Purple Line plans soon could displace businesses, residents


Delmar E. Nelson is the owner of Crest Opticians, which sits in a Spring Center strip mall on 16th Street north of East-West Highway near downtown Silver Spring. The state of Maryland could begin trying to buy the strip mall property to make way for the 16-mile light-rail Purple Line. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Construction of a light-rail Purple Line through the Maryland suburbs is at least two years away, and there is no money yet to pay for it, but the state’s transit proposal soon could close Dario Orellana’s Silver Spring restaurant.

El Aguila, which has served Salvadoran and Tex-Mex food for 14 years from the Spring Center strip mall on 16th Street, lies in the path of the planned 16-mile route between Bethesda and New Carrollton. Orellana said a state official recently told him that the Maryland Transit Administration will begin buying the shopping center just north of East West Highway as early as September, when the state expects a Purple Line to receive federal environmental approval.

“We’re all hard-working people,” Orellana said of the center’s 30 business owners one recent morning before his lunch crowd arrived. “We’re all very concerned. We know we can make it here. If they move us, most likely we won’t make it somewhere else.”

Maryland transit officials confirmed that they do, indeed, plan to begin buying private property for the project this fall, and those right-of-way costs are estimated at $200 million.

The state has yet to specify how it would pay for the Purple Line’s estimated $2.2 billion in construction costs. Maryland officials said they expect that the Federal Transit Administration won’t decide until early 2015 whether to award highly competitive construction funds to cover half the costs. A new state sales tax on gasoline began to kick in on July 1, but that revenue will be in high demand for a backlog of road and transit projects statewide, including a $2.6 billion light-rail Red Line planned for Baltimore.

Map of proposed Purple Line

The move to begin buying land for a Purple Line signals the proposal’s shift from a decades-old idea and engineering exercise into the nitty-gritty details of funding and construction.

Under the latest Purple Line plan, 110 property owners and tenants — 60 businesses and 50 homes and apartments — would be completely displaced. Many of them are near downtown Silver Spring in Montgomery County and in the Riverdale area of Prince George’s County.

The state can use its legal power of eminent domain to take possession of private property in exchange for “just compensation,” as governments routinely do for large public construction projects.

The transit agency has not released final figures for how many property owners would lose pieces of land without being completely displaced.

The Spring Center is one of the biggest clusters of businesses affected. Harvey Maisel, one of the shopping center’s owners, said he estimates about 300 people work there.

Michael Madden, the Maryland Transit Administration’s manager for Purple Line planning, said officials have begun to meet with property owners and tenants to advise them about government relocation help. However, he said, if a Purple Line wins federal construction funding, tenants and residents wouldn’t have to leave until at least early 2015. He said the state knows of 23 businesses in the shopping center that might need to move.

“They tell them not to panic,” Madden said. “They may need to move, but not yet. . . . We’re at least a year before anyone would have to leave.”

A Purple Line is designed to provide a faster, more reliable transit alternative to buses between Montgomery and Prince George’s and connect Maryland's Metrorail lines, Amtrak and commuter rail stations. Two-car trains would run primarily along streets. The 21 stations also would spur redevelopment, particularly in older inner-Capital Beltway communities in Prince George’s, state officials say.

Madden said the state is permitted to begin buying rights of way before construction money is secured because the process can take so long for a large project. If the state doesn’t find the money to build a Purple Line, he said, it would hold onto the acquired property until funding becomes available.

He noted that the Maryland State Highway Administration began buying land to preserve for the 18.8-mile Intercounty Connector decades before the toll highway was built.

But business owners in the white-brick and red-awning Spring Center say they shouldn’t face the potential of a major upheaval for a rail line that has no guarantee of being built. The start of the condemnation process, they say, has created uncertainty in their lives.

Orellana said he is suddenly worried about whether he will be able to put his 16-year-old son through college.

One store owner said he recently delayed plans to buy a house, unsure of how large a mortgage he will be able to afford.

The state helps businesses find a new location, pays for moving expenses and covers up to $60,000 in costs to get re-established. However, businesses are not compensated for lost income, state officials said.

Austin Lee said he and his parents are worried about their Spring Beer & Wine liquor store losing the steady stream of customers who stop by on their evening commutes as they head up 16th Street toward the Beltway.

“A new location is like starting from scratch,” Lee said as a man in a work uniform hoisted a 12-pack of beer onto the cashier’s counter. “What if the business doesn’t do well somewhere else? We could lose everything.”

Madden said businesses and homeowners will be given at least 90 days’ notice to vacate after the state makes a purchase offer based on an independent appraisal.

“A lot of things have to happen before we are actually buying right of way,” Madden said.

Delmar Nelson, an optician in the shopping center, said he’s now factoring a Purple Line into his retirement plans.

He said he’s already had to move his business, Crest Opticians, twice before, both times because the District government condemned the land for public construction projects. Even when the District paid for his moving expenses, he said, he lost customers in each move and faced out-of-pocket expenses, such as building custom cases to hold eyeglass frames.

“I’d have to decide ‘Do I really want to move, or do I just want to give it up at this point?’ ” Nelson, 77, said between phone calls and walk-in customers one recent afternoon. “While you’re in limbo, you can’t sell [the business] to anyone. No one will touch you. . . . This brings everything to a screeching halt.”

Katherine Shaver is a transportation and development reporter. She joined The Washington Post in 1997 and has covered crime, courts, education and local government but most prefers writing about how people get — or don’t get — around the Washington region.
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