Thursday, August 24, 2006
walking the purple line
Karen Roper (center) discusses the Purple Line on Thayer Avenue as a Ride-On bus speeds past. To see more pictures of the Purple Line walking tour, check out Just Up The Pike's "Purple Line" slideshow, featuring this and other explorations of the proposed transitway with local politicians and concerned residents.
I would not want to be walking down a dark alley and meet Karen Roper, East Silver Spring resident-turned-activist - especially if that alley were going to become a rail bed where hulking trains speed through. This neighborhood in the shadow of Downtown is on the verge of being divided by the very thing that was supposed to connect communities inside the Beltway - the Purple Line. An East Silver Spring resident for twenty-two years, Roper is more than a little upset by the proposed Purple Line routes through her community and has banded together with friends and neighbors to fight the project until another solution can be found.
Her weapon? A walking tour of East Silver Spring, aimed at showing just how ill-conceived the Purple Line routes through her neighborhood may be. "I'm gonna take every candidate and every newspaper and show 'em," Roper said, "this is where their money's goin'." So far, she has taken over a dozen local politicians on the tour, including all three Democratic candidates for County Executive and several candidates for the State legislature.
My tour covered the Thayer Avenue and Sligo Avenue routes, which are both above-ground, except for a half-mile portion of the Thayer Avenue option that would route trains between several dozen houses. MTA is unclear as to whether this would be a tunnel or the far-cheaper cut-and-cover method. According to a survey done by East Silver Spring Civic Association, two hundred mature trees would be lost through cut-and-cover. Bob Colvin, ESSCA president, added that the Purple Line as proposed would not do anything to help the severe congestion in the neighborhood as it would force reductions in already-spotty bus service, take lanes from local streets, and encourage denser development. And, worst of all, Roper pointed out, the Purple Line would require the taking of thirty small businesses on Sligo Avenue and parts of or entire residential properties, destroying the neighborhood's character.
On Sligo Avenue, Roper said, the MTA's land takings would only go as far as the porches of homes along the road, requiring them to be ripped off. "It's the most insulting process," she continued, "when they [the MTA] tell you they're gonna take your porch and say no one's going to notice."
The mood of the group I was with - Karen Roper, Bob Colvin, Mary Beth Flournoy from SSTOP and resident Diane Svenonius - was not just one of frustration but sheer anger at what they view as a "political game" by the MTA and County government to harm this traditionally working-class neighborhood in the name of traffic relief and economic growth. They said that, over several years of community meetings and open houses, the MTA has withheld information and done everything possible to dodge opposition, going so far as to hastily add the Thayer Avenue route last March. "Politicians laughed" when they heard about routing trains along Fenton Street to serve the Thayer and Sligo routes, Roper said.
However, they say those same politicians have been unresponsive to their concerns. County Council hopeful Hans Riemer was "behind the curve" on the issue, Roper said, also deriding County Councilmen George Leventhal and Tom Perez as "Takoma Park elitists" who shot down proposed routes on Route 410 through their community but have turned a deaf ear to the concerns of East Silver Spring. "We wanna live like Takoma Park, but they won't let us. Why can't we?" she asked.
I didn't need an answer, however. Throughout the tour I was repeatedly told that the MTA would have to compensate people who lost property to the Purple Line. If the government got people to sell their houses en masse, they could re-zone the land for higher-density uses, enabling developers to profit. This is a familiar theme in County politics, and I was sad to see it brought up once again. I firmly believe in the merits of Transit-Oriented Development, especially in this area because of to our traffic and need for affordable housing.
Going into the walking tour, I couldn't help but think that Roper, the East Silver Spring Civic Association and SSTOP were just NIMBYs trying to make trouble and keep their property values afloat. However, it's just not that simple. In terms of engineering, environmental justice and social justice, the Thayer Avenue and Sligo Avenue routes of the Purple Line are a potential disaster. The streets are narrow and hilly, and running light-rail trains along them would be dangerous both to neighborhood residents and potentially transit riders. Cutting down over two hundred trees would permanently destroy the tree cover and create serious problems with erosion and storm drainage.
East Silver Spring is a neighborhood of small cottages and bungalows, of simple apartment buildings where kids play outside, of corner stores and lemonade stands. There are no McMansions of the kind you already see in Woodside, the neighborhood north of Downtown near where I grew up. There are none of the chain stores that have proliferated a few blocks north in the Downtown Silver Spring complex. This neighborhood is ripe for gentrification, and quite a few people stand to lose their homes and livelihoods if this project is not handled correctly.
I was informed, however, that ESSCA or SSTOP are not opposed to the Purple Line. Unlike Save Our Sligo Avenue, another opposition group not associated with SSTOP, whose website has a report titled Bi-County Transitway: Wrong for Montgomery County, Maryland, ESSCA and SSTOP both endorse the Purple Line - and in East Silver Spring, so long as it is built in a deep tunnel. The tunnel is imperative, Bob Colvin said, to not making current traffic on local streets even worse.
I can still remember the days when Silver Spring and all of East Montgomery County were considered blighted. While that sentiment has been all but removed, there remains to be a discussion on what will happen to Silver Spring now that it is a hot commodity, and the Purple Line is at the forefront of it. The Red Line made Silver Spring what it is - how will the Purple Line add to it? Or will it take away the very things that have made Silver Spring so desirable? Therein lies the question - and, possibly, a solution.