Progress on Silver Spring transit center not so sexy yet
More than meets the eye

Sunday, December 13, 2009 5:49 PM

More than a year into construction, the Paul S. Sarbanes Transit Center in Silver Spring remains a landscape of dirt, mud, pooled water and grass. Way too much grass, some travelers said during the summer and early fall. But the pace of construction has picked up.

Preliminaries were deep and dull

A 33-second video posted on YouTube shows one image per week of the construction scene from June 12 through Sept. 2. On the video, the sky goes through more changes than the work zone. Commuters who hustle past the cordoned-off area on their way to and from the Silver Spring Metro station wrote in to ask why they weren't seeing more progress.

The pace of construction picked up considerably in the fall. Front-end loaders, construction cranes, pile drivers and work crews now move about the work zone. Flaggers halt traffic to allow loaded dump trucks to exit the site.

David Dise, director of Montgomery County's Department of General Services, said that for about 10 months, the bulk of the work involved utility relocation, including coming up with an approach that would avoid major work on nearby Colesville Road, a commuter route. Also, some contaminated soil and old equipment had to be removed.

As a result, the construction schedule slowed during the summer and early fall. "It took some time to come up with a good, lasting solution that was economical and would avoid tearing up Colesville," Dise said. The project is three or four months behind schedule but should be done in early 2011, he said.

Although time-consuming, a lot of this preliminary work hasn't been very dramatic or highly visible. Dise said the contractor, Foulger-Pratt, finished work on temporary sediment and erosion-control facilities, including storm water management ponds, which were very visible during the recent heavy rainstorms. The contractor also finished test drillings into the subsurface rock to determine the caisson elevations for the foundation of the main structure.

Fall and winter work involves more excavation, rock blasting, caisson installation and construction of a big retaining wall by the MARC and Metro lines, ensuring that the tracks remain undisturbed during the project. Probably the most dramatic thing that passersby will notice in the near future is that the hole in the ground is going to become about twice as big as it was in the summer.

Commuters probably will not see concrete and steel rising from the site until late winter or early spring. But "once the excavation is done, you're going to see it spring out of the ground," Dise said.

When the job is done

The Silver Spring site is one of the Washington region's major transportation hubs, drawing together Metrorail and Metrobus, MARC trains, MTA commuter buses, Montgomery County Ride On buses as well as taxis. Thousands of commuters use nearby Colesville Road, East-West Highway and Georgia Avenue. As Silver Spring redeveloped, the need to reorganize the transit center became apparent, although a final agreement on the design and financing was a long time coming. In early 2006, county planners were hoping that the center would be done by now. The project probably will cost about $93 million, with much of the funds coming from the state of Maryland and the federal government.

Replacing what was essentially a big parking lot for buses, taxis and kiss-and-ride commuters will be an eight-acre, three-level complex linking rail, bus and auto traffic. It will double the number of bus bays and also open up space for intercity buses. Pedestrians and vehicles will have a safer and, when it rains, drier area to be in.

Plans for the site include a hotel, residential buildings and retail space, extending the commercial redevelopment of Silver Spring to the south of Georgia Avenue.

Walking around the zone

Without a new building to look at, let alone use, commuters remain focused on the inconveniences caused by the construction. Everything was relocated last year to make way for the project. The old bus shelters weren't very large, but at least they were in a protected area near the Metro station.

During construction, they are temporarily spread across nearby streets. The Metro kiss-and-ride drop-off area, which used to be a short walk from the station entrance, is now in a county garage, up a hill. To reach the relocated taxi stand from the station, travelers must cross the busy intersection at Wayne and Ramsey avenues.

Buses -- either loading or unloading, pulling out or pulling in at their new stops -- now jam Wayne Avenue, Dixon Avenue and Bonifant Street. All those corridors were crowded with cars and pedestrians at peak periods and are now choked with traffic. Drivers must slow down and pay extra attention to the pedestrians who, unconvinced of their own mortality, step out between buses to cross at mid-block in the dark.

Best moves: Construction of a tall metal fence in the median of Wayne Avenue to discourage mid-block dashes; the use of crossing guards at the Wayne/Ramsey and Wayne/Dixon intersections to direct traffic and pedestrians; and the placement of concrete barriers to protect the Wayne Avenue pedestrian path next to the construction site.

-- Robert Thomson

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