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Save The Trail Activists To Embark On ‘Now Or Never’ Campaign Against Purple Line

by Aaron Kraut | April 11, 2014 at 3:25 pm | 386 views | 6 Comments

Save The Trail 5K, via Friends of the Capital Crescent TrailActivists against building the Purple Line on the Capital Crescent Trail are pursuing a “Now or Never” campaign to highlight environmental effects they say the federal government didn’t consider in its recent Record of Decision.

The Record of Decision, which the Federal Transit Administration issued in March, cements the Maryland Transit Administration’s Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) on the 16-mile light rail from Bethesda to New Carrollton.

The Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail group, long opposed to the selected Purple Line route on the trail through Chevy Chase, is looking to fund a $10,000 environmental study by researchers at American University. The group submitted a request to the Town of Chevy Chase for a $15,000 donation that would also go toward updating its website and its annual 5K race on the trail this May.

“There’s a clear urgency to it. I would imagine that in the grand scheme of things, the amount of money that we’re asking for is nowhere near what the Purple Line contingent has spent,” said Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail President Ajay Bhatt. “We’re asking for this money to get some information out there and to find out some information as well.”

The group is one of a few in Chevy Chase that has concerns about the Purple Line’s effects on the forested area around the trail and small aquatic species in the area’s creeks.

Bhatt said the MTA’s FEIS and FTA’s Record of Decision didn’t adequately address those concerns.

“It’s an independent study. There are issues that we feel were not thoroughly vetted or thoroughly addressed in the [Record of Decision],” Bhatt said. “Somebody has to do that.”

The Town of Chevy Chase, which is officially opposed to the selected alignment of the Purple Line, will consider the $15,000 donation request in a May public hearing.

In February, the Town Council voted to fund a controversial $350,000 contract with a group of legal firms to lobby against the light rail system and fight for mitigation measures.

The Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail is also pursuing its own fundraising campaign.

With the Record of Decision, the MTA can start condemning properties outlined in the FEIS and make its final pitch for $900 million in federal funding. The project is estimated to cost a total of $2.37 billion. The MTA hopes to select a private concessionaire to help build and operate the system later this year and start construction in late 2015.

More than 5,000 people have signed the “Save the Trail” group’s petition against putting the Purple Line on the trail. But with the key federal decision now in the books, Bhatt acknowledged a reconsideration of the plan will be an uphill climb.

“We have a lot of supporters that are in the Town. The Town is clearly going to be affected by the Purple Line,” Bhatt said. “We are asking for the money to give ourselves an opportunity to educate the public on the issues that we feel haven’t been expressed as loudly as the Purple Line contingent has expressed their views.”

Photo via Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail

Montgomery County Applying For Federal Grant To Help Rockville Pike BRT Study

by Aaron Kraut | April 8, 2014 at 12:45 pm | 276 views | 1 Comment

 Bus rapid transit on Rockville Pike, rendering via White Flint Partnership

The Montgomery County Department of Transportation, with help from a group of White Flint developers, is applying for $3-$5 million of federal grant funding for a study of bus rapid transit on Rockville Pike and Wisconsin Avenue.

The county last year approved a master plan to allow for 81 miles of bus rapid transit routes over 10 corridors, including on Route 355 from the D.C. line, through Chevy Chase and downtown Bethesda to White Flint.

The master plan doesn’t prescribe specific road treatments for each corridor, leaving that often controversial topic to MCDOT through further study.

The federal TIGER Grant money the county is applying for would help with that planning, according to Francine Waters, a senior managing director at Lerner Enterprises and one of the leaders of the White Flint Partnership.

At Tuesday’s meeting of the White Flint Downtown Advisory Committee, Waters said the group was looking for letters of support from other local advisory boards to submit with the application.

Montgomery County spokesperson Esther Bowring said MCDOT isn’t yet certain of the scope or the amount of money that will be in the grant request. David Winstead, an attorney and advisor for the White Flint Partnership, is preparing drafts of the grant application.

Grant applications are due April 28. Montgomery County, though the State Highway Administration, has $10 million in state funding for studies of future bus rapid transit systems on Rockville Pike and Route 29 in Silver Spring.

The White Flint Partnership’s involvement is another indication of how badly the area’s major developers want another form of transit in the rapidly changing section of North Bethesda.

The Partnership identifies a center-lane rapid transit concept on Rockville Pike as one of its main objectives, along with realizing the massive mixed-use redevelopment laid out in the 2010 White Flint Sector Plan.

The Planning Board version of the bus rapid transit master plan showed two median lanes that would be reserved for bus use only on the southern section of Rockville Pike. That could mean taking mixed-traffic lanes for transit, especially in sections of the road where there isn’t enough right-of-way to add lanes.

In its deliberations over the master plan, the County Council took that language out of the plan and made it clear that specific road treatments would have to be determined through further studies.

Also at the end of this month, the county is set to start forming advisory committees for each proposed bus rapid transit route. The input of the advisory committees was another requirement inserted into the plan by the Council.

Rendering via White Flint Partnership

Town of Chevy Chase Mayor: Transit Activists Threatened To Increase Purple Line Attacks

by Aaron Kraut | April 4, 2014 at 3:25 pm | 450 views | 4 Comments

 Action Committee for Transit members Tracey Johnstone and Ronit Dancis (file photo) Model

(Updated at 5:45 p.m.) It’s no secret leaders in the Town of Chevy Chase and members of the Action Committee for Transit aren’t fond of each other.

The Town is officially opposed to the Purple Line while the Action Committee for Transit, or ACT, is very much in favor of it. That difference has caused quite the ruckus in the past few months as the Town debated and finally agreed to pay a group of lobbying firms $350,000 to fight the proposed 16-mile light rail.

On Friday, Town of Chevy Chase Mayor Pat Burda said ACT’s many public information act requests about the Town’s dealings with lobbyists were expected.

Burda said she met with ACT’s former executive director several months ago “in an effort to try to tone down their negative attacks on the Town.”

In that meeting, Burda said she was told ACT would “come after us with all they had,” if the Town continued to fight the Purple Line alignment along the Georgetown Branch Extension of the Capital Crescent Trail.

“And that is exactly what is happening,” Burda said.

Tina Slater, the ACT member Burda met with, denied that’s what she said — at least in that context.

“Ms. Burda’s letter completely misrepresents what I said at our meeting last fall,” Slater said in a statement on Friday.

The incident that might have Burda fuming came this week.

On Monday, ACT distributed a press release detailing how its complaint to the Maryland Open Meetings Compliance Board resulted in the Board finding the Town violated some procedural rules when the Town held a November closed session with lobbyist Robert Shuster.

The Town did not announce the closed session in an open session beforehand, as is required.

Shuster is the brother of influential Pennsylvania Republican and House Transportation Committee Chair Bill Shuster. The Town eventually chose Shuster’s firm to lead its fight against the $2.37 billion Purple Line project, but not before a public squabble with ACT and apparent out of context quote from Burda in the Washington Post.

The Compliance Board found no violations in regard to the subject matter discussed in the November meeting. The Town provided details of the closed session to Board members.

ACT’s press release led to a number of headlines (one on this website) reporting the Town had violated open meeting law, which technically it did.

Burda said those headlines don’t reflect reality:

“The complaint alleged that it was improper to conduct such discussions in a non-public executive session. The Open Meetings Compliance Board rejected this claim — the centerpiece of the complaint — and agreed that the Council was, in fact, permitted to discuss in executive session the topics that ACT insisted should have been discussed in public,” Burda wrote Friday. “The Board did identify technical procedural requirements we should adhere to when convening executive sessions. It was these technicalities — not that certain matters were inappropriately discussed in closed session — that formed the basis for ACT’s inflammatory press release that the Town ‘broke the law.’

“The Town will, of course, comply with these procedural requirements in the future. I do, however, want to assure our residents that we were adhering to the law regarding the substantive issues of the complaint,” Burda wrote.

It appears the fight will continue.

This week, ACT issued another public records request for additional correspondence between the Town’s representatives and Shuster’s firm, as well as the other firms in the $350,000 contract. ACT also issued a public information act request for all records of Town compliance with training requirements of the state’s Open Meetings Act.

“As our recent press release stated, rather than engaging on the merits of the proposed Purple Line, ACT is engaging in distractions,” Burda wrote. “We will continue to comply with their requests, and of course with the law, but we find their tactics to reflect badly upon them and ultimately marginalize their overall mission.”

“If the Town of Chevy Chase wants to move past this discussion and discuss the substantive issues on their merits, all it has to do is conduct its business in the open,” Slater said.

The MTA hopes to start construction on the Purple Line in late 2015.

Purple Line Could Mean Big Changes For Commutes, Property Values

by Aaron Kraut | April 3, 2014 at 10:15 am | 1,513 views | 4 Comments

Bethesda Purple Line Station commute shed, via National Center for Smart Growth Research & Education Chevy Chase Lake Purple Line Station commute shed, via National Center for Smart Growth Research & Education

A group of University of Maryland researchers explored how the Purple Line light rail would affect affordable housing, commute times and connections between major employment centers.

The National Center for Smart Growth Research & Education displayed maps showing how the so-called Purple Line Corridor might change at a conference a few weeks ago. The 16-mile, $2.37 billion system would generally mean rising property values — especially in east Montgomery County and Prince George’s County — and declining commute times, thanks to an east-west high-speed transit link through the D.C. suburbs.

For a broader read on the group’s research, check out Greater Greater Washington writer Dan Reed’s story from Wednesday.

The most interesting Bethesda-Chevy Chase tidbits from the research are probably maps of existing “commute sheds” at each station site compared to projections of what those commute sheds might look like when the Purple Line is built. The Maryland Transit Administration hopes to begin construction in late 2015 and complete the project in 2020.

The researchers divided the 16-mile corridor into five sub-areas. The Bethesda-Chevy Chase sub-area has the lowest population (19,045), highest employment number (41,091) and highest median household income ($141,331). The existing 12 percent of residents who use public transit put Bethesda-Chevy Chase on par with the other areas, according to the research.

The commute shed maps (click on the maps above to enlarge) show the range someone from each station site could travel using existing transit in 30 minutes, 45 minutes and 60 minutes at 9:15 a.m.

The Bethesda Station commute shed with the Purple Line shows decreased commute times, presumably via Purple Line-to-bus connections, to points in east Montgomery County. It also extends the 60-minute commute range to Prince George’s County locations such as College Park, where there will be a Purple Line station.

But the bigger benefit — at least in terms of shorter commute times — would come to those who use the Chevy Chase Lake station (labeled as the Connecticut Avenue Station in the map.)

Because the area is in between the east and west sides of Metro’s Red Line, the Purple Line would provide for a much greater 45-minute commute range into D.C., according to researchers.

The group also looked into subsidized housing that would be at risk because of rising property values. Researchers found subsidized housing along Bradley Bouelvard that could be threatened.

Images via the National Center for Smart Growth Research & Education

Pharmacists Group Still Debating Apex Building Redevelopment

by Aaron Kraut | April 2, 2014 at 8:15 am | 210 views | 1 Comment

The Apex Building at 7272 Wisconsin Ave.The owner of the Apex Building is a few weeks away from knowing whether it will move forward with a redevelopment plan that would allow the state and county to build an optimal Bethesda Purple Line station below.

Attorney David Silver, who’s representing the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists (ASHP), said the group sent out a request for proposals for development projects and is now analyzing a number of responses.

To incentivize the ASHP to raze its building (7272 Wisconsin Ave.) the County Council approved a “mini-master plan” that would allow a new Apex Building to be built to 250 feet, the same height as the Chevy Chase Trust buildings near the Bethesda Metro.

“We’re a few weeks away from being in a place where we can discuss our intentions a little bit better,” Silver said. “We haven’t made a commitment either way yet.”

The additional height and density, which will be finalized when the Planning Board files a Sectional Map Amendment next week, still leaves the ASHP with major concerns.

The group of pharmacists has its headquarters in the Apex Building. The razing of it would mean it would have to find a new location. The group of tenants in the building is profitable, including the Regal Cinemas movie theater.

Silver said the ASHP has hired architects to analyze what sort of redevelopment might make sense. The group expressed concern about how an elevator connection to the Metro Red Line and Capital Crescent Trail bike tunnel could make the ground floor of the building difficult to use.

An outside study commissioned by the Planning Department said it would likely take between $5 and $10 million of public money to bridge the ASHP’s financial gap. Silver said Montgomery County officials have been in contact with him.

Both Montgomery County and the Maryland Transit Administration are pushing for a decision as soon as possible. The MTA is pitching the project to the federal government for $900 million of funding and would like to know which Bethesda Purple Line station to plan for.

The state and county say the default Purple Line station, to be built if the Apex Building isn’t razed, wouldn’t include space for a bike tunnel, would have a cramped, curved track platform and could mean tail tracks out into Woodmont Plaza.

Silver said the ASHP is mindful of time constraints, but has a significant decision of its own to make.

“It’s a huge decision. These guys are an association of pharmacists. They’ve got an operating business and only have had several months to focus on this,” Silver said. “They’ve hired all the right people — accountants, lawyers, real estate professionals, architects — to put themselves in the right position to analyze that. Not a day goes by that they’re not focused on it.”

Purple Line-Affected Communities Pushing For Mitigation Promises

by Aaron Kraut | March 27, 2014 at 12:30 pm | 448 views | No Comments

Via Maryland Transit Administration

Montgomery County this week announced it will put together a formal group to communicate issues to the Maryland Transit Administration as it builds the Purple Line.

The announcement, in a letter from County Executive Isiah Leggett (see PDF below), comes as the MTA made public the Federal Transit Administration’s Record of Decision (ROD) on its proposal for the 16-mile, $2.37 billion light rail system that will run from New Carrollton, through Silver Spring and Chevy Chase to its western terminus in Bethesda.

The ROD makes legally binding any mitigation promised by the MTA in its Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS), a document some communities have said was lacking specific solutions to potential tree loss, noise, vibration and other impacts.

That spurred the creation late last year of the Coalition of Purple Line Neighborhoods (COPLN), a group of neighborhood and civic associations representing Coquelin Run, Chevy Chase/Edgevale, East Bethesda, Kentbury Drive, Chevy Chase Hills, The Hamlets, Seven Oaks/Evanswood, North Woodside, Rosemary Hills, Lyttonsville, Park Hills and Sligo Branview, plus the Town of Chevy Chase.

Phil MacWilliams, president of the Coquelin Run Citizens Association in Chevy Chase, said the group got together to present a more united front in mitigation requests of the MTA.

“We’re all civic associations who have been following the Purple Line for years. All of us, or most of us submitted comments to the FEIS, but we sort of did that independently,” MacWilliams said. “A couple of us sent out emails and it just snowballed. Within a week or so, we had our coalition.”

Earlier this month, Councilmembers Roger Berliner (Bethesda-Chevy Chase) and Cherri Branson (Silver Spring) asked County Executive Isiah Leggett to create a formal task force including COPLN members that would deal with DOT, MTA and the MTA’s yet-to-be picked private concessionaire during the final design, construction and initial operation of the Purple Line.

On Tuesday, Leggett came back with word that the county will put together the Purple Line Advisory Group, or PLAG, to be made up of members of COPLN, businesses along the Purple Line route and members of pro-Purple Line groups Purple Line NOW and the Action Committee for Transit.

“I am confident that the County, MTA and PLAG will similarly be able to collaborate on mutually beneficial resolutions that are compatible with neighborhoods and business owners without introducing delay for this vitally important transportation project,” Leggett wrote.

MacWilliams said he appreciated Leggett’s recognition of “how much work still needs to take place.” But he said he’s wary of how increasing the amount of people in the advisory group might limit the ability of individual neighborhoods to deal with MTA on specific mitigation issues.

“The downside is that this advisory group is so much larger than I think we had anticipated,” MacWilliams said. “All these residential communities have very specific concerns in very specific places. I like that we’ll have a formal process, hopefully with regular meetings. But once you bring into the fold such a wide array of interests and objectives, I’m concerned the process is going to be just so unwieldy to the point that nothing gets accomplished.”

(more…)

Save The Trail Group Considering Court Challenge Over Purple Line

by Aaron Kraut | March 25, 2014 at 2:30 pm | 420 views | 11 Comments

Save The Trail activists, against the Purple Line light rail, at an August 2013 event announcing state funding for the projectA group against building the Purple Line on the existing Capital Crescent Trail in Chevy Chase says it is considering  a court challenge of the Federal Transit Administration’s decision to sign on to the project.

The Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail said it is joining with other “non-profit public interest organizations” to mull over a legal response to the FTA’s Record of Decision, which state transit officials said was signed last week.

The Record of Decision (ROD) is important because it finalizes any environmental mitigation the Maryland Transit Administration and a private concessionaire would be required to build as part of the 16-mile, $2.37 billion light rail. It allows the MTA to begin buying right-of-way and condemning property along the route.

It’s also an indicator that the $900 million of federal money the state wants for the project is forthcoming. The MTA hopes to start construction on the light rail in 2015 and open it in 2020.

The Town of Chevy Chase has also not ruled out a legal challenge of the Purple Line’s Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS). The Town is officially opposed to the light rail and approved a contract in February of $350,000 to fight it at the state and federal levels.

Part of the Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail’s claim is that the Purple Line as described in the FEIS would destroy the forested area around the Trail and undercut county environmental law:

“Dedicating $2.4 billion – a price tag that has more than doubled since the Purple Line’s conception — to destroy irreplaceable parkland directly undercuts significant investment by taxpayer funded community programs to mitigate storm water runoff by storing and harvesting rainwater as well asexisting Montgomery County Conservation Laws and the pending Cost of Carbon Bill of Councilmember Roger Berliner,” added Jim Roy, a realtor familiar with local policies and communities.  “This in turn invites questions as to whether the government is acting as a responsible fiscal and environmental steward, or is simply in thrall to the considerable and self-promoting investments development companies have put into the advancement of the Purple Line,” said Roy.

“Issuing the Record of Decision without taking a hard look at environmental factors and mitigation – details that should have been in the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) – is irresponsible and ultimately turns over environmental safety and protection of endangered species and their habitat to a for-profit entity now beholden to a lesser standard than that required by the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act, among other laws” said Ajay Bhatt.

Bhatt is president of the group.

Although the FTA’s ROD issuance indicates a supposed environmental review milestone, the fight to save the Capital Crescent Trail is absolutely not over. Unless Congress approves the $100 million in the Presidential budget and the Full Funding Grant Agreement is signed with the federal government, Maryland will not be guaranteed federal dollars and cannot afford to break ground. Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail and other non-profit public interest organizations are considering challenging the FTA’s decision in court.  FCCT will energize its grass-roots base to preserve the environment and the regional treasure that is the Capital Crescent Trail.

The ROD is expected to be released Friday in the Federal Register.

With Federal Approval, Purple Line Clears Another Hurdle

by Aaron Kraut | March 20, 2014 at 12:05 pm | 457 views | No Comments

Purple Line rendering via MTA Rendering of the Bethesda Purple Line station, via Maryland Transit Administration

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.

Planning Department Will Ask For Some Changes To Purple Line Design

by Aaron Kraut | March 13, 2014 at 1:40 pm | 523 views | 2 Comments

Proposed design for the Chevy Chase Lake Purple Line station, Connecticut Avenue crossing, via Montgomery County Planning Department An example of a bridge design county planners would prefer for the Purple Line crossing of Connecticut Avenue, via Montgomery County Planning Department

The Montgomery County Planning Department can’t regulate changes to the design of the Purple Line, but it’s putting out a full court press when it comes to suggested fixes for the 16-mile light rail system.

The county Planning Board on Thursday, March 20 will hold a public hearing about comments it will send to the Maryland Transit Administration, the agency in charge of the Purple Line.

The state and federal governments will have final say when it comes to the final design of the estimated $2.37 billion project. On Thursday, the Planning Department showed off a special web page dedicated to what it will tell the MTA in a series of mandatory referrals on the light rail, the Capital Crescent Trail, Silver Spring Green Trail and Bethesda Metro Station South Entrance.

The page includes links to the voluminous staff reports and displays. The hearing is set for 9:10 a.m. at Park and Planning Commission headquarters (8787 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring.)

Staff also put together an interactive map that points to parts of the Purple Line design where county planners would like to see changes.

Many comments are small in nature — planners ask the MTA to provide bicycle channels on stairway connections on the Capital Crescent Trail, to widen a planned sidewalks along East-West Highway and to build a Connecticut Avenue traction power substation into the tracks and trail to reduce visual impacts.

Some could require more wrangling.

Planning staff has been hoping the MTA would construct a 100-foot-wide underpass for a future street prescribed in the Chevy Chase Lake Sector Plan since planners put the sector plan together.

Staff also is asking the MTA to accommodate a stair on the north side of the trail at the planned Chevy Chase Lake Purple Line station. That stair would be provided by the developer of the area.

Planners also asked that the fill retaining walls include something a little more visually stimulating than concrete:

Given the adjacency to residential and public spaces, the fill retaining walls should be designed with visual articulation. One suggestion is to provide concrete arch niches with appropriate depth to incorporate future community art. Pilasters between the niches can incorporate masonry veneer or stamped concrete forms to resemble local brick or stone materials.

The Planning Department also wants the MTA to rethink its designed bridge for the light rail over Connecticut Avenue:

If feasible, redesign the Connecticut Avenue bridge structure to reduce visual obstructions both below and above the rail/trail bed. Staff suggests a shallow arch structure (or steel girder of similar profile if required) as the basis for design. This comment is consistent and more in keeping to the design intent indicated in the Chevy Chase Lake Master Plan. A similar design should also be considered for the proposed bridge over “New Street” just east of Connecticut Avenue.

At the Bethesda Purple Line Station and South Station Entrance to the Metro, much still relies on the uncertain future of the Apex Building.

Images via Montgomery County Planning Board

Council Members Want Leggett’s Support For Purple Line Mitigation

by Aaron Kraut | March 10, 2014 at 4:25 pm | 361 views | 2 Comments

Purple Line open house at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School (file photo)Two County Council members want County Executive Isiah Leggett to support a group of neighborhood associations along the Purple Line route seeking noise, vibration and other mitigation from the 16-mile light rail system.

Councilmembers Roger Berliner and Cherri Branson on Monday penned a letter to Leggett asking for his support for the Coalition of Purple Line Neighborhoods (COPLN), a group organized in December with concerns about noise, vibration, tree loss, tree replacement, pedestrian and traffic safety issues surrounding the Purple Line.

COPLN includes neighborhood or civic groups representing Coquelin Run, Chevy Chase/Edgevale, East Bethesda, Kentbury Drive, Chevy Chase Hills, The Hamlets, Seven Oaks/Evanswood, North Woodside, Rosemary Hills, Lyttonsville, Park Hills and Sligo Branview, plus the Town of Chevy Chase.

Berliner and Branson called for Leggett to create a formal task force including COPLN members that would deal with DOT, MTA and the MTA’s yet-to-be picked private concessionaire during the final design, construction and initial operation of the Purple Line.

The council members also want Leggett to organize a meeting with State Senators Brian Frosh (Dist. 16) Rich Madaleno (Dist. 18) and Jamie Raskin (Dist. 20), MCDOT and the MTA to begin addressing the problems.

“Many of these residents, despite their vigorous engagement, feel disappointed in how their input has been received by the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) and County Department of Transportation (DOT) to date,” read the letter. “We can and should do better for our residents, which is why we request that you establish an advisory body to ensure that we are designing a project that minimizes community and environmental impacts while delivering improved accessibility and transit connectivity that gets people where they want to go.”

Many along the Purple Line route, which is proposed for the existing Georgetown Branch Extension of the Capital Crescent Trail, are worried about noise, pedestrian crossings and tree loss.

The Town of Chevy Chase recently agreed to a $350,000 contract with a cadre of legal and lobbying firms to make its case against the Purple Line as proposed by the MTA in its Final Environmental Impact Statement.

Included in the group is Alexander & Cleaver, a firm that lobbies lawmakers in Annapolis. The Town is opposed to the $2.37 billion system being built on the Capital Crescent Trail, which runs behind a number of homes in the Town.

But it also wants to push the MTA to guarantee certain mitigation techniques — including a four-foot high noise reduction wall the MTA promised in February 2013 but did not include in the FEIS.

The Purple Line got good news on the federal funding front last week when President Barack Obama recommended $100 million in the upcoming fiscal year for the project. The MTA is still waiting for a federal Record of Decision on its FEIS, which would finalize the mitigation the agency and a private concessionaire would be required to provide.

PDF: Councilmembers Berliner and Branson Letter to County Exec regarding Purple Line Neighborhoods

Save The Trail Leader Builds Fence Near Trail, Opponents Cry Foul

by Aaron Kraut | March 6, 2014 at 12:35 pm | 2,447 views | 10 Comments

The controversial fence under construction in May 2013, photo via Wayne Phyillaier The controversial fence today,photo via Wayne Phyillaier

This controversial fence backing up to the Capital Crescent Trail in Chevy Chase belongs to Ajay Bhatt, the president of a group pushing to save the trail from Purple Line construction.

On Jan. 21, a district court judge ruled the fence — built last May — was built illegally, about 18 feet into the county’s right-of-way. It’s also in the path of a planned retaining wall for the Purple Line.

Thursday, longtime Purple Line supporter Wayne Phyillaier argued Bhatt’s new fence shows a conflict of interest and could pose problems for the Maryland Transit Administration if and when it starts building the 16-mile system. Part of the Purple Line would include two light rail tracks and a rebuilt trail on the existing Georgetown Branch extension right-of-way.

“I think it’s important that the county protect the right-of-way from new construction,” said Phyillaier, who wrote about the fence in detail on his blog, Silver Spring Trails. “He knew, or should have known, just from being in the middle of this for so long.”

Bhatt, who was fined $500, is appealing the ruling and will have another court hearing in April.

He is the president of the Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail, a group that opposes the Purple Line in its proposed form because it would mean the loss of the existing trail and some of the existing green space.

Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail President Ajay Bhatt at the announcement of a public-private partnership for the Purple Line in August“Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail is dedicated to preserving and augmenting the opportunities to appreciate nature and recreation on the segment of Trail between Bethesda and Silver Spring,” Bhatt said in a prepared release on Wednesday in response to recent Purple Line funding decisions. “Our vision is a World Class Park stretching from Georgetown to Silver Spring. Clear cutting and removing a mature forest ecosystem inside the Beltway — where it can never be replaced — is contrary to the goals of smart growth and sustainability that so many environmental proponents of the Purple Line supposedly espouse.”

Behind homes in Chevy Chase that back up to the trail, there are many fences and sheds that are technically in the county-owned Georgetown Branch right-of-way.

Many were built before Montgomery County purchased the right-of-way for a potential transit line in 1988, some as far back as the 1950s. That has caused confusion and frustration among some homeowners whose backyards back up to the trail.

The trail used to be a CSX rail line.

Phyillaier said he’s making Bhatt’s fence a public issue because the construction is new.

“It’s the most recent construction that I know of,” Phyillaier said. “I don’t think it’s necessary for the county to start going through and ripping through all these old fences and old tool sheds. There’s really no public good in ripping them out or confronting the property owner. I think it’s important that the county confront Ajay or anyone else who is doing new construction.”

It’s the most recent example of Purple Line supporters and opponents butting heads.

As the Town of Chevy Chase debated a legal fund to lobby against the Purple Line, members of the pro-Purple Line Action Committee for Transit claimed Town Mayor Pat Burda had a conflict of interest and a public hearing wasn’t held in accordance with public meeting laws.

ACT also questioned the Town’s decision to hire a lobbying firm that employes the brother of an influential member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Burda rebuked ACT’s claims by saying the group was “attempting to distract from the obvious and abundant flaws,” in the Purple Line’s Final Environmental Impact Statement.

The Town Council later approved a contract of up to $350,000 with lobbyists and legal firms to fight the Purple Line and pressure the MTA into desired mitigation.

Phyillaier said he didn’t consult with ACT or any other pro-Purple Line group before examining Bhatt’s fence.

ACT on Thursday tweeted out a screen capture of the online court record of Bhatt’s fence case, which was brought by Montgomery County as a code violation.

Reached by email, Bhatt characterized the fence controversy as a series of personal attacks.

Fence photos via Wayne Phyillaier

Purple Line Cost Estimate Goes Up By $220 Million

by Aaron Kraut | March 5, 2014 at 10:25 am | 418 views | 3 Comments

Purple Line rendering via MTAThe cost estimate for the Purple Line light rail has increased by $220 million, according to a Federal Transit Administration report.

The increase comes primarily from higher costs for right-of-way that must be acquired to make room for the system. The Purple Line is now projected to cost $2.37 billion, up from the previous projection of $2.15 billion.

The report, on the heels of President Obama’s recommendation on Tuesday for $100 million in federal funding for the project next fiscal year, gives a mostly favorable rating to the 16-mile, 21-station light rail system.

The Maryland Transit Administration is looking for $900 million in federal funding for the project, which it hopes to build and operate as part of a public-private partnership (P3) agreement.

The report does warn that the state’s projected growth in Transportation Trust Fund revenues and farebox collections “is more optimistic than historical experience.” The state projects 56,100 daily linked trips and almost 21 million annual linked trips by 2035.

Critics of the light rail proposed by the MTA have pointed to rising cost estimates as a reason alternative options — such as a bus rapid transit system — should be explored. The Purple Line’s western terminus would be in Bethesda and it would include a stop in Chevy Chase Lake.

“Success of rapid transit systems throughout the world, including the highly touted Select Bus Service in NYC, also beg the question whether Maryland’s persistent pursuit of an on-street fixed rail system in the middle of one of the most congested metropolitan areas is the most efficient use of tax-raised transportation dollars,” said Ajay Bhatt in a press release.

Bhatt is the president of the Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail.

The Friends group is against building the Purple Line on its proposed route along the Georgetown Branch Extension of the Capital Crescent Trail. The Town of Chevy Chase is also doing federal lobbying and could pursue a lawsuit in its efforts against the system.

Other changes from the last FTA review of the project in 2012 include an increase to 58 light rail vehicles from 55. The MTA has removed two grade-separated street crossings from the project.

Those will be replaced by at-grade crossings, meaning a reduced construction cost but a slightly longer travel time. MTA decided it needed the three extra vehicles to make up for that time.

Rendering via Maryland Transit Administration

County Government Open, Metrobus Open Tuesday

by Aaron Kraut | March 4, 2014 at 6:35 am | 230 views | No Comments

Flickr photo by Bill in DC

Metrobus service will be restored on all routes at 7 a.m., but WMATA officials are warning of some route adjustments and delays.

Metrobus will operate under a moderate snow service plan, which means snow detours will be used to keep buses off hilly streets, narrow side streets and other problem areas. Get detailed maps here.

Montgomery County government is open Tuesday with liberal leave in effect for non-essential employees. The federal government offices are open with a 2-hour delayed arrival.

As you’ve probably heard, MCPS has closed school for the second straight day Tuesday.

Montgomery County snow removal operations have not yet reached many neighborhood streets. Ken Hartman, director of the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Regional Services Center, said crews hope to have snow removed by Tuesday afternoon:

Beach Drive has been reopened but remains closed at East-West Highway (the intersection of East-West and Jones Mill Road) in Chevy Chase because of ice.

Also, here’s your obligatory reminder to be careful because of that ice. Near-record low temperatures overnight mean plenty is leftover on roadways and sidewalks.

Flickr photo by Bill in DC

Monday Snow Day: Closures, Delays and Weather

by Aaron Kraut | March 3, 2014 at 7:10 am | 1,360 views | 2 Comments

Updated at 11:20 a.m.

Roads The snow fall hasn’t stopped, which means Montgomery County Department of Transportation crews are still working on clearing major roads.

From Montgomery County:

Snow crews remain focused on keeping emergency routes, main roads and secondary roads passable for emergency vehicles, ensuring that every household is within one-half mile of a cleared road. Once the snowfall ends later today, crews will complete plowing main roads and then focus on neighborhood streets.

All Ride On bus service remains suspended due to hazardous weather conditions. Ride On will monitor weather and road conditions today and determine when service may be restored. Bus service will only be restored when it is safe to do so.

Trash and recycling collections are canceled today.

What’s Open? Metrorail. That’s it as far as transit goes.

Sports Extra (7817 Old Georgetown Rd.) is open for its regular 10 a.m.-7 p.m. hours. Anyone who makes it in will get a 10 percent discount. Bethesda Bagels (4819 Bethesda Ave.) and Old Georgetown Grille (7755 Old Georgetown Rd.) are open for anybody who feels like leaving the house for breakfast. Georgetown Square Beer and Wine (10400 Old Georgetown Rd.) is also open. Brickside Food & Drink (4866 Cordell Ave.) is open for its normal 4 p.m.-1 a.m. hours with happy hour pricing all night.

Westfield Montgomery Mall is planning to open at noon, though stores within the mall may have different schedules. Mussel Bar & Grille (7262 Woodmont Ave.) and Wildwood Kitchen (10223 Old Georgetown Rd.) will be open for lunch and dinner.

If you have a Bethesda, Chevy Chase or North Bethesda business that will be open Monday, let us know. We’ll add it.

What’s Closed? County government, the federal government, MCPS, Metrobus, Ride On and the Bethesda Circulator are all closed or have suspended service on Monday.

That has left quiet roads Monday.

Parking is free in county garages on Monday. Make sure not to park on streets that are Snow Emergency Routes. Cars parked in those areas will be towed at the owner’s expense.

Power Outages? Fewer than five customers are without power in Wood Acres as of 9:30 a.m. The possibility of freezing rain put Pepco officials on standby for downed lines and outages.

Photos via Mike Landsman@jennielynnshine@JohnMendez

Poll: 71 Percent Of MoCo Residents Support Bus Rapid Transit

by Aaron Kraut | February 28, 2014 at 2:30 pm | 356 views | 4 Comments

Bus rapid transit map designed by the Communities for Transit, via Communities for TransitA poll commissioned by two pro-bus rapid transit groups shows 71 percent of likely Montgomery County voters support a BRT system, while 22 percent oppose it.

The Coalition for Smarter Growth and Communities for Transit commissioned the poll of 400 Montgomery County residents by D.C.-based Mason-Dixon Polling & Research.

Pollsters twice asked whether poll takers supported or opposed bus rapid transit in Montgomery County — once at the start of the poll and once after presenting some of the issues.

In November, the County Council approved a controversial master plan for a bus rapid transit network that will allow transportation planners to study and design 10 BRT corridors throughout the county. About 78 percent of those corridors would include a dedicated lane for buses, meaning a lane reserved for transit and cut off from regular traffic.

In congested areas such as Rockville Pike, that could mean taking a lane of regular traffic away. That prospect concerned many who testified against the master plan at the Planning Board and County Council.

But in the poll, 78 percent agreed that BRT “promotes the right kind of development by supporting walkable communities with mixed residential & commercial spaces along major commercial corridors like Rockville Pike.”

The survey was conducted Jan. 22 and Jan. 23. According to pollsters, 70 percent supported BRT at the beginning of the survey and 71 percent supported it after they were asked about some issues surrounding the network.

The highest rated argument for the BRT plan was its relatively cheap cost compared to other transit options. Eighty percent agreed that BRT is the most affordable option.

According to the poll, 63 percent believe mass transit — not new roads — will provide the greatest relief to traffic congestion in the county, while 32 percent disagree with that opinion.

Still, opinions on taking a lane of regular traffic away for BRT use weren’t as one-sided. Those surveyed were split 50/50, with 200 folks saying taking of lanes would make car traffic worse and 200 folks saying it wouldn’t or they aren’t sure.

Read the full results of the survey in the PDF below.

PDF: Mason-Dixon BRT Memo

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