A rendering presented by MTA on Tuesday of what the Bethesda Purple Line station may look like if the Apex building is not demolished. Credit: Maryland Transit Administration

There were significant developments Tuesday involving both the western end and middle section of the 16-mile Purple Line corridor, where construction of a light rail line is tentatively slated to begin next summer.

During a Montgomery County Council committee hearing, several council members expressed hope that a deal could still be reached to tear down the Apex building in downtown Bethesda, to enhance the design of the planned Purple Line station there. Efforts to reach an agreement to raze the building hit a major roadblock last month, due to the high cost – widely reported to be about $70 million – that would have been borne by the county.

But an official of the Maryland Transit Administration told the panel that “effectively, the window is closed” for reaching an Apex building deal until early next year, when the MTA is scheduled to select the private partner who will build the Purple Line. At that point, there would be an opportunity to reopen the matter “very briefly” prior to the start of construction on the line, said Jamie Kendrick, the MTA’s deputy executive director for transit development. (Apex building pictured to left)

Separately, it was announced that the state, along with Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, had agreed to work with community groups to develop a “Purple Line Corridor Compact.” Workshops will be held in Silver Spring on Oct, 25 and Hyattsville on Nov. 17 to help work out the details, The process is designed to produce a document which, while legally non-binding, will nonetheless be signed at the end of this year by officials of the state and the two counties, as well as representatives of the Purple Line Corridor Coalition – an umbrella group founded last year by the University of Maryland’s Center for Smart Growth.

While a press release from the Purple Line Corridor Coalition said the compact “will articulate a…strategy designed to foster vibrant economic and community development for those who live and work along the 16-mile corridor,” the major push for the compact has come from Casa de Maryland, which advocates for Latino and immigrant groups. The middle of the Purple Line corridor, including communities such as Long Branch and Langley Park along the Montgomery-Prince George’s border, includes large Latino and immigrant populations.

While supporting construction of the Purple Line as expanding economic opportunity, Casa has expressed concern that many residents and businesses in these lower-income communities could be priced out by the increases in property values that often accompany new transit stations. As part of the compact, Casa and other advocacy groups are expected to push for a fund — possibly underwritten by money from Purple Line project — to preserve and build affordable housing.

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At Tuesday’s County Council hearing, MTA officials disclosed that the price tag for the project has reached nearly $2.45 billion, up about $80 million from earlier this year – and, in constant dollars, an increase of at least $550 million from 2009, when Gov. Martin O’Malley announced the state would move ahead with a light rail line extending from Bethesda east to New Carrollton in Prince George’s County. About $900 million will come from the federal government and a total of $240 million will be provided by Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, with the remainder coming from state funds and the private partner in the project.

“We do anticipate seeing some amount of modest construction activity starting late summer 2015,” said Kendrick, cautioning that “for every month of project delay, we incur about a $7 million cost increase…I would say that’s the biggest enemy of the project at this point is time.”

Such constraints are limiting efforts to reopen the issue of the Apex building – which, if torn down, could allow for both a larger Purple Line station and a tunnel under Wisconsin Avenue for the Capital Crescent Trail, rather than the street level crossing now planned.

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District 1 Councilmember Roger Berliner, who chaired Tuesday’s hearing, also noted tearing down the Apex building would reduce the length of “tail tracks” extending from the station into the plaza adjacent to Woodmont Avenue. Current estimates suggest these tail tracks, used for storage of trains, would extend 100 feet into the plaza if the Apex building remains, but could be reduced to 30 feet if it comes down.

“That’s a really fundamental part of downtown Bethesda,” Berliner said of the plaza area. “So to have it used in this way is not something that any of us find to be ideal, much like the station itself is short of ideal” with the current Apex building remaining, he added.

Michael Madden, the Purple Line’s deputy project director, said that, even if the Apex building stays, the Bethesda station can be designed “very attractively,” asserting, “Our architects will be able to make sure that it’s a very well lit, safe station.” But Kendrick acknowledged there would be more options with a deal to take down the building, saying, “I think we concur in all regards that we wish we had been able to get farther on Apex, and I will continue to hold out hope that there is some path forward.”

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Meanwhile, as the Purple Line Corridor Coalition declared the forthcoming compact “represents an opportunity to leverage the funding, construction and operation of the Purple Line to achieve benefits throughout the communities along its route,” Madden outlined the MTA’s plans for mitigating impacts on local communities during the construction phase. There will be eight so-called “community action teams” along the route – four in Montgomery County – comprised of representatives of local businesses and community associations.

The effort is intended “to make sure the businesses and the communities know when construction is taking place,” Madden said, adding, “Our effort is geared at maintaining access to the businesses, and helping them…to make sure people know the businesses are open during construction.” Whoever is selected to build the project will be have to comply with technical requirements designed to reduce construction noise, he said.

With the 2018 county elections falling in the middle of the projected construction period, some local officeholders already appear to be jittery about constituent backlash over the inconvenience – two years in advance of the estimated start of Purple Line operation in late 2020.

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“We’re going to have this fantastic transitway that is going to provide all kinds of opportunities for people,” said Councilmember George Leventhal, a strong supporter of the project. But he hastened to add: “The five years between 2015 and 2020 are going to be rough. The publicity is going to be ferociously negative…During construction, there’s going to be a lot of inconvenience a lot of complaints, a lot of frustration.”

Declared Leventhal: “And I just want to emphasize that the state of Maryland, the incoming governor, has got to think in a whole new way about communicating with the public in a very aggressive and proactive manner about why we are struggling in the short term and face challenges in the short-term because of the long-term benefit.”

That may depend on who the next governor is. While Democrat Anthony Brown is a strong Purple Line supporter, Brown’s underdog Republican opponent, Larry Hogan, said last week that he would delay construction of the Purple Line until the state’s finances are “straightened out.” In a brief interview, Hogan did say he would allow planning and design activity related to the Purple Line to proceed.

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