Just months before construction is slated to begin on Maryland’s Purple Line, pressure is mounting on the state to reverse plans to put one of its stations atop a 26-foot-tall concrete wall that residents say will split a striving commercial district in Prince George’s County.
The Riverdale Park station — one of 21 planned stops along the east-west light-rail line connecting Prince George’s and Montgomery counties — was redesigned last year from a bridge structure to a retained fill wall, a change that state transportation officials say will save $5 million to $6 million.
State officials say the cost-cutting measure was needed to move the $5.6 billion project forward. But the changes have ignited an outcry among residents and local elected officials who view the 500-foot-long, 47-foot-wide wall as an unacceptable alternative and a threat to the area’s revitalization efforts.
Critics say the proposed structure — also known as “Trump’s Wall” — hinders the potential of the light-rail station to spur the kind of growth needed to transform the area from what is mostly a commuter thoroughfare into a vibrant commercial district.
“This is by no means a trigger for positive change. It is just going to divide the community,” said Patricia Hayes-Parker, who has lived in Riverdale for 26 years.
A petition drive led by a group of business and civic leaders has garnered more than 600 signatures. Many residents were taken aback when renderings for the station were displayed at a community meeting in April. They have been protesting the station design ever since, calling it a symbol of the kind of division that Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has ignited with his proposal to build a wall along the Mexican border.
The Maryland Transit Administration, which is overseeing the Purple Line project, said the design is not final. Other options are being worked out, but changes are subject to funding. Prince George’s officials say they have made clear their preference for the original design, which was thoroughly vetted. It includes open green spaces beneath the station, where residents envisioned community gatherings such as a weekly farmer’s market.
As the state and county negotiate, they also are quarreling over what it would cost to return to the original design and who would pay for it. The county says it has already taken a big step with a commitment of $120 million in Purple Line funding. And unless the changes come with minimal budgetary impact, Maryland may not be able to absorb them, MTA spokesman Paul Shepard said.
“Our construction costs had to be controlled for the project to go forward,” Shepard said. “Reversing these changes would make the Purple Line unaffordable.”
The Riverdale Park station redesign was among 41 changes Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) made last year to cut $210 million in costs — one of the governor’s conditions for moving ahead with the Purple Line project.
The 16-mile light-rail line will run from Bethesda in Montgomery to New Carrollton in Prince George’s. It will connect to Amtrak and MARC commuter rail stations and will be the first rail line to directly connect spokes of the Metro system. (The light-rail line will not be part of Metro; it will be owned and operated by MTA.)
The modifications ranged from reducing landscaping at stations to replacing fully enclosed platforms with standard station canopies. As additional cost-saving measures, the state also is extending work hours, adding lane closures and allowing bridge closures for certain roadways during the project’s construction. The Purple Line station at the Silver Spring Transit Center also was realigned and moved farther from the Metro entrance, which means a longer walk for riders who plan to transfer to Metro’s Red Line.
Ultimately, some officials say, it was either save money to get Hogan to green-light the project or not have the Purple Line built at all. For Prince George’s, it was a no-brainer; the county hopes the Purple Line will yield economic opportunity in communities such as Riverdale Park where many businesses are struggling, storefronts are empty and working families will benefit from having a transit connection to employment centers.
“This is an exceptionally important project for the county, and we very much want it to happen,” said Bradley Frome, a top economic development aide to Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D).
Now, he said, the county can continue to negotiate with MTA to return to a design for Riverdale Park that will “foster economic development in the area and be of the caliber of aesthetic quality that the community deserves.”
With final design of the line expected to be completed in October, county leaders say they are confident their negotiations with the state will lead to a favorable resolution by the end of the summer.
Meanwhile, in Riverdale Park, homes that are in the path of the project are already being torn down in anticipation of major construction expected to begin in November or December. Preconstruction work, such as soil borings and survey work, began this spring, and the initial work starting this fall in Prince George’s probably will focus on moving underground utilities such as water and sewer pipes. The light-rail line is scheduled to open to passengers in spring 2022.
The Riverdale Park station is planned for the southeast side of the Kenilworth Avenue and East-West Highway (Route 410) crossroad, one of the busiest in Prince George’s. Surrounded by fast-food establishments, ethnic groceries and small, family-owned businesses, the area is home to one of region’s most diverse populations, with a large number of immigrants — and a 19 percent poverty rate, nearly twice that of the state.
Residents generally welcome the idea of a Purple Line station to help expand transportation options and eventually bring new investment to the area, along with new clients for the businesses in the corridor, said state Del. Anne Healey (D-Prince George’s), who represents the area.
But adding a wall to an area already divided by six-lane roads, she said, would be detrimental to current business.
“If you understand economic development, you know visibility is important,” Healey said. “If you can’t see the businesses that are behind the wall, they will not be able to thrive. It will harm some of the businesses that are there to begin with . . . let alone encourage new development.”
Mayor Vernon S. Archer said residents also fear they will be more vulnerable to crime in the small pedestrian pathway between the two sides of the street. Others, he said, are torn by a “cheap-looking” structure that could be a magnet for graffiti.
“Most people are still excited about the Purple Line, but they want to do it right,” he said.