The officials managing the Purple Line construction process are looking for a restart after facing community backlash over the sudden closure of the Georgetown Branch Trail.
On Thursday, officials from the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) and Purple Line Transit Partners, the team of companies building the 16.2-mile light-rail line, said they're starting a community notification process, so a similar problem doesn't happen again.
The project's leaders appeared before the Montgomery County Council's Transportation Committee Thursday morning.
"The project experienced a bit of a rough start because we didn't know when we were going to start construction," Charles Lattuca, the Purple Line project manager for the MTA, said.
He said the $900 million full funding grant agreement with the federal government was finalized over about five days in late August, then the groundbreaking immediately took place. To avoid costly delays for the state, construction needed to start right away and the trail had to be closed, Lattuca said.
"Unfortunately, we regret some people were impacted negatively by the closure of the trail," Lattuca said.
The closure happened five days after the groundbreaking, despite the state previously planning to give 30 days’ notice about construction impacts.
Rob Chappell, CEO of Purple Line Transit Partners, described it as a "hiccup" in getting started. He said the construction team will regularly post information on the Purple Line website about the construction timeline.
Lattuca said the first Community Advisory Team meeting, which will update community members on the construction process, is scheduled for Oct. 17 in Bethesda. He didn't immediately have a time and place for that meeting.
Seven other community advisory teams are ramping up in other areas along the east-west route between Bethesda and New Carrollton, including in Silver Spring.
Council President Roger Berliner and Council member Marc Elrich both urged the state and the construction team to open portions of the trail that stretches between Bethesda and Silver Spring, if possible, during construction. However, project officials said the trail will need to remain entirely closed for the next four or five years.
Chappell said the trail will be used to move construction vehicles to different areas, rather than crossing through private property or using congested county roads.
Tree cutting underway
Crews began removing trees along the Purple Line route Monday and will continue the work five days a week. Neither Chappell nor Chris Doherty, a spokesman for the construction team, knew when the work would be completed.
Brush cleared along the Georgetown Branch Trail in Silver Spring. Credit: Andrew Metcalf
Lattuca noted that the work has seasonal restrictions. The state is following federal regulations that prevent tree cutting from taking place along the Georgetown Branch Trail from April until September due to the risk to migratory birds. He said he believed much of the tree cutting would be complete by April.
County working to identify safer route for interim Georgetown Branch Trail
Montgomery County Transportation Director Al Roshdieh said Thursday the county is working with the Town of Chevy Chase to identify a safe southern interim trail route.
Council members criticized the current interim route, part of which runs along busy Jones Bridge Road, as unsafe.
Town of Chevy Chase Mayor Mary Flynn said the town's five-member council is "trying to find solutions that would be palatable for our constituents."
County Council member George Leventhal urged the county's transportation officials to do other bike infrastructure projects quickly to help accommodate cyclists displaced by the trail closure.
"Having great bike infrastructure is valuable even after we have the new trail," Leventhal said, referring to the new paved trail that will be built alongside the Purple Line between Bethesda and downtown Silver Spring. The county has budgeted more than $50 million to have Purple Line Transit Partners construct the new trail.
Anna Tiedeman Irwin, an East Bethesda resident who attended the briefing, said she previously used the trail to take her 5-year-old daughter to Washington Episcopal School. Now, she's using the interim trail along Montgomery Avenue, but doesn't feel safe transporting her daughter with a bike carrier on it.
"It's dangerous. It's scary. It's so stressful," Irwin said. "I'm really working hard to advocate for a safe path through Bethesda because there isn't one now."
Tim Cupples, who's monitoring the Purple Line project for the county's transportation department, said county engineers are looking into whether the department can immediately start building bike infrastructure improvements called for in the recently approved Downtown Bethesda Master Plan.
Financial arrangements for businesses, residences taken for Purple Line construction
Judy Freedman-Breckinridge, who is overseeing real estate acquisitions for the state for the project, said officials are in the process of acquiring property in the Purple Line's path.
She said they're giving tenants and property owners 90 days’ notice before they have to vacate the property.
More than 600 properties are being acquired to build the Purple Line, according Freedman-Breckinridge. Owners of residential and commercial properties being acquired will be given fair market value for their properties, a process dictated by state law, she said.
Businesses that have closed or will be forced to close due to Purple Line construction are given up to $60,000 based on their sales, Freedman-Breckinridge said.
Businesses receive the money whether they decide to relocate or permanently close, she said. If they relocate, the state will pay their moving costs. The amount the state will pay for that is not capped.
The Spring Center shopping plaza on 16th Street. Via Google Maps
One of the largest commercial developments affected is the Spring Center shopping plaza along 16th Street in Silver Spring. Purple Line Transit Partners is taking over that property to use it as a staging and storage area for construction equipment. It's also the location of a future station.
Businessea such as Pizza Hut, 7-Eleven, El Aguila Restaurant and Cameron's Seafood Market have closed or will close over the next month or two at the location.
Noise levels, headways discussed
Chappell addressed questions about how loud the Purple Line trains will be when they're completed.
He said the maximum noise allowed from empty train cars around a curve will be 75 decibels, while the normal operating noise will be 72 decibels. Those noise levels would be heard directly next to a train; the noise would be lower farther away, Chappell said.
A vacuum cleaner operates at about 70, according to IAC Acoustics.
Lattuca said trains will run every 7.5 minutes during peak periods and every 10 to 15 minutes during off-peak times. Trains will run from 5 a.m. to midnight.
He noted that four-foot sound walls will be built in certain locations around the route, reducing noise by about 12 decibels.
Roshdieh said the county's noise ordinance limits noise levels to 55 decibels at property lines.
The council plans to keep meeting with Purple Line project managers every six months or so for additional updates about the project.
On Thursday, council members acknowledged that the construction process will be disruptive.
“The faster we can get it done, the less disruption to the community, long-term, will be,” Council member Nancy Floreen said. “It’s going to be a pain in the neck while it goes on.”
The state plans to complete the project in 2022. State leaders signed a 36-year, $5.6 billion agreement with Purple Line Transit Partners last year to finance, build, operate and maintain the project.