Studies Find Issues With Two Proposals
By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 7, 2009
Trains slated to run on a proposed Purple Line between Montgomery and Prince George's counties would be too slow and unreliable if restricted to a single track along part of the Georgetown Branch trail and would disrupt residents east of downtown Silver Spring if sent through a tunnel there, updated studies of the project released yesterday show.
Maryland transit planners said they considered both options for the proposed 16-mile transit line, in response to requests from the Montgomery County Council and citizen groups. Some council members had hoped a single track would limit destruction of trees on the wooded trail between Bethesda and Silver Spring. Some Silver Spring residents say trains running along narrow downtown streets would add to traffic congestion in the revived entertainment district.
State planners said building a 1.5-mile tunnel between the Silver Spring Metro station and Mansfield Road, beneath homes on Wayne Avenue, would make trains more reliable and save riders enough time -- about four minutes in each direction -- to meet federal funding requirements.
But, they said, building the portal where trains would enter and leave the tunnel would require demolishing three houses on Wayne, limit access to three driveways and place a retaining wall just beyond front yards.
Running trains under downtown Silver Spring also would cut out two stations -- at Dale Drive and near a future library at Wayne and Fenton Street -- leaving people in those areas with longer walks to a train, the study found.
The tunnel would add $173 million to the estimated $1.3 billion cost of the plan endorsed by both counties' councils and executives. The larger price tag would hurt the project's chances of receiving scarce state money, planners said.
Jonathan Jay, vice president for one of the Silver Spring civic groups that requested the tunnel study, questioned why it didn't mention the amount of land that would be taken from homes and schools to widen Wayne for above-ground trains.
"This looks not so much like a study but a polishing of questionable arguments which [the Maryland Transit Administration] has previously made for not wanting to build a tunnel," Jay said.
Michael D. Madden, the state's manager on the study, defended the analysis, saying, "We want to make it clear to the community so they understand all the impacts and advantages of the tunnel."
The Montgomery council had asked the state to examine the possibility of running a single track along 3,500 feet of the trail between Pearl Street near downtown Bethesda and an area just west of Columbia Country Club's golf course. Because the publicly owned right of way narrows there, almost every tree along the wooded trail would have to be cut down to accommodate two tracks, state planners have said.
A single track would require 10 to 12 fewer feet of land along that portion of the hiking and biking path, planners wrote, but it still would require clearing most of the trees in that area.
A single track also would make a Purple Line less attractive because trains would be slower, run less frequently and encounter a choke point if delayed in either direction, planners wrote.
Four cities that have used single tracks, including Baltimore, eventually added second tracks because of those problems, the report found.
Montgomery County Council member Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda), who had asked for the single-track study, said he hadn't seen the conclusions but was surprised construction of one track would require cutting down nearly as many trees as building two.
"I thought anything that we could do to mitigate the impacts on the environment should be explored fully," said Berliner, who supports the route along the trail, which is in his district. "While I'm disappointed in the conclusions, I'm sure they did their work in good faith."
Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) is expected to decide by early summer on a Purple Line plan to submit for federal funding, which is essential to building it.
The Maryland Transit Administration's study analyzed the Purple Line as both a light rail and a rapid bus system, but O'Malley is widely expected to endorse a light rail plan favored by both counties' councils and executives.
Light rail cars, which are akin to long trolleys, would run primarily in their own lanes along streets and use overhead electrical lines.
A Purple Line would be the first east-west transit line built in the Washington area to provide suburb-to-suburb travel.
The latest studies are available at http://www.purplelinemd.com under "Additional Studies."