As local union members and other representatives picketed outside, those attending a town hall on the status of the light-rail Purple Line project walked past dozens of presentation posters as they entered the main auditorium of the Silver Spring Civic Building.
The posters outlined various aspects of the construction of the Purple Line, a 16-mile, 21-station light-rail line that will connect high-traffic residential, business and commercial corridors from Bethesda to New Carrollton. There also was a model of the trains that will run along the tracks of the light-rail line, now expected to begin operation in fall 2026.
The project was originally supposed to begin carrying passengers in March 2022.
During the town hall Wednesday night, state officials and other project partners briefed residents about the current status of the Purple Line construction and how they aim to get the line running in four years.
The next stage of the project will be completing utility relocation along the route, including in downtown Silver Spring and other busy areas, according to the officials.
Matthew Pollack, executive director of the Maryland Transit Administration, said in an interview those utility relocations have been occurring for about 18 months. The process will take several more months at least, and must be completed before other aspects of the project — like laying down the train tracks — can occur.
“You can’t put anything on top until the utilities are all out of the way,” Pollack said. “That’s probably the biggest thing that’s coming up.”
The project has faced numerous delays since a prior contractor, Purple Line Transit Constructors, walked off the job due to cost overruns and missed deadlines. The initial start of construction had been delayed as neighborhoods along the proposed route challenged the project in court.
In November 2020, the state settled with the prior contractor for $250 million.
Purple Line Transit Partners is the consortium working with the state and contractor to finish the project. Maryland Transit Solutions was picked by the state last year as the contractor. Here is a general timeline for the project, according to officials:
- Summer 2022: Maryland Transit Solutions begins full-scale construction of the project, which will include utility relocation, installing tracks along various points of the route and other components.
- Fall 2023: The light-rail train cars will be delivered to Maryland. They are being built in Elmira, New York, and will be shipped once they are completed.
- Summer 2024: The test track will be completed for the rail cars. That will be on the eastern end of the line, near where a rail yard and maintenance facility will be located.
- Winter 2025: System-wide testing will begin. The operation of rail cars will be tested along greater lengths of the route, and eventually along the whole line.
- Fall 2026: Passenger service is scheduled to begin.
Pollack admitted that there have been “complexities” up to this point concerning the overall project. But the light rail system does not rely on new technology, so that means testing, inspections and other aspects of building the Purple Line could be easier than other projects he’s worked on, he said.
Maryland Transit Solutions’ work will be supervised by project manager Terry Gohde. He said in an interview one of his main roles is to help solve big picture issues that other partners on the team may face, including Julio Velez, the construction manager.
Looking ahead, Gohde said a lot of the project’s challenges — including the lawsuits, the prior contractor walking off the job, and a considerable amount of utility relocation — have already occurred.
Now, construction managers need to focus on making sure traffic can proceed while construction is occurring, Gohde said. Along with disruption caused by the utility relocation, construction will be occurring on the streets where the Purple Line route will run.
“We have to, in a very phased manner, so that we maintain lanes open … widen the street to the one side, widen it to the other side [and] eliminate the middle to actually create the trackways,” Gohde said. “That will be the most disruptive to local folks, to local businesses.”
Pollack and Gohde said that once operating, the light-rail cars will follow the rules of the road when it comes to sharing streets with other vehicles. That will occur mostly in the downtown Silver Spring area, along with places on the route east of University Boulevard since the tracks will be in the middle of that state road, Gohde said.
Managing traffic in shared streets is all about train control and matching that with highway signal control, Gohde said.
Though the project contractors have changed, Gohde, Pollack and Doran Bosso — CEO of Purple Line Transit Partners — said the construction plans remain sound and changing aspects at this point would not make sense. All three said they have decades of experience working on the construction of highway tunnels, light rail and other similar transportation projects.
Fares for riding the Purple Line will be decided later and involve public input, Pollack said.
The trains are expected to run about every seven and a half minutes during peak morning and afternoon rush hours, and every 10 to 15 minutes during off-peak hours and on weekends, officials said.
“For people who don’t have access to vehicles or don’t want to sit on the [Capital] Beltway in traffic, it will provide a reliable option,” Bosso said.
“Reliability is important, and when you get on the Beltway, you don’t know if it’s going to be 15 minutes, or 45 minutes … and we hope to provide that reliability,” he added.
Steve Bohnel can be reached at [email protected]