Delays bedevil Silver Spring Transit Center


The fraught with problems, work at the construction site at the corner of Colesville Road and Wayne Avenue continues March 6 in Silver Spring. (Katherine Frey/THE WASHINGTON POST)
May 20, 2012

On a breezy September morning in 2000, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan held a news conference at the Silver Spring Metro station to present a transit hub that would serve as a mini-Union Station linking the suburbs to the District.

The project would bring together multiple modes of transportation— Metrorail, MARC and several bus lines — to one central station, he said. And it would provide 10,000 square feet of retail space for private development. The project, he said, was “critical” to easing the area’s traffic congestion.

The completion date: 2003.

Nearly 12 years later, the Silver Spring Transit Center still isn’t finished. The initial $35 million price tag has more than tripled to $112 million. It has been delayed more than a dozen times and encountered all sorts of problems, from political infighting and bureaucratic entanglements to contaminated soil and problematic utility work.

The county has issued news releases to “celebrate” the start of the center three times in nine years.

Now, the opening once again is in limbo after construction workers found potential problems with the concrete flooring. And as the county considers suing the contractor, commuters are wondering how much longer they have to wait.

“I think many people are rightly concerned about all the delays,” said County Council member Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville). “I’m certainly concerned about the developments, or lack of development in this case, the lack of timely completion and the potentially very serious structural issues.”

When the transit center is built, cars will park on the third level, and buses will pick up and drop off passengers on the first and second floors. Three hiking and biking trails converge at the transit center, and bike racks will be located throughout. MARC and Metrorail lines are located to the southwest, while a hotel tower could appear to the northeast.

The transit center would serve as a capstone for a county effort to revitalize the once-blighted downtown Silver Spring, now transformed by the presence of Discovery Communications, the Fillmore, the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center and Veterans Plaza.

“The longer there’s a delay, the longer it’ll be hard to feel that Silver Spring is one community,” said Webb Smedley, a local transportation activist.

Decades in the making

The project has been in the works since the late 1970s. ­Designs were first sketched out in the 1990s, but it wasn’t until 2007 that the county Planning Board approved a final facility design.

The first official design, drafted by the Maryland Transit Administration, sought to renovate what was already there: a bus depot and parking lot at the corner of Colesville Road and Wayne Avenue.

In 1996, the Planning Board rejected the facility’s design, describing it as “unacceptable,” ­according to county documents. Board members said it should have been more ambitious and pedestrian friendly to help spur local redevelopment, according to state and planning officials.

So county officials raised federal and state funding to offer their own design.

The first two versions were wanting, county planners said. Planning staff nicknamed the first design the “Spanish Steps” because it featured a wide set of steps coming down to Colesville Road. The second design was nicknamed the “Transit Hall,” because it featured a large central atrium. Both were discussed at public meetings. Both failed to satisfy the planners.

As the transit center became more complicated in design, it became more expensive. Initial estimates made in 1998 put the cost at $35 million, all paid by the state. When the Planning Board approved the design, the cost had more than doubled, to $73 million, mostly funded through federal grants. The state was contributing $14 million.

Duncan (D) said in an interview that planning staff members wanted to keep a park on the site and that it took time to persuade them to agree to a transit center design. The planners were a “pain in the neck,” he said. In response, Rollin Stanley, the outgoing county planning director, said the “pain in the neck” was the county’s original design.

The Planning Board had approved another aspect of the project: the relocation of the MARC station. Work started in December 2006, and it was time for celebration.

At the eve of his tenure as county executive, Duncan held another kickoff news conference in front of two parked county buses with four congressmen and federal, state and Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority officials. Duncan announced that the project would be named after then-Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D-Md.), who helped bring federal funding to the project. Duncan added that construction of the facility would start in June 2007 .

He was off by more than a year. It took until September 2008, three months after the MARC work was completed, for the government agencies to finalize an agreement on the facility. (County officials say delays like this are normal for projects involving multiple government agencies.) The county held its third kickoff.

Almost immediately after construction began there were more delays. Workers found contaminated soil that needed to be removed. Utility work had become more complicated. The building design needed to be tweaked.

The same reasons would be used at least three more times over the next four years.

Concrete issues

Now, delays may arise because of a dispute over concrete. It remains unclear whether the county will require the contractor to fix the structure, but new details about the dispute have emerged from a review of county documents obtained by The Washington Post through a public records request.

Two months into the start of concrete work, in October 2010, construction workers discovered flaking on the concrete. The next month, workers found that the concrete was too thin and notified the county and WMATA, according to developer Foulger-Pratt’s logs and project meeting minutes that were obtained by The Post through a public records request with the county.

The concrete issue became public more than a year later, when County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) brought it up in response to a question by a resident at a town hall meeting in Bethesda. Caught off guard, the County Council held a closed session in January and talked publicly about possible legal action. Foulger-Pratt fired back.

“Numerous public comments made by county officials have been premature and likely incorrect,” Bryant F. Foulger, a principal at Foulger-Pratt, wrote to county officials. The comments have inappropriately raised concerns within the community and among company clients, he added, and county officials should stop making them.

Foulger said in an interview that the concrete work is sound and that the company is moving ahead with construction. “The building is more than structurally sound,” he said.

From the Silver Spring Metro station, commuters can see the glass canopies and large pillars holding up concrete floors that form the transit center. County officials said the facility is 95 percent done and could be completed as early as August — assuming the concrete does not present a problem.

But plans for the entire site, including the private development of hotel, office and residential space, will not be completed for years.

Commuter reactions to the delays are mixed. Silver Spring activist Darian Unger said he is “extremely frustrated.”

“It’s stunting development. It inhibits public transit. It makes [the downtown] less safe,” he said of the delayed facility. “It’s not just an inconvenience — it’s unacceptable.”

But some county residents were not upset about the wait and the increasing cost. “You just have to work with them and let them do what they do,” Ira Duffus said as he was waiting for the S2 bus on Dixon and Wayne avenues. “Later, it will be better for all of us.”

zapanav@washpost.com

Staff research Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.

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