgomery County schools, could lose strips of land -- both necessary to widen roads to accommodate a transitway.

The Purple Line, which could cost as much as $1.6 billion, would be the region's first transitway designed specifically to connect suburbs, rather than running in and out of the District's core. It would run primarily above ground and along existing roads -- either as a light rail system or busway-- with as many as 20 stops, including Metrorail and MARC stations. Buses and trains would run in their own lanes or in traffic, depending on the type of system chosen.

The study also found that trains would have to be well maintained to prevent vibrations to some adjacent homes. Sound walls and panels covering train wheels would be necessary to protect residents in up to 18 "potential annoyance zones" from the screech of metal train wheels turning sharp corners, planners wrote. Without such protections, noise levels could be severe for residents near a planned maintenance facility in the Glenridge neighborhood of Prince George's, according to the Draft Environmental Impact Statement.

Threading the transit line through long-established and densely developed neighborhoods is considered one of the state's biggest hurdles. Planners have found that it could run close to three Montgomery elementary schools -- Rosemary Hills, Sligo Creek and North Chevy Chase -- and one middle school, Silver Spring International, requiring that small chunks of their campuses be seized. The schools' playgrounds and ball fields would be left intact, the report said.

It did not settle some of the more contentious issues, such as the transitway's exact route or how many trees would be lost if it ran along the Georgetown Branch Trail, a walking and biking path between Bethesda and Silver Spring. State planners have reached consensus with University of Maryland officials to bring the Purple Line through the heart of the College Park campus, planners said. The state is still studying ways to reduce noise, vibrations and potential electromagnetic interference with sensitive equipment in nearby laboratories.

Depending on the route and mode of transit chosen, as many as 19 business properties and as many as 12 residences would be condemned.

"It's these devil-in-the-detail issues that matter a great deal in these communities," said Rob Rosenberg of East Silver Spring, who founded a group raising objections. "We know there are transit needs. We're not anti-Purple Line, but we're the ones who have to live with the consequences."

Some in the community expressed worries that some versions of the plan would increase traffic in their neighborhoods. Others shuddered over the squealing noise described in the study.

"We're talking about a built-out urban neighborhood," said Karen Roper, chair of the East Silver Spring Civic Association. "Any route coming through here is going to impact our community."

But Purple Line advocates say its benefits would far outweigh the drawbacks, including the faster and more reliable east-west transit service it would provide for people now stuck taking a series of slow buses in ever-worsening traffic. The Purple Line is estimated to attract up to 68,100 trips daily, according to the study.

Without the Purple Line, a bus trip between Bethesda and Silver Spring that now takes 20 minutes would take 35 minutes by 2030. That same trip in 2030 would take 19 minutes on the most expensive Purple Line busway system being considered and nine minutes on the most expensive light rail system, the study found.

"A lot of the attention has been focused on the squabbles over minutiae, the mini-controversies in each different neighborhood," said David Moon, a spokesman for Purple Line NOW, a coalition advocating for the project. "Right now, you've got high gas prices, increasing traffic, sprawl and environmental concerns. Transit like this is what we need."

Although the study cited the most expensive light rail option as "most effective" in attracting the most riders and saving them the most time, state transit officials said Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) will not choose a plan to submit for federal funding until this spring. The state has scheduled four hearings for next month to solicit public comment on the study's findings.

"Any transportation project like this is going to have potential impact," Maryland Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari said. "We have to build community consensus on why we're doing this."

State officials said they know they will have trouble paying for a Purple Line. Building the light rail system deemed to be the most effective would cost an estimated $1.6 billion in 2007 dollars. More significantly, its measure for cost-effectiveness -- a key consideration for securing critical federal money -- barely meets federal eligibility standards.

Henry Kay, Maryland's deputy administrator for transit planning, said five of the six Purple Line options would qualify to compete for federal money. But cost is not the only consideration, he said. "This is a legacy kind of investment," Kay said. "The question is, what is the best project we can do?"

He said the state will have to prove to federal officials as early as this spring that Maryland can pay its share, typically about half the construction costs. The state Transportation Department recently announced that the economic downturn required cutting $1.1 billion from its six-year capital budget, delaying a slew of projects statewide. The Purple Line has not been funded beyond the current planning and engineering phase.

"At this point, it's going to be a challenge to come up with additional money," Kay said.

The study is available at

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