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.


Anonymous said...

Bob Fustero: I you are going to be up at 2 a.m. could you please go out and try to catch the people who are exercising their plan to rip down Robin Ficker Property Tax Relief signs? You might get a reward!

Sligo said...

I'm not sure what everyone's so worried about. We will all be dead before they ever build the Purple Line. Either that or teleportation will be invented, making the Metro obsolete.

Silver Springer said...

Mr.fustero, the more I read your posts the more you disappoint. Wheaton is the perfect place for infill development to help revitalize a distressed area and curb sprawl. This would be for the greater good of the county instead of the few. If the blight spreads we will have a bigger problem on our hands.

I don't have to tell what is being done with those homes along Viers Mill and University.

Anonymous said...

I take issue with the characterization on "Walking the Purple Line" that Hans Riemer is "behind the curve" on the Purple Line.

My wife and I live on Sligo Avenue between Fenton and Piney Branch, which is one of the proposed alignments for the Purple Line through Silver Spring. Over the last few months, I have spoken with Hans Riemer several times about the Purple Line generally, as well as the proposed Silver Spring alignments.

Hans has shown himself to be well-informed and thoughtful on these issues, and he is sensitive to the impact the various alignments may have on Silver Spring’s various neighborhoods. As a resident of East Silver Spring just off of Sligo Avenue, he too would be affected by this alignment.

Hans and I have talked about the need to ask the following kinds of questions: Is there sufficient ridership demand to justify the Purple Line? If so, what form should it take? What alignments would best serve the prospective ridership and the community while minimizing negative impacts on Silver Spring’s neighborhoods?

As a progressive, smart and well-informed candidate, Hans has shown me that he possesses the judgment, intelligence and character to successfully guide the Purple Line decision-making process. He is focused on the balance any good decision-making process will need to strike, and he is ready to avoid the pitfalls of NIMBY-ism.

Dan Reed said...

Ben: I wholeheartedly agree, and it's not Hans' fault that a few neighbors think he's not up-to-speed with the process.

Fisch said...

It's a very interesting question. I'm puzzling through it as I wonder how to cast my vote in the upcoming primary for County Exec and Council. I'm open to intelligent entreaties from interested parties. You can mail to

The most important questions to ask here is what is the potential ridership? And, related to that, who are the potential riders? The question of how it will transform neighborhoods will be secondary if the need is large enough.

As yockel said, there will be only one chance to get this right. I'm just not so sure what right would be. My instinct would be to put it underground, because I grew up with New York City subway. But the DC metro is a different animal. In some ways it's more like the suburban commuter lines in New York, than the subway, especially when you look at the ridership. And stations here are so deep underground that getting in and out is not the most convenient thing in the world.

I was in Cologne this summer, and I was taken with the trolley system. They do have an underground, but the trolleys are fairly popular, and more convenient. Anyone who thinks they don't alleviate congestion is deluded. Of course they're for an urban environment -- where people get on and off after fairly short trips. The question is, what will the Silver Spring-Bethesda axis become?

The Purple Line will serve many purposes. 1) To take people to the more diverse restaurant and shopping scene in Bethesda. 2) Or, in reverse, to take people to the larger events in the new downtown Silver Spring. There will be a great service in facilitating commuting.

But, I envision the greatest benefits in the link to the University in College Park. It may be outside the County, but it is growing enormously, and serves thousands of County residents. The question is how to make that most useful. I think underground does make some sense to traverse the distance, but, it isn't all that far, either. If it can be shown that the ridership would be higher, or better served by a light rail, perhaps one that makes more stops than has been envisioned, then that should be the way to go.

I have read some concerns about safety here. To be honest, they're legitimate. I almost met my end in Cologne, trying to cross the streets. At a large intersection, I was watching car traffic and lights, and trying to figure out which cross-street was the one with my hotel. I heard a bell behind me, but didn't register it. Then I started to cross the tracks, when I heard it again, louder. I realized I had a fraction of a second to step back on the sidewalk before I became trolley-meat. Anyway, I'm still here. Of course, that could happen with cars, too.

I don't have the answers, but I do have questions.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for pointing out how dangerous light rail can be. The propsed Thayer route is going to cross IN BACK OF EAST SILVER SPRING ELEMENTARY SCHOOL with two street level tunnel openings:

In addition, here is a list of light rail fatalities by city as of 2003.

The Thayer plan does not seem to make much sense.

Anonymous said...

Putting the Purple Line above ground is a dumb choice. Putting it below ground is a dumb choice, too. Metro is expensive to build and operate.

Why not something better?