CHARLOTTE — Sara Edwards looked out on the sea of orange barrels outside her pet shop, where the city is building a light-rail line, and offered the Maryland suburbs preparing for Purple Line construction some advice: “Get ready,” Edwards said, because traffic will be “horrendous” for years.
Down the road, Chris Pistolis, owner of South 21 Jr. restaurant, had a similar take on life along a light-rail construction site: “It’s a traffic nightmare.”
“Brace yourself,” said Tiffany Wright, spokeswoman for AAA Carolinas. “And if you live in the surrounding area, start looking for alternate routes.”
Construction of the 9.3-mile LYNX Blue Line extension in Charlotte offers the Washington region a look at what to expect when major construction begins on the light-rail Purple Line between Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.
One of light rail’s main selling points — its ability to thread trains through densely developed and populated areas by using local roads — also makes its construction particularly disruptive. If Charlotte’s experience is any guide, construction of the Washington region’s first light-rail line will look and feel more like a massive road project that will hamstring some of the area’s busiest streets. The Purple Line work is expected to occur over six years.
A 16-mile swath of heavily congested inner-Beltway suburbs — 13 miles of major roads and three miles along a jogging and cycling trail behind dozens of homes — will be ripped up and rebuilt as tens of thousands of vehicles, cyclists and pedestrians continue to pour through the corridor daily. A few roads in the construction zone will be closed completely — one for up to six months — while others will have intermittent lane closures over the two or more years it can take to widen the road, install the tracks and build the station platforms in each segment.
Looking to Charlotte, the Washington suburbs can expect traffic to quickly jam up behind lane-closure bottlenecks and nearby roads and neighborhoods to clog with more traffic as motorists try to avoid the mess. Flying dirt coating nearby buildings, homes and cars will probably be a bigger complaint than noise, and some small businesses along the route will struggle to survive.
“It’s a huge undertaking,” said Greg Phipps, a Charlotte City Council member who represents the area where the rail extension is being built. “I don’t know if you can underestimate the impact of that volume and scale of construction.”
Charlotte’s Blue Line extension, which is on budget at $1.16 billion, is scheduled to open in August 2017 after 3½ years of construction. The city is building the project with revenue from a voter-approved half-cent sales tax, state money and federal funds. It will be operated by the city’s transit department.
The Purple Line’s construction start date, scheduled for late fall, has been in flux since a recent federal court ruling threw out the project’s ridership estimates, making the $2 billion project temporarily ineligible for critical federal construction money.
Maryland officials, however, say pre-construction work, such as soil borings along the route in downtown Bethesda, is proceeding while they appeal the court order.
State officials say the Purple Line construction zone will vary from 50 feet to 200 feet wide as roads that trains will run on are widened and rebuilt to accommodate two tracks, station platforms and poles that will hold the overhead power lines.
In addition to providing a direct suburb-to-suburb rail link, the Purple Line is designed to attract economic development to older suburbs inside the Capital Beltway, particularly in struggling Prince George’s communities such as Langley Park and Riverdale.
In Charlotte, public officials and residents say they can tolerate the enormous construction effects because they’ve seen how several light-rail stations on the Blue Line’s first nine-mile segment have transformed surrounding communities since they opened in 2007. Older industrial areas have seen a jump in property values — one business owner said commercial rents have tripled since the nearby Blue Line station opened — and an influx of luxury apartment buildings, stores, restaurants and hipster destinations such as craft-beer breweries.
Fears voiced by some in the Purple Line corridor — that gentrification will ultimately reduce the amount of affordable housing around light-rail stations — have been realized in Charlotte, where residents say rents began to soar before the first Blue Line stations opened. Indeed, Phipps said, the lack of affordable housing among all the new apartment buildings popping up around Blue Line stations has been a “source of tension” that public officials are still trying to solve.
Even so, Phipps said, “People have seen active development along the Blue Line in the South End, and the ridership projections have been shattered, so a lot of people embrace this extension. But like anything else good, you’ve got to go through something to get what you want.”
Ridership on the first Blue Line segment exceeded the opening-year projection of 9,100 average weekday trips by about 54 percent, a transit system spokeswoman said. Current ridership — about 15,500 trips per weekday — continues to outpace projections.
Charlotte, North Carolina’s largest city and one of the fastest-growing in the United States, has about 830,000 residents.
Edwards, the Charlotte pet shop owner, said her revenues have fallen at least 15 percent to 20 percent as some customers have avoided the “horrendous” construction traffic. But she thinks being near a light-rail station will be worth it.
“This will help tremendously,” Edwards said, amid squawks of birds and yelping puppies at her Last Place on Earth store. “This area has definitely needed a reason to improve and grow for a really long time, so I hope it will make an impact. . . . I think in the long term, it will be great for our city. It has a nice, urban look to it.”
Marshall Hicks recently moved his book store, The Last Word, to North Tryon Street, where four miles of light-rail tracks are being installed in the new median of a road now lined with suburban sprawl: gas stations, strip malls, fast-food restaurants and parking lots. Hicks said he and his store have endured “dump truck after dump truck after dump truck for months and months and months” in hopes that the light-rail extension will transform the area.
“We’re kind of hedging our bets, that when the light rail is done, this area is going to blow up” with apartment buildings, shops and restaurants, Hicks said. “We’ve seen what it’s done in the South End. Half of it hasn’t caught on yet, but the other half is thriving because of light rail.”
Washington’s Maryland suburbs haven’t seen a major transportation construction project since most of the 18.8-mile Intercounty Connector toll road was finished in 2011. The ICC, however, was primarily built through less-densely populated suburbs and on open land that the state had preserved or cleared for the project — not in the middle of busy roads.
The Purple Line construction site will run adjacent to homes in Bethesda, Chevy Chase and Silver Spring, through downtown Silver Spring, across the University of Maryland’s College Park campus, and through the busy commercial strips of Langley Park and Riverdale. The line, which will have 21 stations, will connect to four Metro stations but be owned and operated by the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA).
Contract documents list more than 550 properties along the route that the state has begun to condemn and buy to widen roads. They include homes and businesses that will be demolished, as well as strips of land from private yards and parking lots. Maryland officials have said some of the purchases will be easements, meaning the state will pay to use the land during construction and return it afterward.
In Charlotte, worsening traffic caused by lane closures has been the biggest impact. The road where four miles of light-rail tracks are being built in the median has had intermittent lane closures throughout two years of construction in each segment.
MTA spokesman Paul Shepard said the team of companies contracted to design, build and operate the Purple Line is still developing a traffic management plan and construction schedule. However, he said, bridges at Talbot Avenue, Spring Street and Lyttonsville Place, all in Silver Spring, will be closed completely at some point. How long will depend on the construction schedule, he said, but the Talbot bridge will be closed for up to six months.
A dozen major roads, including north-south roads that will cross the east-west rail line, are slated for “long-term” lane closures, which contract documents define only as “longer than a work day, overnight period or a weekend.”
Those include parts of Colesville Road, 16th Street and Bonifant Street near downtown Silver Spring, Elm Street in downtown Bethesda, and Wayne Avenue and Arliss Street east of downtown Silver Spring. Paint Branch Parkway near U-Md. may be closed completely during nights and weekends, except for access to the College Park Metro station and on days of home Terrapins football games.
Nearly every major road in the Purple Line corridor will have intermittent lane closures, including Connecticut Avenue, Georgia Avenue, Colesville Road, U.S. Route 1, University Boulevard, Kenilworth Avenue, Riggs Road, Piney Branch Road, Route 410, and the Baltimore-
Washington Parkway. Temporary lane closures are generally prohibited in the peak direction during the morning and evening rush, according to contract documents.
Contractors must maintain access to all private driveways, businesses and homes, the documents say.
After snarled traffic, Charlotte residents’ most frequent complaint is the dirt that coats nearby buildings and cars for months on end. The dust, residents said, is at its worst during the first six months of construction, when underground utility lines are dug up and relocated before roads are widened.
“With the dirt, we could never keep the floors clean,” said Angella Sanders, owner of the Dressing Room Boutique, which fronts the construction. “The building stayed dirty. It was really bad. . . . They’d dig, lay [temporary] asphalt down, and then dig it back up.”
Shepard, the MTA spokesman, said the Maryland contract provides $9.9 million in incentives for Purple Line construction companies to control dust, odors, erosion, noise and vibrations, among other things.
Charlotte business owners adjacent to the construction said they hardly notice the noise. Beyond some jack-hammering early on, they said, the grind of construction equipment quickly became white noise.
Maryland officials say that the state — like Charlotte — will have a business assistance program during construction. In Charlotte, the transit department posted “open for business” signs and provided a point person to contact with any problems. Even so, Charlotte business owners say there’s not much the government can do to keep customers coming when construction has snarled traffic all around them.
Small businesses along the construction in Charlotte say their revenues are down 15 to 60 percent.
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Nellie Stevenson sat behind the counter of the Art & More used furniture store watching “General Hospital” as motorists sailed past after being freed from a 15-minute backup caused by a closed lane. She said business has plummeted more than 60 percent since light-rail construction started outside her door about two years ago.
“I haven’t had a customer all day,” Stevenson said. “Yesterday I made $10.”
Meanwhile, some Charlotte property owners who won’t face potentially rising rents once the line opens say they’re fine with the construction because they’re ready to cash in.
Scott Brooks said he doesn’t mind the construction site 50 to 100 yards from his Brooks Sandwich House. During a 10-minute conversation, three construction vehicles — a cement mixer, front-end loader and a flat bed hauling steel beams — rumbled past.
Brooks said his business is up almost 10 percent with construction workers stopping by for lunch, and he sees more money to come. He said the value of the 1½ acres that his restaurant and parking lot sit on has shot up by 30 percent since planning on the light-rail extension started a decade ago. He’s considering building apartments atop his restaurant.
“The value just keeps going up,” Brooks said recently, just before the lunch crowd arrived. “I have people coming every other week or so trying to buy me out.”
Charlotte transit officials give high marks to Lane Construction, the Cheshire, Conn.-based company doing the Blue Line extension’s road work. Lane also is a member of the Purple Line’s design-build team as part of the project’s 36-year public-private partnership.
John Muth, deputy director of the Charlotte Area Transit System, said Lane accelerated its part of the work to keep construction on schedule after it took utility companies almost eight months longer than expected to move their lines.
Lane also has worked with businesses to repave their driveways at convenient times, he said. Lane worked around a day-care center’s busy morning and evening drop-off and pick-up schedule, Muth said, and repaved a restaurant’s driveway when it was closed for renovations.
“They’ve been very good,” Muth said. “Having a contractor like that that will work with you and have empathy for the businesses is really important.”
In NoDa, Charlotte’s historic arts district, residents and business owners are ready for 36th Street, one of the main entrances into their community, to reopen after more than two years. Residents say rents and home prices have begun to soar, and a slew of apartment buildings have recently been built or are on the way, all in anticipation of a light-rail station opening there.
Hollis Nixon, a NoDa resident and president of the NoDa Neighborhood and Business Association, said businesses are “in self-preservation mode,” with most suffering about 35 percent losses during construction. But they’re holding on, she said, because they’re excited about the prospect of trains soon bringing more people to their restaurants, bars and boutiques without adding to the neighborhood’s parking shortage.
“We knew, obviously, there would be some growing pains,” Nixon said. “People [in Maryland] don’t need to be alarmed, but it is a bit of a headache to have something that’s going to be awesome.”