Purple Line planners move on to details
By Katherine Shaver,
Ed Dabolt hopes any Purple Line station near his Hyattsville neighborhood will be modern and inviting. Chevy Chase residents want a bridge to allow children, joggers and cyclists to safely cross a Purple Line’s tracks, and the University of Maryland is pushing for a train tunnel beneath its College Park campus.
As the Maryland Transit Administration analyzes a Purple Line light rail line between Bethesda and New Carrollton, the focus is narrowing from the larger vision to the nitty-gritty details: where, exactly, stations should be, what kind of landscaping and sound walls should buffer nearby residents, and how pedestrians and vehicles should cross train tracks.
Negotiations are well underway on the project’s two most controversial details: how trains would travel through the University of Maryland campus and along the Georgetown Branch Trail between Bethesda and Silver Spring. This month, the MTA also will begin holding work sessions with residents along the 16-mile route to examine the trains’ impacts and how they might be reduced.
Even those who welcome transit in their communities say they want to help determine how a Purple Line would operate.
“We want the look and feel of the thing to be high-class,” said Dabolt, a board member of the West Lanham Hills Citizens Association.
A Purple Line remains years away. The project first must win highly competitive federal money for half of its estimated $1.68 billion in construction costs. Maryland leaders also will have to prove to the Federal Transit Administration that the state can afford to build and operate a new rail line, even as it has slashed its transportation budgets and will have to help pay to repair the aging Metrorail system.
Michael D. Madden, the state’s Purple Line study project manager, said he’s “very confident” the project will be deemed eligible for federal funding. Federal transit planners and their consultants will examine the accuracy of the state’s ridership and cost estimates, as well as how the state plans to design, build and operate the line. Madden said he expects a decision in March. Congress would then have to appropriate the money.
Finalizing the route
Purple Line trains would run along local streets, primarily in their own lanes, through densely developed areas. The east-west route is designed to connect Metrorail’s Red and Orange lines outside the District, provide a more reliable alternative to buses and spur redevelopment in aging inner suburbs.
The most vocal opposition comes from the town of Chevy Chase and Columbia Country Club. Both have objected to trains running along the wooded Georgetown Branch Trail, which follows the town’s border and cuts through the club’s golf course. Opponents say the route would require cutting thousands of mature trees along the popular path.
State planners have said they need the trail route, which Montgomery County bought from CSX in 1988 for a transit line, to move trains most efficiently between Bethesda and Silver Spring.
Chevy Chase town council member Pat Burda said residents worry that school children and trail users could get hit by trains while crossing the tracks near Lynn Drive. Current state plans call for an at-grade crossing. Burda said residents want a pedestrian bridge.
Burda said the town, which has opposed the trail route for years, hasn’t decided yet whether it will challenge the transit proposal in court.
“We want to see if we can work with the state,” she said. “No one wants legal action. We’re putting our best faith effort into this to make this work.”
Geoffrey Gonella, a country club board member, said the club has asked the state to use landscaping or screens to shield golfers from trains. He said the club has made no decision on any legal action.
The campus connection
The state continues to negotiate with the University of Maryland over concerns that electromagnetic interference from trains along Campus Drive would affect sensitive lab equipment. Madden said the state has proposed burying some of the overhead electrical wires on campus and paying for equipment that would eliminate any remaining interference.
The MTA also has proposed reducing train speeds to 15 mph along Campus Drive, a route state planners say would serve the most people. Planners are reexamining a tunnel option, Madden said, but it has been deemed too expensive. He said other light rail lines operate safely on college campuses.
“We’re confident we’ll reach an agreement with them,” Madden said of the university.
Ann Wylie, the university’s vice president of administrative affairs, said researchers probably would want to move to buildings farther from a Purple Line rather than have to compensate for trains’ electromagnetic interference.
She said university officials remain concerned about the 25,000 people who cross Campus Drive daily, many of them concentrated during 10-minute breaks between classes. Hatch Mott MacDonald, an engineering consultant hired by the university, found that light rail trains traveling downhill can take longer to brake than buses. Campus Drive is on a 6 percent grade, according to the consultant’s report. Students in nearby classrooms also could end up hearing train operators using horns or bells to alert pedestrians, the consultant found.
MTA spokesman Terry Owens said the 250 Purple Line trains expected to travel on Campus Drive daily would stop at all crosswalks and for any pedestrians who cross the tracks outside of a crosswalk, as buses do now, he said.
Owens said the MTA has determined that the type of light rail vehicles planned for a Purple Line can stop as quickly as buses, including downhill. Plans developed with the university’s architecture school call for an open pedestrian plaza along Campus Drive.
However, he said, “We’re not wedded to it, and we’re happy to discuss other options,” including installing landscaping, large planters or ornamental fencing to keep people off the tracks.
Wylie said a tunnel, which the university’s consultant determined would cost an additional $50 million, would be the safest option.
“The decision makers will have to look at trade-offs in the costs,” Wylie said.