COLLEGE PARK – Proposed construction on the Purple Line will not begin for at least another three years, but some local school leaders are concerned as state and county planners work to finalize a route.
Under the current plan, the 16-mile light rail line will impact four middle and elementary schools in Prince George’s and Montgomery County.
While the Purple Line is welcome news to many drivers, who commute the heavily congested east-west corridor daily, parents and principals worry about student safety and school property space.
Sligo Creek Elementary School principal Diantha Swift said the Purple Line may help reduce traffic but will likely affect school crossings, traffic flow and parking.
“Logistically, we have 19 school buses, numerous car drop-offs and pick-ups and walkers coming to school each day,” Swift said. “We hope the Purple Line will ease traffic, but safety is obviously a concern too.”
Sligo Creek shares a school building and parking lot with Silver Spring International Middle School. The Purple Line and a proposed rail station, which is currently under review, would be built on the southern end of the campus.
Construction would reconfigure car and bus parking for the schools and build a new traffic entrance intersecting with the rail line.
“We have heard the concerns of safety,” said Maryland Transit Administration Purple Line project manager Mike Madden. “The station in-front of the Silver Spring International is still under study, and in the end we will work to address concerns by building safe crosswalks, traffic signals, fences and barriers.”
Silver Spring International is likely to see the greatest impact from Purple Line construction, Madden said.
At Rosemary Hills Elementary School in Silver Spring, the Purple Line will be built alongside an existing CSX track, located behind the school.
The addition of the Purple Line will require the reconfiguration of a roadway bridge, the Talbot Avenue bridge, as well as the addition of a pedestrian bridge to link a popular running and biking route, the Capital Crescent Trail.
The addition of the light rail line will not impact the school significantly, but the construction and reconfiguration of the bridges will require the construction of a large retaining wall, creating a “grand canyon” effect, said Mary Pat Wilson, a real estate management specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools.
“We asked planning officials to relocate the pedestrian bridge to accommodate for more space, but now it looks like they will build a significant retaining wall next to the school, limiting a buffer space,” she said.
And school space is one of the primary concerns at Rosemary Hills, said Rafe Petersen, a school PTA board member. He said parents are watching the Purple Line project closely.
The school enrolled 710 students this year, and he said other local schools, like Rosemary Hills, are struggling to keep up.
“Simultaneously, our schools are getting hammered. The [area] is crowded, there are land constraints and our ability to expand is limited,” Petersen said.
The MTA said they have worked with each individual school to minimize the impact of future development.
In Riverdale, the MTA held a meeting at St. Bernard of Clairvaux Catholic Church to hear from parish leaders about how the Purple Line would affect the school facilities.
Plans call for a rail station to be built a block from the school, and a rail line that would run along the same side of the street as the school’s property.
Currently, the Archdiocese of Washington leases the school facilities to a public charter school, the EXCEL Academy. Both the Archdiocese and EXCEL Academy did not respond to interview requests.
While some school properties are likely to be affected, Wayne Phyillaier, an advocate for the Purple Line and a retired engineer, said the design process is evolving to meet both commuter and resident needs.
“Schools have a right to be concerned. If you push construction too close to buildings, it will likely have an impact. But, I don’t understand some of the concerns of safety. Light rail will obey the speed limit, follow street signs and will help to reduce traffic.”