Tuesday, September 5, 2017

the georgetown branch trail will close for five years, and it's totally worth it

Today, the Georgetown Branch Trail in Montgomery County closes for several years for Purple Line construction. While I'll miss it, losing this version of the trail is worth getting a better, longer trail in return.

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Somebody posted this sign on the trail in Bethesda this weekend. Photos by the author unless noted.
Last week, the Purple Line light rail broke ground after a three-decade fight that culminated in a lawsuit filed by some Chevy Chase residents who live next to the future route. For four miles between Bethesda and Silver Spring, the line will run along the Georgetown Branch, a former freight rail line that Montgomery County bought in the 1980s to eventually use for a transit line. In the meantime, they turned it into a temporary extension of the Capital Crescent Trail, which goes from Bethesda to Georgetown.

One day after the announcement, Maryland announced that the trail will close for up to five years while construction happens. The official detour is on busy Jones Bridge Road, as the town of Chevy Chase doesn't want people biking on other, safer streets that go through their town.

Some residents who live near the trail are very upset, and held a march on the trail yesterday in protest. Chevy Chase resident John Fitzgerald, who filed the lawsuit that temporarily blocked the project, is seeking a restraining order to stop construction. Meanwhile, Montgomery County councilmembers Roger Berliner and Tom Hucker asked the state to consider keeping the trail open a little longer.

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The trail today is unpaved and ends two miles west of Silver Spring.
Since this could be our last chance to ride on the trail, on Saturday, Sean Emerson and I decided to travel the entire Purple Line route, by bike and car, with a camera in hand. We wanted to record what the area was like before construction starts, sort of like Raleigh D'Adamo's films of old DC Trolley routes. (I still have to put this video together - it’s long! - but I will post it when it’s ready.)

We rode the temporary trail from Lyttonsville, where it currently ends, to Woodmont Avenue in Bethesda and back, a distance of about seven miles, in the rain. And for a moment, I couldn't blame people for mourning.

I barely noticed the distance, or how wet my socks were getting. The stresses that normally accompany biking on busy city streets had melted away. The almost continuous tree cover shielded us from the rain, and the trail’s gentle slope meant I didn't have to pedal too hard. Because the trail is entirely separated from cars, I didn’t have to worry about getting doored by parked cars or being sideswiped by a driver wandering into the bike lane. We even found a steady stream of other people walking, jogging, and biking along the trail, even as the rainstorm grew.

But as we biked east across Rock Creek, that experience changed fast. The gravel trail had lots of ruts and puddles, and we nearly ate it a few times. People had dumped their garbage along the trail. In Lyttonsville, we passed industrial buildings, a Ride On bus lot, and what appeared to be a junkyard. And of course, the trail abruptly ended in a parking lot two miles west of downtown Silver Spring.

How the trail and the Purple Line will look after completion. Image from the MTA.

If you live anywhere east of Bethesda, the trail that some neighbors fought so hard to preserve isn’t as accessible. From my building in downtown Silver Spring, the best path to the trail involves biking on big, stressful roads like East-West Highway or 16th Street.

That’s why I’m looking forward to the Purple Line. As part of the project, the trail will finally be paved. Overpasses will replace two dangerous intersections where the trail crosses Connecticut Avenue and Jones Mill Road. The trail will extend further east, along the right-of-way Purple Line trains will share with Metro, MARC, and Amtrak trains between Lyttonsville and the Silver Spring Metro station. And there, the Capital Crescent Trail will connect to the Metropolitan Branch Trail and the Silver Spring Green Trail (which connects to the Sligo Creek Trail), filling a big gap in the region’s trail network.

It won’t be exactly the same. There won’t be as many trees on the trail when it reopens alongside the Purple Line in five years. And it won’t be a private amenity for the homeowners lucky enough to live next to it. But neighborhoods across Montgomery County, Prince George’s County, and DC will have access to the same fun and safe off-road trail experience that people in Chevy Chase and Bethesda enjoy today.

To me, that’s worth it.

Monday, August 28, 2017

after 31 years, the purple line finally breaks ground

It's official: after three decades of debate and several brushes with death, the Purple Line broke ground this morning in New Carrollton.
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Governor Hogan signs the Purple Line's federal funding agreement as US Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao looks on. All photos by Aimee Custis.

"We've made it!" exclaimed Pete Rahn, Maryland's secretary of transportation, throwing his arms in the air. "It's been a long road, but we finally made it today."

In front of hundreds of local officials and well-wishers, Governor Larry Hogan and US Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao signed a federal grant agreement for $900 million, before the governor boarded a bulldozer and tore into a building that will make way for a future rail yard.
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Governor Hogan, riding a bulldozer, tears down a building to make way for the Purple Line.

"The Purple Line will be a transformative asset for our state," Hogan said. "We will continue to find the most cost-effective ways to invest in and improve our transportation systems."

The 16-mile long light rail line will run between Bethesda and New Carrollton and have 21 stations, including transfers at four Metro stations. The $2 billion project will include a mix of federal, state, and county funding. There have been no shortage of setbacks for the project since it was first proposed in 1986, but the project was largely a go by 2014, when Governor Hogan took office.

Shortly after, he put the project on hold for nearly a year to find cost-cutting measures, and asked Montgomery and Prince George's counties to pay a higher share of the cost. (At the same time, Hogan cancelled the Baltimore Red Line, which had been up for federal funding as well.)
Another year was lost after a judge voided the project's approval last summer in a lawsuit from a group of residents in Chevy Chase. The project was close to losing its federal funding when an appeals court restored the approval last month.

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Local officials use purple shovels in a ceremonial groundbreaking.

It's also notable as the nation's largest transit project built through a public-private partnership. Purple Line Transit Partners, a consortium of private companies, will build and operate the project in exchange for payments from the state for the next 35 years. It's something the Republican administration wants to encourage, and Secretary Chao said it could be a model for other projects around the nation.

"P3s are used throughout the world to fund transit projects, and can be used to invest in infrastructure around the country," she said. "We do not have the money to fund every project in this country,"  praising Montgomery and Prince George's counties for "having some skin in the game" and each contributing several hundred million dollars towards the Purple Line.

The Purple Line is projected to have 56,000 daily riders by 2030 and create 52,000 jobs, both directly through its construction and indirectly from investment along the corridor. Those who spoke at the groundbreaking this morning, including Senator Chris Van Hollen, Congressman Anthony Brown, and Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett, cited the project's benefits to the state of Maryland as whole.

"This will not only help people off the roads and protect the environment, but create jobs all over the state. This is a project for all Marylanders," said Rushern Baker, Prince George's County Executive.
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Purple Line supporters celebrate today's victory.

Multiple officials gave a shout out to Harry Sanders, who advocated for the project with his wife Barbara and son Greg for decades, before he passed away in 2010. "That persistence over a period of decades is what has helped us bring here today," says Senator Chris Van Hollen.

Construction will literally start today. On the way home from the event, we passed a group of people in construction gear on University Boulevard in Langley Park, carrying what appeared to be blueprints for the Purple Line. If everything goes as scheduled, the Purple Line will open in 2022.

as the purple line breaks ground, let's take a look back

I started this blog 11 years ago to, among other things, talk about the Purple Line. And after a long fight that will one day make a great book, the 16-mile light rail line between Bethesda and New Carrollton finally breaks ground this morning.

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A 2010 rendering of the Purple Line in downtown Bethesda from the Maryland Transit Administration.
I'm on my way to cover the groundbreaking (check back this afternoon for a recap). But in the meantime, let's look back at how JUTP has written about this project. Of the 1735 posts published here, about 281 have included the words "Purple Line." Here's an (incomplete) list of the highlights.
  1. This project has been in the works since 1986! Here's how the Purple Line got its start.
  2. These maps show how the Purple Line will dramatically improve mobility around the DC area, particularly for folks in eastern Montgomery County and Prince George's County.
  3. I took a walk with some East Silver Spring neighbors along a potential route in 2006. The following year, I walked the Capital Crescent Trail, part of which will be the Purple Line's route, with both supporters and opponents.
  4. More than a few politicians have taken the bus as a campaign stunt to promote the Purple Line. We rode the J2 with Steve Silverman in 2006, and again with Al Wynn in 2007.
  5. Did you know there's a musical about the Purple Line? In 2008, we interviewed Paul Stregevsky, writer of "Tracks."
  6. In 2008, I convinced my then-roommate Chris to take transit from College Park to Rockville to illustrate how much we need the Purple Line. It was quite a day.
  7. The new Silver Spring Library actually has its own Purple Line stop! Here's a look at the design process from 2010.
  8. The Purple Line will pass through several Montgomery County neighborhoods, and could bring some major changes. Here's what community members in Long Branch, Lyttonsville, and Chevy Chase Lake had to say about it.
  9. The town of Chevy Chase has been a vocal opponent of the Purple Line for decades, but many town residents weren't having it anymore
  10. Supporters and opponents squared off at a 2013 event where Governor O'Malley first announced state funding for the project.
  11. President Obama announced federal funding for the Purple Line in 2014, and it looked like full speed ahead.
  12. After his election in 2014, Governor Larry Hogan put the Purple Line on hold, but decided to move forward with a few cost-saving changes, like fewer trains and redesigned stations.
Today, many many people who helped make the Purple Line a reality will be celebrating. But one person won't be here: Harry Sanders, who passed away in 2010. We wouldn't be here today without the decades of hard work and quiet persistence Harry poured into this project, along with his wife Barbara and son Greg, who's currently the president of Purple Line NOW!

Harry was a model for citizen activism, and I continue to learn from his example. I can't say it enough: thank you, Harry, for everything.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

lakeforest mall could be a big opportunity for gaithersburg

This week, Lakeforest Mall in Gaithersburg sold at a foreclosure auction for a fraction of its former value, suggesting it’s in serious trouble. It could be a huge opportunity for Gaithersburg, but will city officials take advantage?

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An event at Lakeforest Mall. Photo by MDGovPics on Flickr.
Built in 1978, the two-story, 1 million-square-foot mall off Route 355 was one of Montgomery County’s premier shopping centers for decades, and anchored the adjacent planned community of Montgomery Village. Its developer, Alfred Taubman, was a pioneer in retail design who built dozens of similar-looking malls around the nation (including Marley Station Mall in Glen Burnie and Fair Oaks Mall in Fairfax). Everything at Lakeforest, from the locations of individual stores, to the selection of floor materials, to the slope of the parking lot, was designed to draw and retain shoppers for as long as possible.

In recent years, however, the mall has struggled to compete with newer, more distant shopping centers like Milestone in Germantown, and the Clarksburg Premium Outlets, which opened last fall. Another challenge comes from increasingly popular town center-style developments like Downtown Crown, which sits a few miles away from Lakeforest.

Consumers are also less likely to shop at malls, instead preferring to buy goods online. The suburbanization of poverty has affected neighborhoods around the mall, and some high-profile crimes have created a perception that the mall is unsafe, deterring even more shoppers.