On a sunny and cool Wednesday morning outside the Brigadier General Charles E. McGee Library in Silver Spring, dozens of elected officials, transportation experts and housing partners gathered under an overhang of the library’s second floor – on the exact spot where a station for the light-rail Purple Line will be built.
The station will be one of 21 on a roughly 16-mile route that will connect Bethesda and Silver Spring to the University of Maryland and places further west in Prince George’s County when the light rail begins operating, projected to be in 2026.
The officials had gathered for the unveiling of a report titled “Purple Line: Equitable Transit-Oriented Development Strategy,” completed by the Purple Line Corridor Coalition, with help from other economic consultants, local planners and community groups. The coalition is an organization consisting of public and private partners aiming to improve housing and economic conditions along the corridor, along with improving the overall quality of life along the route.
The report, more than 50 pages long, focuses on three major topics affecting communities along the light-rail route: multimodal accessibility, transit-oriented development and housing, and economic development.
The report cost about $2 million to produce over two years and involved technical analysis and research between the University of Maryland, government officials and private-sector partners, according to Gerrit Knaap, co-chair of the Purple Line Corridor Coalition and executive director of the University of Maryland’s National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education.
Transit-oriented development and multimodal accessibility are important aspects of the report, Knaap said. Economic development is also important, but market conditions will likely take care of much of that as the line is built — and emphasis should be focused on ensuring there is a capable workforce to fill future industries and jobs along the Purple Line, he said.
“There’s a lot of analytical work that went into it, and we point out some things that weren’t known before … but it’s really kind of a rallying vehicle,” Knaap said of the report. “We had a lot of participants and stakeholders in this, including both counties’ planning departments, enterprise community partners and some big institutions with some power to do things. So if we all can come together and pursue this agenda together, I think it will have a major impact.”
The report also discusses the need to make sure the Purple Line is accompanied by pedestrian infrastructure improvements, including more signalized pedestrian crossings near stations, reducing motor vehicle speed limits to 25 miles per hour within a half mile of stations, and changing the design of intersections to discourage wide turns and eliminate right turns on red lights near the route.
Multiple officials who spoke during the report’s unveiling said that the route was designed in high-population corridors to encourage residents to walk, bike and scooter to the future Purple Line stations. And Matt Pollack, executive director for the project in the Maryland Transit Administration, said the Purple Line will be a key east-west transportation option for thousands of residents and commuters.
“All told, the project will replace [pedestrian] interactions, sidewalks, roadways and signals along a corridor that was designed in the [1950s] and [1960s] when the only goal was to get from suburbs to the city in the car,” Pollack said. “The Purple Line will benefit all users.”
David Bowers is a vice president of Enterprise Community Partners, a national nonprofit focused on community empowerment and increasing housing supply, and co-chair of the Purple Line Corridor Coalition.
Bowers said the report helps people think not only about why riders will be using the Purple Line, but also where they will be going — whether that will be to work, a place of business, or simply trying to travel to another part of the region.
Housing and transit-oriented development
The report talks about multiple ways to produce and also preserve affordable housing, ranging from creating housing trust funds and low-income housing tax credits to using public land for affordable housing projects — and in Montgomery County, expanding the county’s moderately priced dwelling unit program within the Purple Line corridor.
The moderately-priced dwelling unit, or MPDU program, was established by Montgomery County in the 1970s. For any project that consists of 20 or more living units, between 12.5 to 15% of them must be sold/rented according to affordability guidelines.
It also discusses how policies can be adopted to protect renters, such as those prohibiting rent gouging that might occur in the light-rail corridor, and providing more support services such as legal counsel.
Bowers, who deals with affordable housing issues throughout the region, said a simple step for the government and private sector is to continue investing more money in the near future to preserve and also produce more affordable housing. When it comes to land use and zoning policy, he suggested the use of long-term covenants on affordable housing projects.
“I think making sure that we can get long-term covenants on the properties that are affordable … let’s keep them there, and invest the kind of dollars that are necessary to keep them long-term affordable [units],” Bowers said in an interview.
The coalition’s report also says there needs to be investment in economic development, particularly when it comes to small- and medium-sized businesses along the Purple Line route. That investment can include offering entrepreneurial programs, technical assistance for small businesses, and working with the University of Maryland to create career pathways for future workers, including in career and technical education programs.
Daniel Koroma is the business liaison within County Executive Marc Elrich’s office, focusing on connecting small businesses or prospective businesses to expansion opportunities and offering other technical assistance. He said in an interview that many businesses along the Purple Line route just want more access to information about the ongoing construction and what technical or financial assistance might be available.
“They need to know when utilities are going to be turned on and turned off, they need to know when roads are going to be closed,” Koroma said. “And so those communications are really critical in terms of them scheduling when employees need to come in … the times that they’re open, so access to information is a big one that I’ve heard.”
He added that his office is hiring six more staff members to help with assisting businesses with technical assistance, such as licensing, permitting and regulation requirements, including for those along the Purple Line.