The Trade Offs of New Transit Debated along Maryland's Planned Purple Line

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The bird's eye view offered a vision of progress—modern transit spurring economic development—but Maryland homeowners who studied the path of the $2.2 billion Sliver Line at an open house organized by the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) on Tuesday night saw something different. 

On topographical maps stretching across a conference room, the Purple Line weaved its way for 16 miles past neighborhoods and through business districts, with 21 stations between Bethesda in Montgomery County and New Carrollton in Prince George's County.

That vision is smart urban planning and transit expansion to some, but also local upheaval to others. New construction comes at a cost that falls more on some neighborhoods than others. 

"We are one of the very few residential neighborhoods that are being impacted by the Purple Line," said Anne Spielberg of the Seven Oaks-Evanswood neighborhood near the Silver Spring business district. "It's going to have huge impacts."

"I'm concerned about the level of traffic, about the level of congestion that it will cause. I'm concerned about the way it's dividing the neighborhood," he said. The Seven Oaks-Evanswood neighborhood is one of the few stretches of the Purple Line where the rail cars will share the road with vehicular traffic for about one mile.

The open house in Silver Spring was one of five that will be held by MTA officials at different locations along the Purple Line corridor through May 15, designed to update the public on proposed alignments changes to minimize impacts on homes and businesses.

On University Boulevard in Langley Park the number of businesses that may be displaced by the light rail system has been reduced to eight from 25, according to MTA Purple Line project manager Mike Madden.

"It's not just about the displacements. It's also about pedestrian safety," Madden said. "University Boulevard has a history of pedestrian accidents and we were concerned that [widening the road for the Purple Line] could make it even more difficult for pedestrians. But the recent design change we agreed upon means we won't have to widen as much."

During peak travel hours Purple Line trains will run every six minutes, raising noise pollution concerns among nearby residents. But Tina Slater, a transit advocate who supports the Purple Line, said the electric-powered light rail cars will not be as loud as some homeowners might expect.

"It's going to be way quieter than the diesel buses that are going through Wayne Avenue [in Silver Spring] today, which is the very same route the Purple Line will take," Slater said. "This is one of the very few places on the Purple Line where the train will be traveling in mixed traffic, and the county is doing that because it doesn't want to add two new lanes to the road for the train."

Despite the assurances of state transportation planners and transit advocates, homeowners like Spielberg and Armstrong could not help but see the hands of real estate investors in every twist and turn of the Purple Line's path.

"The Purple Line seems to be designed to increase development. It's about helping developers. And we've actually seen statements to that effect from people who are building the Purple Line, instead of doing what makes sense for our neighborhood," Spielberg said.

To the project's supporters, focusing mixed-use development (housing, retail, and office) around the 21 station stops is a positive aspect of the project, in addition to the ability to move people more efficiently.

The MTA estimates the Purple Line will have 75,000 daily boardings by 2040, including passengers attending special events at the University of Maryland, and will connect to both branches of Metro's Red Line and the Green and Orange Lines.

Construction is scheduled to begin in 2015. The MTA hopes to secure a permanent federal funding agreement under the Federal Transit Administration's New Starts program that would provide matching dollars on a 50/50 basis with state funding.

"We don't have those funds yet," Madden said. "But we believe we can make a very strong case to the federal government that we have our share... an argument for them to put up their 50 percent."

Armstrong, for one, is not impressed. "I think it's a waste of money."

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