2020 | Opinion

Opinion: Promises and problems of ‘Purple Train’ stretch from Bethesda to New Carrollton

Expedition highlights contrast of construction chaos and relatively untouched segments

The original short section of tracks installed last year for the Purple Line ends here on Ellin Road in Lanham in Prince George's County.

Photos by Amanda Farber

On the edge of Lyttonsville, I walk through the muggy August air and up a muddy hill toward a steady distant metallic thumping sound. Giant tire tracks on the ground, where stands of trees once stood, lead the way.

Someone has wrapped colorful ribbons around a particularly large remaining specimen tree nearby to send a hopeful message: Please save me.

From this perch, I have a wide-angle view of yellow excavators, a swath of gray gravel, unfinished retaining walls, the partially rebuilt Talbot Avenue Bridge, and a wide dip of sagging earth covered in weeds where a home once stood. Above is a big, beautiful sky.

I think back to last September, when there was much pomp and promise at a ceremony Gov. Larry Hogan, state and local officials, and project contractors attended in Prince George’s County to mark the installation of the first short section of track for the Purple Line. 

Muddy tracks lead up a hill next to the Purple Line project on the edge of Lyttonsville.

 

Fast forward one year to today, and the state and Purple Line Transit Partners (PLTP) are on a contentious collision course. A circuit court granted a restraining order last week to temporarily prevent the contractors from demobilizing and abandoning the project pending further dispute resolution.

For a complex project described as the largest public-private partnership transit undertaking in North America, and touted as the answer to the area’s economic development dreams, the possibility of a collapsed contract appears devastating on paper. It is even more disastrous to see in person.

Not long after the track-laying ceremony in 2019, over the course of two days of driving and walking, I traveled the entirety of the Purple Line construction from Bethesda to New Carrollton. This month, I did the whole eye-opening route again and shot these photos.

Looking down from the 16th Street bridge at the CSX tracks and Purple Line construction and staging area. The future Capital Crescent Trail is supposed to be built on the east side of the existing tracks here.

 

Right now, the project consists of 16 long messy miles. It appears as if a construction tornado has touched down and carved a path through the landscape, scattering heavy machinery, fencing, mounds of assorted materials, relocated utilities, gravel, weeds and countless orange cones in its wake.

Along the route, I navigate blocked sidewalks and confusing crossings, looking over every bridge and into every tunnel, trying to imagine the rush of air and reverberation of future passing trains. I double back around detours to peek though fencing at the construction staging areas that pockmark the route at regular intervals. My mission: not to miss an inch.

I stare up at the sweeping flyover structures in Silver Spring and Riverdale, which currently come to an abrupt halt, as if they are flat ski jumps.

The future Purple Line light-rail flyover comes to an abrupt halt in downtown Silver Spring.

 

As I make my way, I am reminded of the endless hours I spent building extensive wooden train track sets and playing Thomas the Tank Engine with my kids when they were young.

I note that the chaos of construction along many stretches, such as University Boulevard, is contrasted with some segments that are still relatively untouched, such as parts of Campus Drive in College Park.

Heavy machinery stationed in some areas appears frozen in place like kids playing red light, green light. “Red light.”

Two original sections of Purple Line track disappear around the bend on a closed section of Ellin Road in Lanham in Prince George’s County.

 

As I drive down Ellin Road in Lanham, near the end of the line, Prince’s Purple Rain comes on the radio. I smile, turn it up and belt out the chorus with a twist — “Purple Train, Purple Train.”

The only visible clues to the future light-rail route on the road in front of me are a lone backhoe, a line of orange cones, and a detour sign.

These days, the original celebrated section of track around the bend here seems socially distanced from other parts of the project. There are now two other short sections of track laid several miles away.

An excavator on Campus Drive at the University of Maryland, College Park

 

When construction began in September 2017, small official signs appeared along the Capital Crescent Trail indicating that it would “close on September 5, 2017 for four to five years” (emphasis theirs) of construction.

In September 2018, the Maryland Transit Administration stated that despite initial delays, which totaled approximately a year at the time, it was working through the details of how to accelerate the work, and that the $2 billion design-build project remained generally on schedule. 

However, by the time the Montgomery County Council held a briefing in May 2020, news of a deepening division was coming to light. The Purple Line construction team was claiming delays totaling nearly 1,000 days and at least $519 million in requested additional compensation. (Coincidentally at that time, the Capital Crescent Trail had been closed for construction for nearly 1,000 days, as well).

Barriers set up on Campus Drive at the University of Maryland, College Park, near the iconic traffic circle “M,” which will be removed to accommodate the Purple Line route. Crews are actively rebuilding the “M” nearby.

 

While there were claims of 266 days and $131 million due to lawsuits, the report indicated that the majority of the delays and cost overruns — 728 days and $388 million — arose from problems related to acquiring right-of-way land, the design of CSX crash walls, and code requirements by the Maryland Department of the Environment.

By June 2020, it was reported that there were a staggering $755 million in cost overruns. 

These numbers don’t include the required a la carte associated costs of finishing the estimated $50 million replacement trail tunnel under Wisconsin Avenue or the money needed to upgrade pedestrian safety and accessibility surrounding Purple Line stations.

Finding this funding now will be compounded by strained state and county resources. 

While many residents questioned future ridership estimates and projected costs, there has been a revolving responsibility for the project from the start. PLTP has had four different CEOs in as many years. The state has had turnover at the top, as well. 

Whether there is a Hail Mary deal reached through the courts, the state takes over, or other suggested alternatives are pursued, at this point there must be greater transparency and oversight before this project heads even further off the rails.

Anyone who is affected by, supportive of, critical of, or paying for the project — residents and elected officials alike — would be prudent to travel the route end to end to see where things stand and understand what is at stake after three years of construction. That’s the “sight” in oversight.

There is a palpable anxiety that residents and businesses in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties will long be left with an unfinished purple scar across the region. The public deserves a clear, focused picture of what lies ahead with this impactful project in terms of cost and completion, not one presented through purple-colored glasses.

Amanda Farber lives in Bethesda.