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At summit, Purple Line buzz is confident

Friday - 3/21/2014, 8:01pm  ET

tracks.JPG
Peter McLaughlin addresses a large crowd of local and state officials and transit advocates at "Beyond the Tracks" on Maryland's Purple Line. (WTOP/Ari Ashe)

COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- At a summit of Purple Line supporters and county and state officials, a buzz is palpable in the crowd about a Record of Decision from the federal government, a key step toward getting the light-rail project off the ground.

The Purple Line is a 16-mile above-ground light-rail line that will connect Bethesda to New Carrollton. Bethesda, Silver Spring, College Park, Greenbelt and other communities will all connect. Metro's Red, Green and Orange Lines will all come together and offer an alternative to the Capital Beltway for people commuting between Montgomery and Prince George's County.

"The buzz around the room is that this is going to happen. I think the momentum is now such that it's a matter of when, not if. And the when is coming very soon," says Gerrit Knaap, Director of National Center for Smarter Growth at the University of Maryland.

Knaap helped organize a forum called, "Beyond the Tracks: Community Development in the Purple Line Corridor" at the University of Maryland.

Local and state officials talked about the line's future and the next steps forward.

"I feel really gratified with the recent decisions. We're really seeing this around the corner now. It looks very much like we will have a Purple Line. Certainly there were times where the political winds were blowing in the wrong direction. But now this project looks like it will move forward," says Montgomery County Council member George Leventhal.

"This line will allow Montgomery County residents to able to attend basketball and football games here at the University of Maryland, connect to Amtrak and the entire Metro system, so in the long run it'll be a great benefit for everyone along the route," he says.

Prince George's County Council member Eric Olson also supports the project and is pleased at the decision from the Federal Transit Administration.

"This decision recognizes a lot of hard work on this great project. It'll be an incredible way to get people back and forth between jobs centers in New Carrollton, Riverdale Park, University of Maryland, Langley Park and Silver Spring and Bethesda," says Olson.

Former D.C. Planning Director and now federal official Harriet Tregoning congratulated the crowd and said Maryland was "out of the starting gate."

The Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) says the decision means it can start buying right-of-way along the 16-mile stretch and move forward with picking a contractor. MTA will enter into a public-private partnership to build and operate the line, similar to the relationship between Virginia and Transurban on the 495 Express Lanes. The decision allows MTA to talk to homeowners and businesses that will be displaced and pay them for the land.

"This is a big step, but we have a long way to go. We still have to find a partner to work with on this project. But we're still looking at construction beginning at some point in 2015," says Madden.

Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett and Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker also congratulated the crowd earlier in the day. But even small- town officials understand this project will help them, including Mayor Andrew Fellows of College Park and Mayor Emmett Jordan of Greenbelt.

"We have so many people in my city that commute to other places like Rockville or New Carrollton. So this transit-oriented development gives people a way to get there quickly and easily without using their car," says Jordan.

At the all day forum on Friday, several key questions were addressed about how to make the Purple Line a reality.

    What happens next?

  • How can the Purple Line be built in a way that attract new businesses and jobs?

  • What can Maryland learn from other cities like Denver, New Orleans and Minneapolis with light rail?

  • How can architecture and art enhance the look and feel of the stations, rather than the bland appearance at many Metro stations?

"Take Grand Central Station. It's not just a transit center, but has beautiful architecture. It's a beautiful space. We may not build anything of that size on the Purple Line, but we can build beautiful canopies, shelters. Each station can have its own feature that people associate with it," says Matthew Bell, with EEK Architects and Professor of Architecture at the University of Maryland.

"I don't see why you couldn't have health clubs or restaurants at a station. I think the possibilities are endless to combine things on the Purple Line to make it more than a transit line," he says.

Several officials agree the challenge is daunting, but an exciting one that can transform communities in Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

What can we learn from the Silver Spring Transit Center?

At one session on design and development, someone asked what lessons can be learned from the delays with the Silver Spring Transit Center, Silver Line and D.C. Streetcar that can be applied to the Purple Line.

"I believe the project will open on-time and on-budget. If there are delays, it will be on the company's dime," says Madden, referring to whichever company is involved in the public-private partnership.

MTA officials hope construction will begin in 2015 and passenger service will begin in 2020.

"We need to restore some trust with the public. We need to ensure ahead of time that the government and the contractors are very much on the same page. We need to make sure through computer modeling and just dialogue to make sure all the kinks are worked out before the shovels hit the ground," says Leventhal.

Other officials tell WTOP that state agencies pay close attention to what is happening in Silver Spring and Tysons and are confident the Purple Line will be well constructed and properly inspected.

Chevy Chase opponents

Some Chevy Chase residents oppose the Purple Line project and worry about it's effect on the community. They're concerned about the route and the noise, among other things.

Chevy Chase residents also hired lobbyists to convince Congress to strip the $100 million in President Obama's budget for the Purple Line. But Leventhal says they won't be successful.

"I am delighted to take any legitimate concerns from my constituents in Chevy Chase. I'm available and ready to work with anyone in that village or any community along the Purple Line. But there will be a Purple Line. For a constituent who says we don't want the Purple Line, I'm very confident it will be constructed," says Levanthal.

Olson says the Chevy Chase residents are just a small minority and others overwhelmingly support the project.

"When I'm out in the community, this is what people want. They want better commutes, less traffic on the Capital Beltway, the opportunity to be linked to different job opportunities, and spur economic growth in an environmentally friendly way," says Olson.

While Congress takes up the President's budget, Purple Line officials are moving forward with the belief the project will begin without delays.

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