Metro Red Line riders will face significant disruptions this summer — either through a shutdown or weeks of single-tracking — and on the same stretch of track that was shut down just two years ago during the agency’s SafeTrack maintenance blitz, officials said.
This time the disruption will be for construction of the light-rail Purple Line, along with Metro repairs.
Metro and Maryland officials said they are trying to reduce the impact to Red Line service by overlapping the state’s construction of a Purple Line bridge in downtown Silver Spring with rehabilitation work Metro has planned near Forest Glen station. If the work isn’t done concurrently, the Purple Line construction would require three to four weeks of Red Line single-tracking north of the Silver Spring station to safely build the bridge over Metro and CSX freight rail tracks, Maryland officials said.
The project is expected to bring Red Line disruptions on the scale of SafeTrack, Metro’s year-long rebuilding program. SafeTrack work repeatedly targeted the same segment of the line, first with a week of single-tracking from Takoma to Silver Spring and then a 25-day full shutdown to the south, from NoMa to Fort Totten, in late 2016.
Last year brought another major disruption when Metro closed two Red Line stations — Rhode Island Avenue and Brookland — for 45 days to rebuild structures and repair platforms.
Meanwhile, Metro riders who turn to driving or buses to avoid the subway delays will find worse traffic in downtown Silver Spring. One lane of congested Colesville Road — a major commuter route — is scheduled to be closed in each direction for several weeks for the Purple Line bridge construction near the Silver Spring Transit Center.
“That’s a location that’s going to have a lot of intense activity,” Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn said. “It’s going to be a challenge for everyone . . . It would be disingenuous to say ‘Don’t worry, it’s going to be fine. You won’t even notice us.’ There are going to be disruptions.”
Maryland and Metro officials have not officially announced any Red Line closures or single-tracking but responded to the Post’s questions based on information in Purple Line project reports obtained via public records requests. Both sides say they have not finalized plans enough to say when, exactly, the disruptions will occur, how extensive they will be, or how long they will last.
“It’s not going to be good,” said Metro board member Michael Goldman, who represents Maryland.
“The problem is that the Purple Line sort of climbs over the Red Line and the [CSX] railroad tracks,” Goldman said. “So it’s a big project that requires cooperation both from the railroad, as well as Metro.”
The project is only one of several major Metro disruptions planned for this year, he said, noting potential shutdowns on the Orange Line for the planned widening of Interstate 66 in Northern Virginia. Metro also is planning a 98-day shutdown of the Blue and Yellow lines south of Reagan National Airport this summer to rebuild platforms.
Revenue is likely to fall as work ramps up, Goldman said, noting that General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld’s proposed fiscal 2020 budget assumes ridership will decline because of “service interruptions associated with major capital projects.”
The 16-mile light-rail Purple Line linking Montgomery and Prince George’s counties will connect to Metro stations, but is not part of Metro. It is being built by Purple Line Transit Partners, a team of companies contracted with the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA). The line is scheduled to carry passengers in March 2022, though the concessionaire recently said the opening is running at least a year behind. The state disputes those delays.
Syncing highly complex Purple Line and Metro work in a downtown congested with cars, buses, trains and pedestrians while minimizing disruptions to transit riders and motorists is proving challenging, officials say. Discussions have been underway between Metro, CSX, the MTA, and the Purple Line’s construction contractor for months, according to the reports.
“I’m confident we’ll resolve this in the least impactful way possible,” Rahn said. “That’s the goal of everything we’re doing.”
Metro officials said they will try to schedule their Red Line work — waterproofing tunnels and replacing power substations — around the Purple Line construction.
“[If] there is an opportunity to package those [Metro repairs] when Purple Line construction is going on, that’s the kind of efficiency we’d be looking for,” Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said.
He said the transit agency will “ensure that the public and stakeholders have plenty of notice” of any Red Line changes after Maryland transit officials have their “game plan.”
Metro said it will try to limit the disruptions, but they are likely to be significant — on the scale of the SafeTrack rebuilding that occurred between 2016 and 2017.
Montgomery County transportation officials are concerned about the coming impacts to the Red Line and traffic in downtown Silver Spring, county spokesman Neil Greenberger said.
However, the Purple Line’s construction will result in “major future benefits” for residents, he said.
“We understand that,” Greenberger said. “We’re confident they’ll proceed in a way that will have as minimal an impact on Red Line riders in Montgomery County as possible.”
Single-tracking would keep trains running, albeit less frequently, but delays would ripple across the entire Red Line — from Glenmont, through D.C. and out to Shady Grove. A complete shutdown would affect fewer riders, but more so.
Red Line riders who lived through SafeTrack say they will drive or brace for slowdowns.
“It will take me too long to get to work — I’d rather just drive,” Silver Spring resident Steven Ross said as he waited for a Red Line train in Silver Spring on Thursday.
Ingrid McQueen said she commutes two hours each way via MARC commuter rail and Metro between her home in Harford County, Md., and her job with a government contractor in downtown Silver Spring. The SafeTrack shutdown required her to wake up an hour early — at 3:45 a.m. — to catch an earlier MARC train. Single-tracking, she said, added 20 minutes to her trips.
When told of more Red Line service impacts expected this summer, McQueen rolled her eyes and sighed.
“It just takes away time from me,” she said after boarding a Red Line train Thursday. “That hour makes a big difference.”
Montgomery County Council member Tom Hucker (D), who represents downtown Silver Spring, said many residents appreciate the need to rehabilitate the aging Metro system, particularly the Forest Glen station, which has had water problems for years. He said he also hears from residents who say they moved to Silver Spring to be near Metro and the future Purple Line, so they will likely be willing to put up with the light-rail construction.
Even so, Hucker said, residents will need plenty of notice to plan around the work, which he hopes will be coordinated to shorten the impacts on Red Line riders and traffic.
“No one loves living near construction or being inconvenienced by it,” he said. “But many jurisdictions around the country don’t have the money to repair their infrastructure, and that’s worse because it’s a matter of safety.”
Purple Line project officials said in reports that they could reduce the Red Line impacts if CSX would close one of its adjacent tracks through Silver Spring. However, CSX has said that stretch of freight rail track is too busy to single-track.
CSX spokeswoman Laura Phelps said 28 trains travel through the area daily, including Amtrak and MARC trains that use CSX tracks. Single-tracking, she said, would be akin to narrowing Interstate 270 to one lane.
“It would really affect their ability to provide on-time service,” Phelps said of Amtrak and MARC. “Everyone wants to move this project forward. We just don’t want to do that at the cost of freight service and commuter service.”