Travis Ready, a lieutenant commander with the U.S. Public Health Service, bought his home near the intersection of Jones Mill and Jones Bridge roads in Chevy Chase a little more than two years ago.
He knew the Purple Line was a possibility, but he wasn’t sure if it would ever be built on the Georgetown Branch Trail that runs directly behind his home.
Last week, when a Bethesda Beat reporter knocked on his door to ask him about the effects of Purple Line construction, he replied, “It sucks” and invited the reporter in to talk further.
Directly behind his home, Purple Line construction crews have cleared dozens of large trees and stacked the trunks into a pile about 10 feet high. A wood chipper was blaring as it hacked tree branches into mulch and spewed it out onto a pile about twenty feet high that had steam rising from it.
The mulch piles near the construction entrance on Jones Mill Road as crews mulch trees they've cut down. Credit: Andrew Metcalf
The mulch pile was giving off so much heat one morning last week, it appeared to catch fire and someone called the fire department to check it out. At 7:30 a.m. on Nov. 28, Montgomery County Fire Department spokesman Pete Piringer reported a pile of mulch caught fire there, although a Purple Line Transit Partners spokeswoman later said the pile was steaming, but did not catch fire.
Ready and other residents interviewed by Bethesda Beat in the past week said the start of Purple Line construction has been a nuisance. Their daily lives are filled with loud machines operating and their homes sometimes vibrating and shaking as crews cut down large trees along the former trail that stretches between Bethesda and the western edge of Silver Spring.
Construction on the estimated $2.3 billion light-rail Purple Line project began in August, immediately after the state signed a $900 million federal funding agreement with the U.S. Department of Transportation.
At the time, many people were unaware the project would start so quickly, given the long-term delays to the start of construction due to ongoing federal lawsuits by three residents of the Town of Chevy Chase and the trail advocacy group Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail.
But a summertime ruling in one of the lawsuits by the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., gave state officials enough confidence to begin construction. After a groundbreaking that featured Gov. Larry Hogan climbing into an excavator to knock down a building, Purple Line Transit Partners, the private team of companies building the line, began clearing trees.
Some of the most visible cleared spots between Bethesda and Silver Spring include where the Purple Line will pass under Jones Mill Road near Ready’s home and where the line will cross over Connecticut Avenue on a bridge next to the future Chevy Chase Lake station.
Trees have largely been cleared from where the former Georgetown Branch Trail approached Connecticut Avenue. The Purple Line will cross Connecticut Avenue over a new bridge and the Chevy Chase Lake Station will be built in this area.
At the Spring Center strip mall along 16th Street in Silver Spring, the site of a planned equipment staging area for the project, nearly every business has closed except for a pawn shop and a Patient First medical center, as well as the U.S. Post Office. A mailman said last week he didn’t know exactly when the post office would close, but it’s expected sometime around the end of December.
Businesses at Spring Center have closed to make way for a Purple Line staging area. Credit: Andrew Metcalf
Construction of the light-rail line is scheduled to be completed in 2022. Until then, residents near the route will have to deal with different phases of the construction process—tree clearing, then excavation, building bridges and underpasses, installing track and testing the line.
“On a daily basis, crews usually crank up the machines around 7 a.m.,” Ready said while sitting in a front room of his home. He said that when he works from home, it’s typically in the front room, as there’s too much construction noise coming from the back. “I can hear it and feel minor vibrations. I feel the ground shake when trees are falling,” he said.
Amy Waldman, a resident who lives on the trail between Jones Mill Road and Connecticut Avenue, said her backyard looks onto the trail where the line is being built.
“My backyard has completely changed,” Waldman said. “I used to have woods. My yard sloped down into thick, thick woods and you couldn’t see the trail. Now, it looks like a wasteland and I can see all the houses on the other side of the trail.”
She said her house shakes when a bulldozer passes by and men walk by her home in bright orange vests throughout the day.
“It’s dirty, it’s loud, it’s vibrating and there’s no privacy,” Waldman said. Both Ready and Waldman said the work typically wraps up around 3 p.m. each weekday.
Homes are particularly close the trail near the intersection of Jones Bridge and Jones Mill raods. Credit: Google Maps
Wendy Soroka, who lives at the Hamlet Place townhouses in Chevy Chase, said tree cutting behind her home, which borders the trail, began about two weeks ago.
On Thursday, she said, crews began downing large trees around 8 a.m. When one tree fell, she could feel her home shake.
“There was a huge crash. My whole house was shaking and my windows were rattling,” Soroka said.
Soroka serves on the Purple Line Community Advisory Team for her neighborhood. The teams were formed as a way for Purple Line Transit Partners to distribute information to the community.
She said that after the big trees began falling last week, she immediately got an email from her neighbor, who also said her home rattled.
Soroka said townhome owners on the street, which backs up directly to the trail, are concerned about the structural integrity of their homes as construction proceeds.
“There’s a huge piece of machinery that has treads like a tank, a monstrous piece of equipment with a huge digging thing on the front of it, and they bring it back and forth on the trail every day,” Soroka said. “My house vibrates when that thing moves, but nothing like what happened [when the tree fell]. It felt like my house was lifted up and down.”
A video Soroka said depicts a tree falling along the Purple Line route near her home.
Carla Julian, a spokeswoman for Purple Line Transit Partners, wrote in an email that crews are governed by noise limits in its $5.6 billion, 36-year agreement with the state to build, operate and maintain the line.
She noted that there are some permanent noise monitors in place and more will be installed when tree clearing is complete. Some crew members use handheld noise and vibration monitors while trees are being cut down until the permanent monitors can be installed, according to Julian.
She said tree clearing along the route will wrap up in April, then restart in the fall. This is partly due to federal restrictions to prevent trees from being cut down as migratory birds move through the region.
Ready and Waldman said they received letters from Purple Line Transit Partners last month asking them to allow home inspectors to check their houses and create a report.
“We are asking your permission to inspect, sketch, and photograph the interior and exterior of your property,” one letter says. “The individuals performing this work will be structural and geotechnical engineers from Purple Line Transit Contractors’ team.”
Ready said he’s worried his home may already be experiencing drainage problems, but hopes the inspections will help him prove if any damage to his home was caused by construction.
Waldman said that by the time she got the letter dated Nov. 15, construction was well underway, even though the letter says the inspection was required to be offered “before any construction activities begin.”
She said Purple Line Transit Partners should be using independent structural engineers rather than engineers from their team.
“I should have gotten these notices before they started anything,” Waldman said. “There’s a lot of distrust now, with how everything has been handled and I don’t trust them to do a fair analysis.”
She added that she would likely spend her own money to have an independent analysis done to her home, as well as having the Purple Line team do one. The letter notes the Purple Line team inspection is “100% voluntary.”
Julian said Purple Line Transit Partners hired a certified Maryland inspector to document existing conditions of structures, including homes, within a certain proximity of the route.
“The inspections document the existing conditions of the structure prior to heavy construction,” Julian wrote. “We provide a copy to the homeowner and keep the documentation for our records should we ever need to refer to that.”
Soroka said last week that she had not received an inspection request letter, but understood that four townhouses in the community would receive them. She added that she, too, was concerned about the structural integrity of her home.
Soroka and Waldman are Purple Line opponents—they both said they don’t believe the project will justify its cost.
Soroka, a real estate agent, said she moved into her home about three years ago. She said homes with a highway or train track directly behind them lose an estimated 10 to 20 percent in property value and she’s concerned about her resale value. She noted that one home has been on the market in her community for about two months and hasn’t sold.
“I’m estimating that I’m going to lose value on my home,” Soroka said.
“I would move if I could, but I don’t think we can sell any of our homes,” Waldman said, noting that a buyer would likely face too many unknowns related to construction and future noise problems.
Waldman said that after construction is complete, her home value might increase due to the proximity of the Purple Line, but that’s not on her mind now. “I don’t care about property value. I care about peace and a happy place to live,” she said.
Julian wrote that after crews finish the tree-clearing process, they’ll begin excavating to build the line’s embankment and installing utilities. She wrote “as with all construction, there will be noise associated with the progress.”
Purple Line map, click to expand
Ready said he believes the line is too expensive for what it will provide—an east-west transit network through southern Montgomery County and Prince George’s County.
“My fear is there’s going to be massive budget cuts as they progress,” Ready said. He worries that promises such as the underpass near Jones Bridge Road, sound walls, the new trail and aesthetic items budgeted into the project would be cut.
However, the project could create a “booming area” between Silver Spring and Bethesda that could increase local property values, he said.
He explained his daughter plans to start her freshman year at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School next year and he’d like her to graduate from the school.
“Every day, I wonder, should I cut my losses or stay put?,” Ready said.
This story was updated at 3 p.m., Dec. 6, to provide additional information about the reported fire call.