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One of the longest-running transit projects in the Washington region is looking at more delays because of significant structural problems. The opening of the new transit center in Silver Spring, Md., has been on hold for several years because of issues with concrete. Now a consultants’ report identifies problems associated with everything from missing cables to fire code violations. We get an update on the project and what the delays mean for bus, Metro and MARC train riders.
- Adam Tuss Reporter, NBC 4
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, the science behind good design from the facade of the Parthenon to the look and feel of modern-day credit cards. But first, a local saga of structural design gone bad, an engineering report released this week found that a long-awaited transit center in Silver Spring, Md. is still unusable and unsafe.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe project has been on hold for several years because of issues with its concrete, but this week's report identified more problems, including inadequate reinforcing steel. Montgomery County officials say things can be fixed but with more time and money. However, transit officials in the region are threatening to walk away from the project if they're not satisfied with the repairs. Joining us to explore what's gone wrong and what's at stake in this project for the region as a whole is Adam Tuss. He covers transportation for NBC 4. Adam, thank you so much for joining us.
MR. ADAM TUSSThanks for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIAdam, Montgomery County broke ground on this Silver Spring transit center about five years ago. The project has already costs more than $100 million. But structural concerns delayed an opening scheduled in 2011. The engineering report released this week revealed even more problems that have clouded the future of this facility altogether. Exactly what did we learn?
TUSSWhat a mess this whole project has really become. And, you know, just looking at the overall structure, I mean, when you're talking about problems with concrete, steel reinforcing beams, all that kind of stuff that really should be the focus of building any building of this structure and then you're going to talk about putting buses, taxis, people walking around on this thing, for anyone who knows downtown Silver Spring, this structure sits right next to the Metro station in downtown Silver Spring and is now just a concrete goliath that is not being used.
TUSSIt's completely fenced off from the surrounding area. People have to walk by this construction area. So, you know, what we learned is that there are more problems with this structure. This thing was supposed to be open years ago. It's gone way over budget and really has become an eyesore in downtown Silver Spring. It's just -- it's a shame that this couldn't get moving forward, and that it's taken this long really, Kojo, to find a fix to fix this project, to really move forward.
TUSSAnd now, of course, we've got a lot of back and forth between the county, the developer, you know, a lot of he said, she said kind of stuff. Well, they told us the design was supposed to be this way. No, it was supposed to be this way. So it's this whole drawn-out long saga. Oh, and by the way, still don't know what the fix is, and we still don't know when the project is going to open.
NNAMDIWhat were the specific issues, Adam, that this report identified with reinforcement steel?
TUSSWell, let's just take it back to the beginning that when problems were first identified with this structure -- and I don't want to get into too technical terms here. But basically, there were parts of the building where the concrete was poured too thin, and there were parts of the building where the concrete was poured too thick.
TUSSNow, the report this week comes out and says that the structural problems and the flaking and the cracking in the concrete and some of the steel beams used are not up to strength in certain areas so much to the point where if certain weights were placed on certain parts of this structure -- and you're talking again about running buses and taxis through here -- that you could have collapse. You could have injuries, and certainly that's not going to move forward. The project is not going to be allowed to go forward in that kind of state, with that kind of report hanging out there.
NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, we're talking with Adam Tuss. He covers transportation for NBC 4 in Washington about the Silver Spring transit center. Inviting your calls at 800-433-8850, what concerns do you have about the completion of the long-delayed transit center in Silver Spring? 800-433-8850. Adam, who will be on the hook financially to fix these problems? It's my understanding that the contractor, Foulger-Pratt, has already suggested that taxpayers were forced to pay $2 million just for this engineering report to be completed without Foulger-Pratt or its engineers input.
TUSSRight. Well, here you go getting back into the, you know, finger-pointing aspect of this. The county is saying that the taxpayers will not be on the hook for any repairs that have to be made to the structure that it's all going on the contractor, Foulger-Pratt. But again, Foulger-Pratt is saying, well, look, the county already commissioned this independent study and had to pay this independent consultant to go through there.
TUSSSo the taxpayers theoretically have already paid for some of the repairs that have to go to this. So the county stance at least is that no way are they going to go to taxpayers and ask for more money for this project, that it's all on the developer. And interestingly, I talked to the developer the other day and some of the principals of this company.
TUSSThey are of the mindset that that building is ready to open today. You could take down the gates and open it today. That's what they told me the other day. So it's really incredible to have the developer saying everything is structurally sound. It's ready to go. It can open. And then the county is saying, well, hold on a second, we have all these concerns.
TUSSSo there's a lot of gray area here and a lot to work out, and certainly we're facing a lengthy legal battle over what something that really should be, you know, a positive story for the region. We're trying to find ways to get around without cars, to have people get on buses and trains and make things easier for people to get around. And here we have one of the major projects in one of areas that's supposed to be going through this major revitalization, and, of course, it's just sitting there stagnant.
NNAMDIWell, let's bring in another shall we say interested party, Adam. What's Metro is saying about all of this? I would assume that Metro is getting important if it was supposed to be able to make use of this facility two years ago.
TUSSExactly. And so for the people who don't know once this project is brought up to the standard that it needs to be and is ready to open, then it will get turned over to Metro, and Metro will in essence run the facility. Metro has said throughout this whole sage, look, if the building isn't right, we're not going to take it.
TUSSAnd right fully so, if they have concerns about, you know, running buses or putting people on this structure, then it would be irresponsible to assume control of that building when there are huge question marks hanging out there. And, of course, what we're learning now is that if Metro is completely dissatisfied with the whole project in the way that it's going, the transit agency has every right to walk away for this project.
NNAMDIWell, what input did Metro get in this process on the design of the transit center? I read somewhere that Metro apparently signed off on the designs that have turned out to be problematic.
TUSSYeah, it's hard to believe that Metro engineers weren't brought in to the process to kind of take a look at how things were going. But I think that there's, you know, Metro could have an initial kind of look at what was happening, but it's really interesting when you start talking to the developer, Foulger-Pratt, and start hearing some of the things they're saying.
TUSSYou know, they say, OK, there was an initial design for how this building was to be constructed, but then the county kept changing things and kept making things different. And that's where a lot of the problems kind of came in that there were all these design changes, design orders that came in, and then that's when we started to run into all the big problems.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. How important do you think a safe new transit center is to the broader future of Silver Spring and Montgomery County? 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Here's Mary Lou in Takoma Park, Md. Mary Lou, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MARY LOUYes. I was wondering how the structure got so far advanced when in -- like in residential construction, there's ongoing inspections. And if something is incorrect, like too thin concrete or too thick concrete, that has to be corrected before you can go further with the project.
NNAMDIHow did it get to this state, Adam Tuss?
TUSSWell, this is the great question because she's absolutely right. When you have a project, especially of this magnitude, again, we're talking over $100 million and a lot of concrete and steel that's being put in place there, you should have a checklist going through to make sure everything is in line, everything is in working order.
TUSSWhen you talk to Foulger-Pratt, they say everything was checked and in line and in working order. But when the county went in a while back and took a look at the structure and noticed there were some cracking and some flaking, they put on the brakes and said, we've got to bring in our own independent consultant, take a look at this.
TUSSAnd then again, that's how we've gotten to the level where there's this new report this week where the problems that were previously known about the thickness of the concrete extended all the way out to other areas, including the pillars and the steel beams that you're talking about. So it really, again, there's two sides to this issue. There's the developer who's saying things are done right.
NNAMDIWe're ready to go.
TUSSAnd we're ready to go, and they can open. And then there's the county who's saying, no, it's not.
NNAMDIMary Lou, thank you very much for your call. What happens if Metro walks away, Adam?
TUSSOh, there's another good question, Kojo. I mean, you know, when you really dig deeper into this project and you start looking at potential fixes and things that might be needed to fix the project, you can't help -- and I don't want to put words in anybody's mouth, and this is a lot of me just kind of saying this -- but -- and certainly people have not suggested this is going to happen. But you can't help but think that somewhere along the line, the notion that this thing has to be torn down is in the back of somebody's mind.
NNAMDIThat's what I've been thinking...
NNAMDI...in front of my mind.
TUSSExactly. I mean, and a lot of people are probably thinking that if it's not right, and from a -- just an average person's perspective, just put yourself in as a normal rider who's going to be on a bus and you're that first bus that goes onto the Silver Spring transit center, you know, there's already these questions out there about the structural integrity of the building. You're going to be a little nervous about it.
TUSSSo this -- there really has to be a massive fix, first of all, and then a massive P.R. effort to let people know that this thing is 100 percent safe to put all types of vehicles on, to have people walking around on. And again, you know, the thing that really strikes me about this story is that, as you know, Kojo, Silver Spring is one of the areas...
NNAMDII was about to say...
NNAMDI...what's at stake here...
NNAMDI...because people have been trying very hard to revitalize the downtown area...
NNAMDI...of Silver Spring, make it a destination for shopping, for eating, for commuting. And where was this transit center supposed to fit into that vision?
TUSSRight. And so this was kind of one of the linchpins of ride downtown Silver Spring. I mean, if you know where the Metro station is right there...
TUSS...it's right close to Discovery quarter -- the Discovery headquarters, a lot of big buildings around there, and there's more development planned right around the transit center. So they have this kind of eyesore sitting there stagnant, not being used is really kind of a blight on Silver Spring, an area that's one of these, you know, so-called fringed cities of our -- major city, Washington, D.C.
TUSSYou know, that's supposed to be going through this change and its revitalization. You see so much of it happening around the region. I mean all you have to do is go up to Tyson's Corner to take a look at the kind of change that's happening all around our region. Silver Spring certainly has gone through a lot of that. But when you have something -- like, this is the equivalent basically of, like, the Silver Line stalling out in Tyson's Corner. I mean it's really incredible.
NNAMDIWell, people are driving by this -- I do three or four times a week -- this fenced-off concrete structure with little clue as to when they will be able to use it or whether it will be safe when they finally can. Any kind of timeline on when this will -- how this will all play out or when it will all play out, Adam?
TUSSThe last time that I talked to the county about when a fix was going to be put in place, they told me that they were taking the winter to find the fix. They were going to identify what the fix is after the winter and start working on it in the spring and the hope was that this transit center could be open back up by the fall. That seems to have completely been ripped up and thrown out the window with this new consultant's report that basically, you know, runs down a myriad of new problems that have been identified in this building.
TUSSSo the bottom-line is we don't know, and no one has said, OK, here's the date when it's going to open. And, oh, by the way, if you go back and look at the dates that were originally proposed when this thing was supposed to open, those have all been missed. So it's kind of hard to take anyone's word right now to put a hard timeframe on it and say, OK, it's going to be open in a year or a year and a half or whenever. The bottom-line is we don't know.
NNAMDIAdam Tuss, his word is always good for us. He covers transportation for NBC 4. Adam, thank you so much for joining us.
NNAMDIGoing to take a short break. When we come back, the science behind good design. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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