County Officials Say They Aren’t Being Informed About Purple Line Developments

County Officials Say They Aren’t Being Informed About Purple Line Developments

Lack of invitation to an event with Governor Hogan Thursday fits a pattern, they say.

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Gov. Larry Hogan greets workers at a construction site for the Purple Line in Lanham on Thursday morning.

Photo courtesy of the office of Gov. Larry Hogan

Updated at 1:45 p.m. Friday:

There were some faces missing in Lanham on Thursday morning as Gov. Larry Hogan celebrated the installation of the first tracks for the Purple Line with officials from the Maryland Department of Transportation.

Specifically, the faces of Montgomery County officials.

County Executive Marc Elrich didn’t receive an invitation to the track-laying ceremony, he said. Neither did Council President Nancy Navarro, she confirmed in a voicemail. Council Member Evan Glass said he learned about the event through tweets from journalists and took to the platform on Wednesday to express his displeasure.

“I’m thrilled that the first Purple Line track will be laid on Thursday,” he wrote. “Though I’m disappointed that Governor Hogan didn’t invite any of the local officials to join the celebration. After all, we’re paying for the project, too.”

The Maryland Department of Transportation was responsible for both the event and the invitations, said Hogan spokeswoman Shareese DeLeaver-Churchill. Brittany Marshall, a spokeswoman for MDOT, said the agency did reach out to Elrich’s office before the event, but added in an email that she “wasn’t aware” of invitations to individual council members. Michael Ricci, the director of communications for Gov. Hogan, later stated that the governor’s office reached out to Elrich’s team on Tuesday before the event.

For Glass and other county officials, the omission highlighted what’s sometimes perceived as a lack of information about the project, despite significant legislative and financial investments. Montgomery County contributed around $210 million to the $5.6 billion light-rail line and approved the use of county land for the project, according to Council Member Hans Riemer, who also did not receive an invitation.

“Our delegates helped secure the votes to fund it in the [state] transportation budget and we pushed hard for Governor Hogan to sign on,” he said. “I can certainly say that if the ceremony represented a significant milestone in the project, then it’s a shared milestone.”

County officials say it’s often difficult for them to exert influence over construction plans or keep abreast of project developments. Glass was surprised last month when the owners of Kefa Cafe, a popular coffee shop in Silver Spring, complained that project managers for Purple Line Transit Partners — the public-private partnership responsible for constructing the new rail line — had installed a series of emergency “No Parking” signs along Bonifant Street.

A representative for the partnership had informed business owners by email that utility work would disrupt street parking for a few weeks, said Abeba Tsegaye, the co-owner of the cafe. But an initial round of signage listed a 24-hour, weeklong prohibition on parking from August 12 to “indefinitely.” The second round of signs, replaced later that week, stated that street parking would be unavailable for a year, from August 12, 2019 to August 12, 2020.

“This whole block is mom-and-pop businesses and we would lose customers if we didn’t have parking for so long,” Tsegaye said. A representative from the partnership met with local business owners later that week and determined the signs were mistakenly placed by contractors, added Reemberto Rodriguez, the director of the county’s Silver Spring Regional Center.

Glass was concerned that the mistake occurred at all. “For at least a couple of days, those signs were depriving small businesses of patrons,” he said. “And as construction continues, those small businesses will need support.” Council members aren’t regularly briefed on project updates, he said, and when they are, they aren’t always given straightforward answers.

“We had one update earlier this spring and when I asked about the line being over-budget and on a delayed time schedule, I was essentially told that they didn’t have information on that,” he said. “I thought it was strange that the directors of a multi-million dollar project could not detail their finances.”

For developers behind the Purple Line, though — a project with more than a dozen private, state, and municipal stakeholders — it’s a challenge to spread information to every group that’s involved. Purple Line representatives meet monthly with staffers from the Montgomery Department of Transportation, Marshall said. Elected officials are free to sign up for construction alerts on along with the rest of the public, added John Undeland, the communications director for the Purple Line Transit Partners.

“We’re not going to be able to communicate with everyone, but we’re trying to communicate as efficiently as possible,” he said. The partnership is scheduled to brief the Montgomery County Council again on Sept. 19.

With such a huge project, it’s impossible to avoid construction impacts, Riemer added. But that doesn’t always keep council members from trying. A few months ago, he met with Fred Craig, then chief executive officer for the partnership, to discuss rush hour lane closures on the East West Highway due to Purple Line construction. The two even visited the site together so Craig could witness the problem firsthand, Riemer said.

The lanes are still closed during rush hour. But it wasn’t for lack of trying.

“There are definitely some challenges,” Riemer said. “But it’s our job to make things livable as construction continues.”

This story has been updated to reflect new comments from Michael Ricci, the director of communications for the office of Gov. Larry Hogan. A spokeswoman from the office previously stated that invitations for the event were handled by the Maryland Department of Transportation.

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