A late Silver Line, D.C. streetcar don’t match debacle of Silver Spring Transit Center


The view in February o the still-unfinished Silver Spring Transit Center off Colesville Road. It’s just a three-deck garage, but its construction has created the most difficulty for travelers for the longest time. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
Columnist June 4, 2014

The fiasco of delays in building the Silver Spring Transit Center usually involves talk of concrete and of cost overruns. But the greatest cost is borne by the thousands of people who travel daily though one of the biggest transit hubs in the Washington region.

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region. View Archive

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

The situation before the initiation of the transit center project in 2008 was not perfect, but far superior to what it is today. Buses originating on my route to Silver Spring were unloaded a half-block from the Metrorail station, leaving only a short walk on flat ground to the entrance, easy for even an octogenarian.

Although I was not a daily commuter, the previous arrangement made it easy for me to explore downtown Washington, particularly the museums. With the current situation, the buses empty two blocks away, on a slope, making it difficult to maneuver the distance between the stop and the entrance.

The result has been that instead of five to 10 trips yearly downtown, last year there were none. The arrangement has not only affected commuters but also occasional users who previously contributed to the economy of the capital.

Nelson Marans, Silver Spring

DG: Three major transportation projects in this region are behind schedule: the Silver Line, the D.C. streetcar and the Silver Spring Transit Center.

The Silver Line is one of the biggest transit projects in the United States. The streetcar will restore a form of surface transit the District hasn’t used in half a century. The transit center is just a three-deck garage.

Over their long histories, from concept to construction, each project busted through target dates. Each delay had an effect.

But it’s the transit center’s construction, the smallest of the three programs and the one that should have been the most manageable, that created the most difficulty for travelers for the longest time.

Downtown Silver Spring is one of the region’s biggest transfer points. It brings together people using Metrorail, Metrobus, MARC trains, MTA commuter buses, Montgomery County Ride On buses, taxis, bikes and cars. The transit center will, someday, replace the old bus bays, taxi stand and kiss-and-ride area that stood just outside the Metrorail and MARC stations.

To clear space for the transit center’s construction, the old facilities were moved away and scattered about downtown Silver Spring.

That was in 2008. Since then, tens of thousands of pedestrians, bus riders, taxi patrons, Metrorail riders and motorists have been inconvenienced by a project that Montgomery officials said should take about two years to complete.

Marans spotlights the repercussions on older travelers, noting that, as bus riders, they now face a more challenging walk up- or downhill to connect with the Metro station entrance.

But all the regular commuters who were pushed out of the old bus bay area by the construction project have had their trips disrupted every single day since 2008, and for them, there’s no end in sight.

At some point on all three of the delayed projects, commuters had to make way. But the D.C. streetcar tracks were laid down as part of another effort, the Great Streets project, so that H Street and Benning Road wouldn’t have to be torn up twice. That was completed several years ago. The delays have mostly been about acquiring the streetcars, getting them certified and setting up maintenance facilities.

The delays in opening the Silver Line are largely about construction, certification and punch-list issues within the line’s right of way. Those problems have not disrupted the trips taken by Northern Virginia commuters.

By contrast, every day of delay affects the commuters in Silver Spring.

Yes, the completion of the transit center will bring them benefits they didn’t have at the old hub. Many people will have a drier place to wait for buses and taxis in inclement weather. But, unlike with the Silver Line and the D.C. streetcar, the greatest benefit to these Silver Spring commuters won’t be the new stuff.

The biggest benefit will simply be the elimination of the walks between rail station and bus stops, or between rail station and taxis, or between bus stops and bus stops, or between kiss-and-ride parking and rail station that they’ve endured for the past six years — and counting.

So as you continue reading about the Montgomery government’s efforts to open the transit center — and you will continue to read about them — please don’t think only about concrete. Think also about your fellow commuters and the unfulfilled promise made to them by county leaders who oversaw this project.

Last Thursday, I attended a forum on transportation issues with the candidates for Montgomery County Council. The county has an ambitious agenda for transit improvements, including creation of bus lanes on commuter routes, and these were much discussed.

Visible through the window at this forum in Silver Spring was the unopened transit center. Voters can listen to the candidates debate, but one look at that pile of so-far-useless concrete should leave them questioning whether Montgomery’s government is capable of executing any part of its big transportation plans.

The most achievable proposal for action was presented by Jeffrey Thames, a candidate for the 5th District council seat. He offered to walk down with a screwdriver and remove the plaque that names the transit center after former U.S. senator Paul S. Sarbanes.

That longtime public servant deserves a better fate than to be linked with this debacle. But then, so do Montgomery County’s commuters.

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