Is the Purple Line a pig in a poke?

Purple Line construction sign.

Some Montgomery County, Maryland, residents think they’ve been sold a pig in a poke as far as the Purple Line is concerned. Early on, they enthusiastically supported the 16-mile light rail project linking Langley Park and Bethesda. But after construction started and some of the short- and long-term impacts began appearing, their opinions changed.

Whether it’s the observant Jews who will lose a key walking route to synagogue or the homeowners whose new neighbors include piles of cut trees, trash, and vermin, one thing has become clear ever since construction began in 2017: the new light rail line has a bigger price tag than Maryland transportation officials told people during nearly 30 years of planning.

“Under any circumstances where construction is taking place, you have to expect a level of inconvenience for a window of time,” said Leslie Herrera, a Silver Spring resident whose house abuts the Purple Line corridor in Lyttonsville. Once a big Purple Line advocate, Herrera has soured on the project.

She cites the piles of cut trees, trash, and animals, and unresponsive Purple Line officials as the reasons. “I’ve been to all of the meetings but one and it’s generally the same. It’s generally the same. They say they’ll get back to you. You call, no answer. No call back,” she said while standing near a clear-cut lot next to her home.

Cut trees, debris piles, and trash in the Purple Line clearcut corridor behind homes along Pennsylvania Avenue in Silver Spring’s Lyttonsville neighborhood.

During a December 4 community meeting at Rosemary Hills Elementary School, Purple Line Deputy Project Manager Mike Madden told Herrera and about 60 Silver Spring residents that there was little he could do because the clear-cut areas are within right-of-way owned by CSX. The freight railroad owns corridors throughout the DMV. They are shared by Metro, Marc, and Amtrak trains. The Purple Line uses part of the corridor in Silver Spring; Between Silver Spring and Bethesda, the light rail uses right-of-way that the railroad abandoned in the 1980s.

Madden’s claim that debris removal has been slow because of roadblocks thrown up by CSX doesn’t make sense in Chevy Chase and Bethesda. There, the Purple Line is being built in the corridor that CSX abandoned more than 30 years ago. Just west of Connecticut Avenue, there are large debris piles and cut tree trunks in an area that was clear-cut earlier this year.

Debris piles and cut trees in Purple Line corridor west of Connecticut Avenue.

Over the summer, Silver Spring residents complained to county and state officials that overnight construction noises, including tunneling, were keeping them awake. The Purple Line only changed construction schedules after a sustained social media campaign spurred media coverage and intervention by Montgomery County officials.

Other Purple Line impacts are not as easy to see or hear as piles of dead trees and tunnel boring. The Purple Line cuts through the Shepherd Park-Woodside Eruv, 12-square-mile structure that makes it possible for observant Jews to carry house keys and prayer books and push strollers during the Sabbath.

Map showing the Purple Line corridor through Montgomery County and the Shepherd Park-Woodside Eruv. Circled points illustrate areas where the light rail line might impact observant Jews.

There are half a dozen eruvs in Washington and Montgomery County that cover nearly 50 square miles. These fictive courtyards use power lines, the Beltway sound wall, and other structures to create an unbroken boundary. Within this boundary, the eruv, Jewish laws prohibiting carrying on the Sabbath and high holidays are relaxed because carrying is permitted in space rabbis consider domestic. Once walled Medieval European cities fit the bill; in the 19th century infrastructure such as telegraph lines, sea walls, and elevated trollies became eruv boundaries.

Two utility poles form a “doorway” in the Shepherd Park-Woodside Eruv. The Purple Line follows the path marked by the abandoned B&O Railroad tracks exposed in Connecticut Boulevard.

There are two ways that the Purple Line impacts Montgomery County Jews. The first involves the points where the light rail crosses the Shepherd Park-Woodside Eruv boundary in the east where Piney Branch Road meets University Boulevard and in the west at Connecticut Avenue. Construction activities can damage the eruv in these two places, wrote eruv manager James Karesh in an email responding to questions about the Purple Line and the eruv.

Eruv boundary attached to a utility pole at the intersection of Piney Branch Road and University Boulevard in Montgomery County where the Purple Line intersects the Shepherd Park-Woodside Eruv.

Another impact deep inside the eruv will be when the Talbot Avenue Bridge is closed to pedestrian traffic in the spring of 2019. Vehicular traffic has been prohibited since early 2017 when Montgomery County’s Department of Transportation determined that the deteriorated metal structure was unsafe. The bridge is slated to be demolished and replaced with a new concrete structure.

Though closed to cars since early 2017, cyclists and pedestrians can still use the Talbot Avenue Bridge.

While the bridge is closed, observant Jews living in the Lyttonsville and Rosemary Hills neighborhoods will need to find new ways to walk to the Woodside Synagogue and a nearby ritual bath known as a mikveh. Karesh and other area Jewish leaders say that they were never contacted by the Purple Line during the planning and environmental impact study phases of the project.

“No one ever reached out to us regarding any disruption to the eruv,” Karesh said. “The Talbot Ave. bridge closure will impact how pedestrians may walk to shul [synagogue].”

Woodside Synagogue, Georgia Avenue, Silver Spring.

Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of the District’s Ohev Sholom synagogue, which shares the eruv with the Woodside synagogue, also was unaware of any consultation attempts by Maryland transportation officials. Though his congregation is far away from the Purple Line corridor, Jewish law requires that an eruv boundary remain unbroken. Damage to the eruv in Montgomery County would impact Herzfeld’s synagogue and District residents.

Ohev Sholom synagogue, Jonquil St NW, Washington.

In other communities with eruvs impacted by transportation projects, synagogue congregations and Jewish residents have been consulted and the projects proceeded sensitively with an eye towards reducing impacts during and after construction. These include highway projects in Georgia and Minnesota and a Dallas, Texas, light rail line [PDF]. In Savannah, Georgia, transportation officials identified one eruv as a historic property type known as a “traditional cultural property” and they initially determined that it was eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places.

Herzfield explained in an interview that National Park Service staff and District government agencies have contacted his synagogue prior to construction projects likely to impact the eruv.

Maryland Delegate Al Carr (D-Dist. 18), who represents communities affected by the Purple Line is Jewish. He was unaware of potential impacts to the eruv and Jewish community by the project. “That’s disappointing,” he said when told that the Purple Line didn’t consult with the synagogues.

Purple Line officials did not respond to interview requests.

Carr attended the December 4 meeting in Silver Spring. The interactions between residents and Purple Line officials were par for the course.

Silver Spring residents at a Purple Line public meeting listen to a neighbor asking Purple Line officials a question, December 4, 2018.

Residents, like Herrera, describe the Purple Line officials as combative, rude, and unresponsive to their concerns. “That behavior was there long ago and it’s still there now,” Carr explained. “If you were an elected official who supported the Purple Line, maybe you liked that behavior when it was directed at folks who were not as supportive of the Purple Line as you were. But now that everyone is exposed to that, it’s not a good thing.”

Purple Line Deputy Project Manager Mike Madden answers residents’ questions at a public meeting December 4, 2018.

As for getting answers and action, Carr conceded that the only effective approach is the one taken by the residents who succeeded in shutting down overnight work in Silver Spring. “They went to the press and were able to get the MDOT, MTA to relent and give them a little break and let them sleep,” Carr said.

© 2018 D.S. Rotenstein

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