Metro and Montgomery County are at odds over testing at the Silver Spring Transit Center.
Even as repairs proceed and both sides insist the structure is safe despite cracking concrete, Montgomery County officials and Metro leaders remain at odds over the Silver Spring Transit Center, appearing no closer to solving key problems plaguing a facility already years behind schedule and millions over budget.
Money has emerged as the prickliest issue surrounding the transit center’s future: who will pay if the flawed transit hub needs significant fixing in the coming decades? The county says the transit hub may be ready to open for business by the end of the year, but Metro (WMATA) refuses to commit to operating it because of potentially big long-term maintenance bills.
During a two hour hearing before the Montgomery County Council on Tuesday, David Dise, the county’s director of general services, Rodrigo Bitar, Metro’s assistant general manager, and Thomas Robinson, the transit authority’s deputy chief engineer, provided legislators with an update on repairs.
Workers under county supervision are repairing cracked concrete pour strips that were constructed without steel reinforcement. Metro claims the ongoing repair work will cause even more stress problems and is asking the county to reconsider its approach. The dispute over repairs did not stop both sides from reassuring councilmembers the Silver Spring Transit Center will pose no hazard to the public—if and when it opens.
“Structurally integrity is not an issue here,” Dise said.
In March a contractor’s report, commissioned by Montgomery County, revealed significant structural problems. WMATA is trying to avoid getting stuck with a facility that requires excessive maintenance costs, but county officials contend the transit authority’s demands are becoming unreasonable. For instance, Bitar and Robinson said the county must conduct a “slot stress test” on the transit center, an enormously expensive procedure, before Metro will accept the repairs.
“At this point approximately 25 percent of the structure has been evaluated and we see significant issues,” Robinson said. “Slot stress testing will shed a little more light on what the rest of the structure can or cannot do, or how it will perform down the road.”
“Do you have to test the whole structure?” asked Councilman Marc Elrich. “We have to test a good portion of it,” said Robinson, who said the test could take 12 to 18 weeks.
Dise made clear the county has little interest in the stress test.
It would cost “approximately $700,000 to $800,000 and this is a test that has been performed no more than 500 times worldwide,” he said. “The 90 areas in this facility that have been proposed by WMATA would be a 15 percent increase in the number of times this has been used globally. The company that does this has even pointed out the results will be, at best, inconclusive.”
Dise and the two Metro officials seemed to talk past each other as the hearing dragged on, leaving some councilmembers visibly exasperated. The miscommunication persists despite weekly meetings of county and Metro officials and construction contractors to discuss repairs.
“I wish I could put all of you in one room, lock you together and not let you out until this thing is done… basically force you to keep talking to each other until this is resolved,” said Councilman Elrich.
After the hearing’s conclusion, Metro’s Robinson declined to be interviewed by reporters but offered a brief comment as he walked away from the building when he was asked to respond to the county’s opposition to slot stress test. “I don't know where they are coming with that. It will provide some results,” he said.
The lack of consensus on the transit center’s remediation leaves unanswered the most important question of all: when will it open and who will operate it?
“The answer is I don’t know,” said Metro’s Bitar. “We need to see all the testing that is pending to be delivered to us. That way, we can analyze it and then we make a determination what has to be done to be fixed and that will establish a timeline for repairs.”
Metro is open to alternatives to the slot stress test but the responsibility for proposing them lies with the county, Bitar said.
“We continue to meet with WMATA to try to get some resolution as to their insistence upon this test. As it stands right now we don’t believe that test is necessary,” Dise said to reporters. “It is a sticking point to them and they consistently bring that up. Our expert engineers are meeting with their staff to try to get them to be specific about the level of their concern. Our frustration, frankly, is we haven’t gotten any specificity from Metro’s staff.”
Councilman Roger Berliner said WMATA is using the “slot stress test” as a bargaining chip.
“I believe what they are doing is setting up a situation where they can say, we are not responsible for maintaining this facility,” he said. “This test they are seeking has only been done a number of times throughout the globe… and it wouldn’t give us any conclusive evidence.”
“We are confident about the fix we are employing, so it raises questions as to the motivation of WMATA.”
Dise said if repairs continue without major weather interruptions the Silver Spring Transit Center could be ready to open for business by the end of the year. Should Metro refuse to operate the facility, Berliner said the county might consider operating the facility itself.