State officials on Thursday said the Federal Transit Administration signed off on its plans for the Purple Line light rail this week, a step that will allow the state to start buying right-of-way along the route.
Mike Madden and Jamie Kendrick from the Maryland Transit Administration opened the “Mandatory Referral” hearing with the news that on Wednesday, the FTA signed off on a Record of Decision on the MTA’s Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS).
The Record of Decision, which is expected to be published Friday, March 28 in the Federal Register, finalizes the proposed route of the 16-mile light rail, as well as mitigation and environmental impacts described in the FEIS. It would also allow final design, right-of-way purchases and final discussions into a full funding grant agreement with the FTA.
The MTA, which expects to choose a private partner for the light rail by next year, is seeking $900 million in federal funding for the $2.37 billion project. The MTA hopes to start construction on the Purple Line in late 2015 and deliver it by 2020.
The Mandatory Referral at the Planning Board gives county planners a chance to weigh in on various aspects of the proposed design for the Purple Line. The Planning Department released an interactive map last week detailing changes they’d like to see to pedestrian crossings, sidewalks, bike facilities, bridges and other features of MTA’s design.
None of the suggested changes are binding and Kendrick said he was disappointed in many of the recommendations.
“It is not in our interest to de-prioritize pedestrian facilities. Every transit rider at some point is a pedestrian,” Kendrick told the Board. “However, there are trade-offs that are made.”
Kendrick said many of planners’ recommendations would mean having to take more right-of-way from private property owners.
At one point during the morning session, Board Chair Francoise Carrier stopped Kendrick to remind him the Board supported the project.
“There’s no reason for [planning staff] to write a report that goes through a list of all the things they think are great,” Carrier said. “Everybody’s behind this project. But we have to do our particular job in this role and our job is to be a little bit of a public watchdog for you. That’s a function of state law.”
There also seemed to be a few misunderstandings between MTA staff and planners about reforestation.
The Purple Line will mean the loss of an unspecified (Kendrick said “not a small number”) amount of trees to build the light rail, particularly along the Capital Crescent Trail.
Kendrick took issue with Parks’ apparent inflexibility when it came to replanting trees in the forested areas in which they’d be taken to make way for the Purple Line. But staff said they’d be open to a discussion of on-site reforestation.
Kendrick also said the MTA has offered seven alternatives for the Lynn Drive crossing to the Town of Chevy Chase, but each has been rejected.
The existing street-level crossing of the Capital Crescent Trail provides a route to Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School for many in the Town. Kendrick said an at-grade crossing of the light rail would be unsafe. The Town has rejected a number of alternatives, one that would raise the level of the light rail tracks to make room for a tunnel crossing underneath.
“At this point, we feel like we’ve exhausted them and the county needs to decide what it wishes to do,” Kendrick said.