Silver Spring Transit Center: a change of tone from Metro?

September 13, 2013

The Silver Spring Transit Center, under construction since 2006, has been plagued with major structural problems. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

After months of signaling, intimating and outright threatening to walk away from the still unfinished Silver Spring Transit Center, Metro might be changing its public posture on the Montgomery County project, according to both Metro and county leaders.

Tensions between the county and the transit agency ran high last spring, when a county consultant released a report in March that declared the facility unsafe without major repairs. Metro appeared poised to wash its hands of the troubled project. Metro deputy general manager Rob Troup said in an April letter  to the county that construction and design flaws were of “a magnitude and severity” that would leave the building too costly to maintain even after repairs.

In June, assistant general manager Rodrigo Bitar told the Montgomery County Council that unless the building’s strength was tested to its satisfaction, Metro would not assume control — as agreed to in a memorandum of understanding with the county.

“I’m very hesitant to say, ‘Sure we will take it and operate it,’” Bitar said.

A month later, Troup warned that unless Montgomery agreed to completely remove two key slabs of substandard roadway, the county was “on it’s own” for subsequent extra maintenance costs.

But the body language in the Montgomery-Metro relationship at least appears to have relaxed considerably, as evidenced by Tuesday’s County Council briefing on repair progress. Where Metro once mobilized a team of senior managers, including Bitar and deputy chief engineer Tom Robinson, to hold down the witness table, this week the agency’s soft-spoken government relations officer, Charles Scott, was the sole representative.

“I feel that the working relationship has improved over time,” Scott told council members.

General Services director David Dise, the county’s point man, agreed: “There has been a great deal of communication, collaboration and cooperation between the county and Metro staff.”

Metro has also shown new flexibility on repairs. Although it used to insist that everything meet the agency’s specifications, it is now willing to give an inch– literally. Plans to “cover much of the structure with a new, two-inch layer of latex modified concrete mean that curb heights must be shortened from six inches to five. Dise was pleased to report Tuesday that Metro is willing, as long as it won’t create drainage problems.

What accounts for the possible detente? It could be, as County Executive Isiah Leggett said last spring, that Metro’s initial stance was a negotiating tactic, aimed at extracting the most favorable possible financial terms from the county.

Scott declined to comment Tuesday. But some behind-the-scenes activity may have also made a difference. Leggett and Chief Administrative Officer Tim Firestine met recently with senior Metro leadership for an air-clearing session.

After the meeting, council members speculated that the agency may realize the financial risks it faces are not as outsized as it once feared.

“I can only surmise that someone said let’s chill a little bit because it’s not about structural reliability. What became clear is that the building is not going to fall down,” said Council member Nancy Floreen (D-At Large), who noted that Metro officials have stopped writing what she called “those pissy letters.”

Council member Marc Elrich (D-At-Large) said the agency, which signed off</a> on all major design and construction issues, may have belatedly realized that if it wants to eventually collect damages from those responsible for the deficiencies in the building, it will have to work with the county, not against it.

“It doesn’t do them any good to be on the wrong side of that,” Elrich said.

This apparent new willingness to work on peacemaking also happens to coincide with recent disclosures of leakage problems on a heavily traveled Montgomery segment of the Red Line. Metro may have to consider closing the stretch from Friendship Heights to Medical Center to make repairs. For how long is not clear, but it is work that will likely be hard to accomplish on a few weekends or off hours, according to those who have looked at the situation in detail. Riders won’t be happy, and they will certainly share their displeasure with elected officials.

Should that happen, Metro will need every ounce of the county government’s good will and perhaps assistance.

Troup, author of at least a couple of the “pissy letters” Floreen described, was buying into none of it.

“Absolutely not,” said Troup “There is no relationship between SSTC and Red Line water problems. They are separate issues. We have been working cooperatively with the county on SSTC . We look forward to working with them cooperatively on the Red Line discussion.”

 

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Ashley Halsey III · September 13, 2013