Purple Line’s big black box?

BY ALEX HOLT

Residents fear it will be a huge black box, bigger than some of the surrounding houses and guarded by a chain-link fence. The MTA says their fears are unfounded, but neighbors worry something like that will be placed in the middle of a Silver Spring residential area on Wayne Avenue and Greenbriar Drive.

It’s called a traction power substation and the MTA (Maryland Transit Administration) plans to use it to help convert regular electricity into the form needed to power the Purple Line on the light rail’s 16-mile journey from Bethesda to New Carrollton. That’s drawn outrage from Wayne Avenue residents who didn’t want the Purple Line going through their street in the first place.

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Corner of Greenbriar Dr. and Wayne Ave., Silver Spring, MD.

MTA says that it won’t be a “big black box,’ however. “Standard Purple Line TPSS (traction power substation) are approximately 52 feet by 14 feet and can be designed to fit into the environment,” said Terry Owens, MTA’s chief public information officer.  Owen said the substations are often, but not always,  surrounded by security fencing for added security.

“Fencing can take on many forms to fit into the environment as well,” said Owens.  Every site, he said, is unique for substations located in residential neighborhoods throughout the U.S. and the world.

“Each situation is different,” Owens said. “It depends on the environment we’re going into. We try and do whatever we can to have the least impact on the community.”

Decisions not made

Owens did say that the MTA hasn’t reached a decision on whether or not install fencing around the substation or what kind of fencing if they do decide to go that route.

He also said the MTA hasn’t yet decided how the substation on Wayne Avenue would be camouflaged.

“I don’t think we’re that far down the road yet to say specifically what’s going to be at Wayne Avenue,” Owens said. “We’re going to do whatever we can to have the least possible impact on the environment and work to come up with something that blends in with the environment and doesn’t stand out.”

 

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Traction power substation photos provided by Maryland Transit Administration.

“It’s just not something you’d want to put in a single family home neighborhood,” said Jean Cavanaugh, President of the Seven Oaks Evanswood Citizens’ Association, a neighborhood group in the area.

Cavanaugh said SOECA expressed its concerns about the substation to the MTA in a resolution passed by its board in June but they don’t have a lot of confidence that all of their concerns will be addressed.

“The MTA, they’re not from around here,” Cavanaugh said. “I think a lot of people are not satisfied with the MTA’s responses to our very local concerns.”

Shift of focus

In the past, those concerns included having the Purple Line run straight down Wayne Avenue at street level, something the SOECA also presented resolutions against to the MTA in 2007 and 2008. But with the Purple Line still slated to go through Wayne Avenue at street level, SOECA’s focus has shifted towards the location of the substation and how much leeway the MTA will give the private company now supposed to operate the Purple Line for the MTA over the line’s construction, which is slated to get under way in 2015.

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Wayne Ave. at Cloverfield Rd. Greenbriar Dr. intersection in background.

“We don’t even know what elements of the Purple Line are negotiable with the private companies,” Cavanaugh said. “It’s a black box, we don’t know how this is going to work”, Cavanaugh said.

It’s not just homeowners who will be dramatically affected by the Purple Line, though. Another key concern, according to Karen Roper of the East Silver Spring Citizens Association, is the impact the Purple Line will have on local businesses and specifically on their parking.

“There’s 21 businesses on Bonifant Street,” Roper said. “They’re losing their parking. One issue we just resolved is most of them receive their deliveries in the front, they have no access to the rear of the building.”

Redesigned for deliveries

With two lanes slated for the trains and one lane of through traffic, there wouldn’t be any room for deliveries under the original Purple Line design. According to Roper, the Montgomery County Department of Transportation stepped in and redesigned the plan so that deliveries can function more similarly to how they currently work.

“At a public meeting presenting the new configuration, the MTA resisted making the changes but the DOT felt they were better for safety and for the deliveries,” Roper said.

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Bonifant Rd., downtown Silver Spring, MD, a block south of Wayne Ave.

Terry Ownens, the MTA’s chief public information officer, said that though “the MTA Purple Line team looks to the County as a partner in decision making,” it was the MTA that devised the new delivery plan.

But not every Purple Line issue is that easily resolved. Mike Madden, the MTA’s project manager for the Purple Line, says that while the MTA has tried to address resident concerns about the project and met with area residents to discuss the problem back in July, some solutions just may not be feasible.

Nonstarters

“In terms of the traction power substation, we looked at several other sites, especially in a more commercial area like near Whole Foods,” Madden said. “The sites we looked at, none of them worked, they were too far away. We have to have them evenly spaced.”

Moving the traction power substation from Wayne Avenue might force the MTA to move other substations as well. That’s a nonstarter for a project already facing controversy over its station locations from Bethesda to Takoma Park. Placing the substation directly underground wouldn’t work either since tests on the water table of the site showed it was too high, leaving the substation too vulnerable to the risk of flooding. Another alternative suggested by SOECA, placing the substation at Silver Spring International Middle School, also proved unsuccessful because there wasn’t enough space. Madden said the MTA is currently analyzing whether it would be possible to place the substation underground in the middle school’s parking lot but the analysis isn’t complete yet.

Five years of hurt

For her part, Cavanaugh says SOECA does want to work with the MTA to make sure the Purple Line’s the best it can be because it’s going to be around for a long time. Still, she doesn’t think the process will be peaceful or easy. “It’s going to be five years of hurt,” she said.

 

About the Author

Alex Holt
Alex Holt is a first-year graduate student in the Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland and a recent graduate of Ithaca College. When not at school, he lives in Baltimore, Maryland and he hopes to eventually pursue a career in sports journalism.

1 Comment on "Purple Line’s big black box?"

  1. Last I checked, the Purple Line will not result in fewer cars on the road. It will easily cost more than the billion-plus estimated (that’s a given. Look at the Silver Spring Transit Center for a preview.) Businesses, homeowners will be adversely affected.

    I don’t understand why all the politicians have lined up behind this project, which it seems to me will cause more problems than it will solve.

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