Today, 23 years after the county spent $8 million to buy the land for the transit center, two decades after the federal government provided the first $1.5 million to design it and more than six years after construction finally began, the Silver Spring Transit Center sits behind chain-link fencing, its new bus benches still shrink-wrapped. Although the facility is supposedly 95 percent finished, it is crippled by major structural flaws. Dangerous cracks in the building are warning signs that chunks of concrete could fall onto pedestrians, and all sides agree that complex lawsuits lie ahead for the worst building fiasco in county history.
The transit center was conceived during a time of bold expansion, when the county was building a concert hall, a jail, a conference center, schools and libraries, but it began to rise during much tighter times. Still, the cost has ballooned almost fivefold from its original price tag, to $120 million, and that number could rise considerably as crews rip out entire sections that were built incorrectly.
“When you look at Silver Spring today, it’s easy to forget how awful downtown was and how tenuous the redevelopment was,” said John Porcari, who ran Maryland’s transportation department under two governors and is now deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation. The idea behind the transit center was to jump-start development: “Montgomery County’s point was you really need this infrastructure to trigger the private investment.”
But even as more than half a dozen government agencies and a slew of private contractors struggled to finish the project, Silver Spring sprang: The downtown got a powerful injection of major employers, popular arts and entertainment spots, eateries and residential developments. The American Film Institute opened its East Coast showcase at the Silver Theatre, Discovery Communications built a gleaming headquarters for 2,000 employees, the Round House Theatre and the Fillmore music hall opened, and downtown’s streets filled day and night — an urban renewal from blight to Whole Foods renaissance in just a few years.
And all without the transit center, the catalyst that was supposedly vital to Silver Spring’s transformation.
That leaves some $120 million questions: Was the investment worthwhile? Was the center, which Porcari in 2000 described as “the Union Station of Maryland,” necessary? How and why did the center’s troubles metastasize, its price tag multiplying and its timeline stretching beyond all predictions? And who is responsible for the center falling apart?