The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Purple Line project uncertainty leaves Maryland residents, businesses in limbo

A pedestrian passes the area under the Silver Spring Library that is to be part of a stop for the Purple Line in Silver Spring. Heavy construction on the project stopped after the contractor quit over a cost dispute with the state. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

For three years, a purple wall has blocked the view from Wanderly Calderon’s living room window while cutting off her townhouse community from a neighborhood shopping center and the surrounding Long Branch area of Silver Spring.

Some of her neighbors have had to haul their garbage and recycling cans seven doors down because the wall prevents the collection trucks from reaching their homes on a closed section of Arliss Street. What used to be a short walk across the street for groceries now requires a circuitous drive around a chain-link fence to reach the Giant.

The aggravation of living amid Maryland’s massive Purple Line light-rail project was supposed to end in spring 2022, leaving residents in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties with the region’s first direct suburb-to-suburb rail link.

Instead, they have been left with a 16-mile string of construction sites lying mostly dormant, even as orange barrels and concrete barriers keep some roads closed, others narrowed and communities torn up.

Major construction stopped in mid-September, after the contractor quit over what it said are $800 million in cost disputes with the Maryland Transit Administration. The project is mired in lawsuits, with the state and companies hired to manage the project accusing each other of breach of contract.

Purple Line construction stops as contractor prepares to quit

Meanwhile, after taking over some subcontracts in late September to keep some work moving, the state is grappling with how to complete a project that is reportedly more than 2½ years behind schedule. That doesn’t include however long it takes — industry experts say it could be up to a year or longer — to secure a new contractor or another private partner to manage the construction and help finance it.

“It’s been a nightmare since it started,” Calderon said. “Now we have to wait, and we don’t know when it’s starting again. What can we do? Nothing.”

With one of the broadest public-private partnerships on a U.S. transit project in tatters, Calderon and others along its path have been left in a disheartening limbo.

Small-business owners along the alignment between Bethesda and New Carrollton say they had braced for five years with less parking and ripped up roads making it difficult for customers to reach them. They worry they won’t survive seven years or longer.

More University of Maryland students will have the heart of their College Park campus torn up for their entire four years at the school, without ever getting to ride the Purple Line.

Cyclists who lost a key three-mile segment of the Capital Crescent Trail as it is rebuilt along light-rail tracks between Silver Spring and downtown Bethesda say they worry about every additional day that they have to instead navigate busy roads.

State will need up to six months to decide next steps on Purple Line, official says

The frustration is palpable.

“It seems so unnecessary,” said Maya Rosenberg, a junior at the University of Maryland in Prince George’s County. “I don’t understand why they couldn’t figure out their disputes. It just seems pretty frivolous and childish almost that they couldn’t come to a resolution.”

Purple Line construction has left the main thoroughfare of Campus Drive “a mess” since Rosenberg’s freshman year — stripped of its trees, narrowed to one way and lined with orange barriers. But she had looked forward to riding the Purple Line to reach her family’s home in Montgomery County by the spring of her senior year.

“I was relatively fine with it because I thought I would reap the rewards of the construction,” said Rosenberg, an opinions columnist for the Diamondback student newspaper. “But that’s definitely not happening anymore.”

Lene Tsegaye said she and her sister Abeba Tsegaye have struggled to keep their Kefa Cafe open on Bonifant Street in downtown Silver Spring since Purple Line construction started outside their front door.

The work is off and on, but she said business at their coffeehouse of 24 years had dropped by more than half even before the coronavirus pandemic, because of street digging and lost parking. If it weren’t for an understanding landlord who often allows them to pay what they can, she said, they would have folded.

When she heard that most of the Purple Line construction would be stopping because of the cost disputes, Tsegaye said, she wondered why the state hadn’t offered financial aid to businesses like hers that would suffer longer.

“How could this happen?” Tsegaye said. “I expect that maybe back home in Ethiopia, but this is the richest country. How does this happen? You’re killing a lot of [small businesses] and then you just stop.”

Purple Line project delays, cost overruns reveal long-brewing problems

Most of the alignment looks like an abandoned construction site with no workers or heavy equipment. Left behind are rail bridges that end in midair, a partly built tunnel, and retaining walls standing half-finished. ­Orange barrels and “road work ahead” signs clutter streets, including some that are badly rutted with temporary asphalt patches. The area around the tunnel, where construction once shook Silver Spring residents from their sleep, is now so still and quiet that you can hear bird calls.

The Maryland Department of Transportation declined to make anyone available for an interview about the delays. Responding to emailed questions, MDOT spokeswoman Erin Henson declined to say what percentage of the work has resumed under state oversight. She said it includes design work, moving utility lines in Riverdale and Silver Spring, and restoring a stream and wetlands. The light-rail vehicles also continue to be manufactured in Upstate New York.

The state is “in discussions with multiple contractors” about resuming heavy construction work, Henson said, but it takes “significant time and staff resources” to review contract documents and meet with them. She said the state does not yet have a timeline for deciding how to complete the construction or when the Purple Line might begin carrying passengers.

“The state remains committed to this project,” Henson said. “We assure those who are concerned that we will see this project through. We share their frustration and ask for their patience as we navigate uncharted territory.”

Maryland will manage Purple Line construction if partnership fails, official says

University of Maryland urban studies professor Gerrit Knaap said developers are no doubt considering the uncertain timing of the Purple Line’s completion in deciding when to invest along the alignment.

“I still strongly feel the expectation in the development community is that this project will happen,” said Knaap, whose group, the Purple Line Corridor Coalition, is monitoring development activity and affordable housing in the area. “It’s just a question of when.”

Prince George’s officials have pointed to the International Corridor in Langley Park as one of the communities whose residents, many of whom are lower-income and transit-dependent, most need the Purple Line. But community leaders say many ­local businesses are in trouble.

Dora Escobar, owner of Casa Dora restaurant in Langley Park, said the orange cones, construction fencing and lane-closure signs on University Boulevard have discouraged customers. Buses are delayed, Escobar said, while nearby residents must use temporary sidewalks.

“There’s a whole lot more traffic,” she said. “I ask my customers why they haven’t come lately and they say, ‘It’s too much traffic.’ ”

Jorge Sactic, a Langley Park bakery owner, said the “catastrophic” financial losses from the pandemic have hit harder because he and others were already struggling from the Purple Line construction.

The construction-related traffic congestion seemed to scare away customers who used to come from D.C., Northern Virginia and other parts of Maryland for Langley Park’s pupuserias, Latino markets and bakeries.

Business at Chapina Bakery, which Sactic has run for 20 years, dropped by 40 percent after the Purple Line construction started, he said. At least three small businesses nearby closed before the pandemic, he said, and he and others feel “completely abandoned” by the state.

“It is frustrating that we are barely able to pay our workers and rent,” Sactic said. “Many of us won’t survive.”

Businesses seek financial help to weather Purple Line construction

MDOT has no program to compensate businesses for revenue lost during the Purple Line’s construction. Pete K. Rahn, Maryland’s previous transportation secretary, had said he was concerned about the state’s ability to afford it because it might set a precedent for hundreds of other transportation projects statewide. Legislation that would have provided state grants or tax credits to businesses hurt by the project died in the last three General Assembly sessions.

Asked about possible state financial help, Maryland Transportation Secretary Gregory Slater said in an email, “We are committed to working with local businesses to find ways together to not impact them further and minimize any existing impacts to the best of our ability.”

But some local officials say the state must do more.

Montgomery County Council member Tom Hucker (D-District 5), whose district includes the Purple Line, said many of the businesses hurt by its construction are owned by women and immigrants who have long supported the project.

“They should not be the collateral damage for [the state’s] mismanagement,” Hucker said. “The least the state could do is make small businesses whole.”

For cyclists, the continued closure of part of the Capital Crescent Trail has become even more frustrating as cycling has surged during the pandemic.

Anna Irwin, president of Bethesda Bike Now, said cyclists between downtown Silver Spring and Bethesda have been left with a “dicey” ride along narrow sidewalks and busy roads — not for children or the faint of heart.

The protected bike lanes that Montgomery officials promised as part of an “interim trail” have yet to materialize. Now that the Purple Line will be delayed, she said, the need for a protected cycling route no longer feels “interim.”

“To find out the timeline will be even longer,” Irwin said, “is just exhausting.”

On the other side of the massive Silver Spring construction zone from Calderon’s purple wall — the site of a Purple Line tunnel — Annie Tulkin sees an enormous pit from her driveway.

Over the past several years, she said, her family has endured house-rattling tunnel boring and the shrill beeping of trucks’ backup alarms.

It all felt worth it, she said, to get public transportation that will be faster than buses stuck in traffic. So, Tulkin said, it was discouraging to see workers dismantle the site’s 150-foot crane, truck it away in pieces and leave shortly thereafter.

“I think people were willing to go along with a few years of hardship because the outcome was going to be great,” Tulkin said. “Now it’s just not clear how long we’ll have to wait.”