A group of staunch Purple Line advocates feels members of a Chevy Chase country club long opposed to the light rail are getting an unfair amount of access to Gov. Larry Hogan and his advisors.
About 10 members of the Action Committee for Transit (ACT) on Monday stood on the sidewalk in front of the Columbia Country Club on Connecticut Avenue waving signs reading “Jobs Not Golf.”
Two weeks ago, ACT claimed members of the Columbia Country Club have met with state Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn and other Hogan advisors in two separate meetings to make their case against the Purple Line.
Hogan is expected to announce a decision this month on whether he’ll move forward with the estimated $2.45 billion project.
ACT would like Montgomery County to look into whether actions of those club members violate a 2013 legal settlement between the state, the county and the club in which the club agreed to drop all opposition to the Purple Line if the light rail line was moved 12 feet north to save four golf course holes.
A Bethesda Magazine report cited sources who said at least four members of the club met with Rahn on March 9. Members of the club were also involved in a January fundraiser for Hogan held in Chevy Chase.
“We know and we have heard that they’ve been able to meet with the governor’s advisors and make their case against the line, whereas we have not and people in the business community have not been able to make their case,” ACT President Nick Brand said Monday.
The Notice of Intent to Sue was sent on Thursday. In it, the group alleges that the Maryland Transit Administration failed to do a comprehensive environmental impact statement (EIS) for the light rail project and that changes to the project since the EIS was issued in August 2013 mean a new study is required.
“The State’s failure to publish a full and fair environmental effects report, as required by law, has left Maryland’s elected leadership, communities and affected citizens with a false impression of nearly every important element of the viable, less expensive and more efficient alternatives to the Project, and most importantly, the likely very serious impacts that going forward with the Project will visit upon the environment, Maryland citizens, and the public interest generally,” read the document.
It’s the second time the group, led by Chevy Chase environmental lawyer John Fitzgerald, has threatened to sue the state over the Purple Line project.
Fitzgerald said he never filed the first suit against the state, but that he could still do so.
Fitzgerald and others recently expanded their active lawsuit against the federal government to include many of the same concerns.
As Metro has slowed down its search for a new general manager, local officials are asking the transit system’s board to consider a new way of dealing with financial problems, reliability issues and safety.
In March, Metro’s board suspended its search for a new general manager amid disagreements between board members and news that Metro hadn’t yet submitted the required paperwork to the federal government for $400 million in reimbursements for system upgrades.
Now, many are calling for the system’s new general manager to take charge of Metro’s apparent accounting issues in addition to improving service.
“The term ‘turnaround specialist’ has been used by some to describe what is needed and we agree that a different type of leader for the system is necessary,” wrote District 16 Del. Marc Korman and Prince George’s County Del. Erek Barron this week. “WMATA needs a leader who can walk and chew gum at the same time and who will be able to restore fiscal management while addressing the other major issues before the system — from safety to service.”
Korman, who represents Bethesda, and Barron started a WMATA-Metro Work Group in Annapolis during the legislative session with the goal of increasing and improving oversight of the transit system.
The two sent the letter on Tuesday to Metro Board Chair Mortimer Downey.
They asked Downey to pick a new general manager capable of picking experienced assistant general managers “not wedded to the status quo.”
A group of Purple Line opponents from Chevy Chase has expanded its lawsuit against the federal government after unsuccessful attempts to find endangered critters in local streams.
John Fitzgerald, Christine Real de Azua and the Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail on Thursday filed an amendment to their lawsuit from last summer that claims state transit officials mischaracterized the Purple Line’s stormwater runoff impact, refused to do a separate health impact study and used proprietary information for ridership estimates — something the group says is forbidden by federal regulations.
The broadened lawsuit also says the light rail, which would run from Bethesda to New Carrollton, wouldn’t address top traffic priorities because Montgomery County’s 10 most congested intersections are all on north-to-south roads.
The original lawsuit, filed against the Federal Transit Authority, Department of Transportation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Department of the Interior, focused more specifically on the environmental impact of the light rail on two species of amphipods — small, shrimp-like critters thought to live in creeks near the Purple Line’s route.
A team of researchers hired by the group and funded in part by the Town of Chevy Chase said in January it didn’t find the two species, one which is endangered and the other which is a candidate for the federal endangered list.
“As we make clear today, the Purple Line is ‘not as advertised,'” Fitzgerald said in a press release. “We have found a pattern of systematic tilting of the analysis towards a predetermined outcome, which we believe will not withstand the scrutiny of the law and which no amount of Purple Line PR can paper over.”
Metro on Monday will return to computer-driven trains on the Red Line, almost six years after a fatal crash that spurred upgrades and many weekends of track work.
The transit agency announced the move Thursday.
Deputy General Manager Rob Troup called it “a significant safety milestone for Metro.”
At first, only eight-car trains will run in automatic mode. Six-car trains will return to automatic train operation after a software upgrade for the existing fleet. Train operators will continue to ride in the cab of each train and must open and close doors and make announcements.
Since the automatic train operation malfunction that led to the 2009 crash, Metro has put in years of work on signal upgrades, independent testing and other requirements of National Safety Transportation Board recommendations.
After the crash, which killed nine people, NTSB officials said Metro had a lax safety culture.
All trains went to manual mode, meaning train operators were driving. That led to jerkier rides and some delays.
Metro said Thursday that automatic mode will mean acceleration, deceleration and stopping will be under computer control, “resulting in consistent ride quality and improved efficiency across the line.”
Metro’s five other rail lines have track-circuit replacement projects that are still ongoing. Metro expects to return them to automatic train operation in late 2017.
Flickr photo by ChrisDag
Updated Wednesday — The power surge that hit the region on Tuesday led to an escalator malfunction at the Bethesda Metro station, which closed the station for almost six hours.
The transit system tweeted out that the station would be closed just before 3:30 p.m. Because one of the three long escalators into the station is closed permanently for a replacement project, Metro said it must close the entire station if just one of the two others malfunctioned.
The escalator was finally fixed a little bit after 9 p.m. and the station was re-opened.
Metro said a little after 5 p.m. that technicians on-scene determined the escalator outage was caused by the earlier regional power surge. Metro hoped to have a new “speed sensor” installed on the escalator and the station back open by 6 p.m.
Metro warned customers the station might need to be closed with little or no warning if problems arose with the working escalators during the escalator replacement project. The project will likely last at least another two years.
Metro provided shuttle buses at the station to run to Medical Center. Trains bypassed the station and Metro advised customers to use Medical Center as an alternate.
The 34 bus, which operates between Friendship Heights and Aspen Hill with stops in Wheaton, Kensington and Bethesda, will again be able to travel both ways on Cedar Lane.
Montgomery County BRAC Coordinator Phil Alperson said the State Highway Administration coordinated with Ride On to relocate construction barriers at the Cedar Lane and Rockville Pike intersection. The relocation will allow the 34 bus to turn onto eastbound Cedar Lane toward Kensington.
Since last summer, the bus was only able to travel toward Friendship Heights on Cedar Lane and was detouring onto Jones Bridge Road when heading toward Kensington, Wheaton and Aspen Hill.
The SHA closed Cedar Lane east of Rockville Pike for two months last summer in order to build a stream culvert under the road.
Metro on Thursday released two safety videos telling riders what to do in case of a smoke or fire emergency on a train or in a station.
The videos, which come in 90-second and three-minute versions, come after January’s deadly incident in D.C, when a woman died after smoke spread through a stopped Metro car.
“In the wake of the January 12 incident, customers indicated that they wanted additional information about what to do in an emergency and that they trust Metro Transit Police to deliver that message,” Metro announced.
A preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board found that the smoke in the January incident near the L’Enfant Plaza station likely came from an arcing insulator — when water or other debris makes contact with the third rail.
Arcing insulators are common on the Red Line in Bethesda, where tunnel leaking issues have Metro officials planning a 14 weekend shutdown of the stretch next year.
At a Council committee hearing in January, MCFRS Acting Chief Scott Goldstein said firefighters have responded to 62 emergency situations in Metro stations over the last three years, the vast majority of which had to do with reported or actual arcing insulators.
At a Council committee hearing on Tuesday, Metro officials said they didn’t know how long it would take to evacuate the Bethesda Metro station, but that it would probably take longer than the National Fire Protection Association’s standard of six minutes.
Video via Metro
Norman Augustine, the retired CEO of Bethesda aerospace and defense giant Lockheed Martin, sent a letter to Hogan last week asking the governor to move forward with the 16-mile, $2.4 billion light rail project from Bethesda to New Carrollton.
State transportation officials and private contractors are looking for ways to make the project cheaper. Hogan is expected to make a decision on whether to proceed with the project in mid-May.
“Given the considerable effort that has been undertaken to define a route that is as least disruptive to landowners as possible, I would encourage your support of this undertaking,” Augustine wrote.
Augustine is the chair of the Maryland Economic Development and Business Climate Commission, put together by State House leaders. The group, commonly referred to as the Augustine Commission, came out with an interim report in February that included 10 findings and 32 recommendations.
Purple Line supporters were out in full force Monday night in Annapolis, something Purple Line opponents say means “they know the project is in trouble.”
More than 150 residents, business leaders and elected officials took part in “Transit Night” in the state’s capital, a few months before Gov. Larry Hogan is expected to decide whether to move forward with the long-debated 16-mile light rail from New Carrollton to Bethesda.
The elected officials included County Executive Isiah Leggett, Councilmembers George Leventhal and Roger Berliner, local Delegates Ana Sol Gutierrez and Marc Korman and District 16 State Sen. Susan Lee.
The advocates continued to make the economic development argument that became the talking point of choice when Hogan — a Republican who campaigned on improving the state’s business climate — upset Purple Line supporter Anthony Brown in November.
“We probably have somewhere in the neighborhood of 85,000 to 100,000 jobs in the pipeline in Montgomery County,” Leggett said, “and what is tied to all of that is transportation, and most specifically transit. There is no ‘Plan B’ for the Purple Line. Any backup is a mild substitute and we all will suffer.”
Councilmember Roger Berliner says a new, more transit-focused director for the county’s Department of Transportation could be the key to realizing Montgomery’s bus rapid transit dreams.
County Executive Isiah Leggett disagrees.
“It is naive to think that appointing a new DOT director means that he or she will wave a magic wand and state and federal funding for the county’s future transit needs will magically appear,” Leggett said Friday. “The issue is additional funding.”
“What we need most of all at this moment in time is to find a Director of our Department of Transportation that is a nationally recognized transit expert,” Berliner wrote. “We have not had that at DOT, and we absolutely need it. Instead of working around a road centric culture, let’s change the culture.”
Veteran MCDOT administrator Al Roshdieh is serving as acting director of the department after former director Art Holmes retired late last year.
“If our procurement process threatens our transit goals, as it stifles almost everything else, then it is just one more reason to roll up our sleeves and reform our procurement process,” Berliner wrote. “If we do those things, and our transit leader tells us several years from now that we can’t accomplish our goals using traditional approaches, that we have met our public engagement responsibilities, and that we need an alternative structure, that will be the time to have a serious public conversation about an ITA.”
A group of Purple Line supporters plan to protest a Monday night debate of the 16-mile light rail.
Members of the Action Committee for Transit will hold a rally in front of the AFI Cultural Center in Silver Spring, where a think tank called the Maryland Public Policy Institute is hosting “a nonpartisan debate on the proposed Purple Line and its alternatives.”
But ACT lashed out at the Policy Institute (MPPI) for including “anti-transit propagandist” Randal O’Toole, a senior fellow at the right-leaning Cato Institute who will argue against the project. Rich Parson, a lobbyist and vice chair of the Suburban Maryland Transportation Alliance, will argue for the Purple Line.
ACT also criticized the $45 ticket price for the event.
“Given these biases and the $45 ticket, debating transit at an MPPI sponsored event is like playing football with the New England Patriots — and asking the Patriots to bring the football,” read an ACT press release.
Acting Maryland Secretary of Transportation Pete Rahn was scheduled to attend the event and give opening remarks. But MPPI President Christopher Summers said Rahn had to back out because of his ongoing nomination process in Annapolis.
ACT members said they pressured Rahn to back out because of MPPI’s slant in opposition of the project. Rahn, Gov. Larry Hogan’s pick to take over as transportation chief, is reviewing the Purple Line for more cost efficient options.
County Executive Isiah Leggett on Saturday made clear his intention to fund a bus rapid transit system for Montgomery County despite a failed recent attempt at creating an independent transit authority to do so.
Leggett spoke about the county’s hopes for a Rapid Transit System (RTS) on Saturday morning at the kick-off meeting for citizens advisory boards that will advise transportation planners designing five RTS corridors, including on Rockville Pike/Wisconsin Avenue.
The county’s RTS, made possible by a master plan approved in 2013, would provide “rapid” bus service all-day and on weekends throughout the heavily-traveled corridor with dedicated, bus-only lanes and a series of new stations.
“The beneficiaries of what we are doing will be people long, long down the line, children and grandchildren, for years to come,” Leggett told an audience of about 150 at the meeting. “But it would be sad for us, a few years from now, to still be simply talking about this process and not to have had the opportunity to move forward in some fashion.”
The proposed countywide system of 10 corridors and more than 80 miles could cost anywhere from $800 million to $1.5 billion to build. RTS Development Manager Joana Conklin said the county’s examination of a Rockville Pike/Wisconsin Avenue corridor should produce cost estimates, phasing plans and ridership studies by the summer of 2016.
The Rockville Pike/Wisconsin Avenue corridor — for now labeled 355 South — would run from the Rockville Metro station to the Bethesda Metro station. Because there’s little to no room to widen the road, the corridor could require changing existing mixed-traffic lanes to bus-only lanes.
That’s a prospect that faced plenty of pushback during the master plan process in 2013.
Roger Berliner, Nancy Floreen and Tom Hucker — the members who make up the Council’s Transportation Committee — on Tuesday urged the WMATA Board of Directors to ditch the idea of a 10-cent fare increase and service reductions.
The Board of Directors is set to meet Thursday to consider putting the fare increase up for public comment. The Board won’t decide until May whether to go through with the increase, which would start in July. It would be the second straight year Metro imposed a fare increase. It typically tries to avoid increasing fares two years in a row.
“Our region needs to do everything in its power to get people out of their cars, not give them good excuses to get in them,” wrote Berliner, Floreen and Hucker. “Regrettably, we believe that at the staff budget proposal threatens to create a ‘death spiral.’ If fares increase even further and service deteriorates, fewer people will opt to ride Metro. Lower ridership in turn will inevitably translate into further service cuts, fare increases and even lower ridership. This is most assuredly not a sustainable path forward.”
The Council members suggest WMATA should lean more heavily on dedicated funding from Maryland, Virginia and D.C. They cited Metro’s 66 percent farebox recovery rate, the highest in the country.
“As a result of this firebox recover rate, fares are already too high and budgets are extremely sensitive to corresponding dips in ridership.”
Metro says the weekend escalator work that closed the Bethesda Metro station was a success and the first of three escalator replacements is about 60 percent done.
Metro closed the station on Saturday and Sunday in order to install a new escalator truss for one of the three, 212-foot long entrance escalators going from the bus bay to the mezzanine level.
The escalators are the second longest in the Western Hemisphere, behind only the escalators at the Wheaton Metro station. The replacement project started in October and is expected to last at least another two years.
Metro will keep two escalators operating at the station at all times.
On Monday, Metro said the installation of the first new escalator truss was successful, but the work isn’t done yet:
Working in four 12-hour shifts on Saturday and Sunday, crews used gantries to move and position large sections of escalator truss that were delivered to Bethesda by flatbed trucks. The crews then aligned and mechanically fastened the sections and positioned the unit’s two motors, each the size of a small car.
In the coming weeks, crews will install the new escalator’s steps, handrails and lighting, and connect the motors.
While the station was closed, Metro ran free shuttle buses between the Bethesda and Medical Center stations.
The first four months of the project were dedicated to demolishing and removing the first original escalator. Metro says it hopes the new escalator will start working this summer.
Then, Metro will restart the process on the next old escalator.
Video/Photos via Metro