Purple Line light-rail system would bring new infrastructure to neighborhoods

Jahi Chikwendiu/Washington Post - A boy walks past a grassy patch where the Maryland Transit Administration is proposing to build an electrical substation for the Purple Line.

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Anne Edwards says she has made peace with the idea that Purple Line trains might someday run past her Montgomery County home, but she and her neighbors never anticipated an electrical substation in their midst.

The substation, which would be about 50 feet by 14 feet and surrounded by a tall wooden fence, would provide power to the trains’ overhead wires. Edwards considers it an “industrial monstrosity” that would mar the pretty, quiet neighborhood east of downtown Silver Spring far more than any trains would.


Map shows traction power stations along the proposed Purple Line.
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Map shows traction power stations along the proposed Purple Line.

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“They’re dumping this 60-foot humming electrical power [station] right at our front lawns,” Edwards said. “The trains themselves are not the problem. It’s their supporting equipment.”

A light-rail Purple Line, estimated to cost $2.15 billion, has no construction funding. Even so, the Maryland Transit Administration continues to refine its design, including an extensive rail infrastructure required to operate, maintain and house the trains.

That could include 20 power substations, 14 “signal bungalows” containing train-control equipment, a nine-story “ventilation tower” in the Bethesda Row entertainment district, and a tunnel three-tenths of a mile long to be blasted beneath a Silver Spring neighborhood.

The Lyttonsville area of Silver Spring would get a train storage yard, while part of Riverdale would get a maintenance facility.

Michael Madden, who leads the transit agency’s Purple Line planning, said the state will continue to work with residents to develop ways to blend the system into the surroundings along the planned 16-mile route between Bethesda and New Carrollton.

“We’ve worked very hard to minimize the [physical] impacts to the community,” Madden said.

He said construction is scheduled to begin in 2015, assuming the project secures state and federal funding.

Montgomery County Council member Valerie Ervin (D-Eastern County) said she learned only in June about the power substation proposed for Wayne Avenue at Greenbrier Drive. She said she plans to “dig my heels in” to persuade the state to bury the substation instead.

“I don’t think any of us know how complex this construction is going to be,” said Ervin, who lives one block off Wayne. “It’s starting to get serious now. Now it’s really getting down to the nitty-gritty . . . of how long our neighborhoods are going to be disrupted.”

Ervin said she has heard few complaints about the proposed tunnel to be dug beneath homes on Plymouth Street, between Wayne and Arliss Street.

The other major infrastructure planned for her district — a Purple Line train yard in Lyttonsville — would have a train wash, a power substation, fuel pumps, offices, an operations center and 200 employee parking spaces, according to the state study.

Lyttonsville residents had been worried about living near a rail yard, she said, but they are now “content” with changes that state planners made to shrink its footprint. That would leave room for more neighborhood-friendly redevelopment, she said.

Washington area residents used to Metrorail’s impacts would find differences with a light-rail system, Madden said.

Purple Line trains would be slower and quieter than Metrorail trains and would run mostly above ground on tracks embedded in local streets. Although newer light-rail trains are remarkably quiet, they still generate noise. Purple Line trains would ring bells to alert pedestrians when leaving the 21 stations and sound horns when approaching major intersections, Madden said. Trains also could emit “wheel squeal” on tight curves.

State officials said trains would have “vehicle skirt panels” to reduce the screeching. A sound wall would be built along the Georgetown Branch trail between Bethesda and Rock Creek Stream Valley Park, where some homes are particularly close, according to the environmental study.

Edwards said she is not concerned about the noise of passing trains as much as the constant “hum” from the power substation and its ugly appearance. Four Silver Spring civic and homeowner groups are now fighting it, she said.

Madden said the 20 substations must be spaced about every mile along the route. Three would be in residential areas, and four others would be on vacant land or in woods that might be close to homes.

“They can be made to fit into whatever environment is there,” Madden said.

Although some residents have voiced concerns about possible health effects from the power substations, Madden said, “they have no impact at all to someone’s health.”

If a Purple Line is built, visitors to downtown Bethesda would see a 90-foot-tall ventilation tower near the Landmark Bethesda Row Cinema. The tower would hold equipment to ventilate a tunnel beneath the nearby Apex Building, where a Purple Line station would be, near Wisconsin Avenue and Elm Street.

Madden said transit system vents must be elevated because of federal homeland security requirements following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. If the Apex Building is redeveloped, the ventilation system could be incorporated into a new building, Madden said.

In Prince George’s County, residents near a proposed Purple Line train maintenance yard in Riverdale have voiced few objections.

Lisa Davila-Steele, president of the Roswil Homeowners Association, said her neighbors’ eagerness for better transit and new development outweigh concerns about living next to a maintenance yard.

A Purple Line facility would replace a parks department vehicle maintenance center there now. State transit planners have assured residents they would hear “little to no noise” because train repairs would be done inside buildings, she said.

“From our view, it’s just changing tenants,” Davila-Steele said.

And what about those Wayne Avenue residents facing the double whammy of losing parts of their front yards to a transitway and living next to a power substation?

Joseph Suntum, a Rockville lawyer who focuses on eminent domain cases, said they might be the fortunate ones. People who lose any land to a public project are entitled to be compensated if their remaining property also has lost value, he said. Those who don’t lose any property are entitled only to financial compensation if a project’s impact on them is significantly worse than on their neighbors, Suntum said.

That might end up being a question for the courts — and a topic of increasing interest.

“People [first] look at, ‘Where’s the route? Where are the tracks going to be?’ ” Suntum said. “All of the collateral infrastructure is not necessarily something people are focusing on now.”

The public comment period on the Purple Line’s final environmental impact study ends Oct. 7. It is available at public libraries and at www.purplelinemd.com. Chapters 2 and 4 provide the most detail on neighborhood impacts.

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