After hearing some residents complain that they were blindsided by the start of Purple Line construction, Montgomery County leaders asked project officials Thursday to inform residents of the often disruptive work that they will have to live with over the next five years.
During a two-hour public meeting, Montgomery County Council members asked project officials to try to limit the amount of time a popular cycling and walking trail remains closed between downtown Bethesda and Silver Spring. They also asked the state to help small-business owners who probably will lose business during months of light-rail construction outside their front doors.
"Our public responds much better if we know everything there is to know and it's transparent and aboveboard," Council president Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda) told officials from the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) and its contractor, Purple Line Transit Partners.
"This is a terribly important project that we're proud to have," Berliner said, "But it will be so difficult for so many people, and we need to make it right by them."
The top complaint has come from users of the three-mile Georgetown Branch Trail, who received less than a week's notice before the trail closed Sept. 5,for four to five years. The western segment of the 16-mile light-rail line will run along a rebuilt trail.
Most recently, the leaders of six Silver Spring civic groups complained in a letter to county officials this week that they haven't been able to find out about Purple Line work in their communities and that state transit officials had refused to meet with them.
Project officials told council members they don't yet have a final construction schedule to share publicly and couldn't say when and where traffic will be affected. In other regions with light-rail lines, traffic jams caused by construction-related lane closures are a top complaint.
Council member George L. Leventhal (D-At Large) said he agreed that construction had to "move ahead expeditiously" after a federal appellate court recently allowed work to begin after a year of legal delays.
Even so, Leventhal said, "It's now the state's obligation to be fully transparent, fully communicative and sympathetic. There are some real hardships and inconveniences."
Charles Lattuca, who oversees the Purple Line for the MTA, said the project got off to "a bit of a rough start" because it faced so much uncertainty — both legal and financial — until late August.
He said state officials directed Purple Line Transit Partners to close the trail with a seven-day notice, instead of the 30-day notice that residents said they'd been told they would receive, to try to limit potentially costly delays once the court allowed work to start.
"Now we're playing catch-up," Lattuca said. "Unfortunately, we regret some people were impacted negatively by the closure of the trail in its entirety with very short notice, but we had to make the decision as to what the impact on the state was going to be. It was a tough choice."
In the future, he said, "We're going to adhere to the public notices that we promised folks, and I think people will be happier."
He also said community advisory teams made up of neighborhood representatives along the alignment between Bethesda in Montgomery and New Carrollton in Prince George's County will begin meeting with project officials in mid-October.
Rob Chappell, chief executive of Purple Line Transit Partners, told council members that parts of the trail can't remain open during construction, as trail users have requested, because it would be unsafe. He said workers are driving trucks and moving equipment along the trail to limit their time on local streets.
Chappell said Purple Line Transit Partners, a team of companies that signed a $5.6 billion public-private partnership with the state to build the line over five to six years and then operate and maintain it for 30 years, will work with the community.
"We're going to work with the MTA and the public," Chappell said after the meeting. "We're going to be here for 35 years, and we'll be a good neighbor."