November 16, 2011
Trail tunnel rebuilding called ‘financially unfeasible’
Washington Examiner

By Rachel Baye

The latest cost estimates for rebuilding the popular Capital Crescent Trail make it “financially unfeasible” to rebuild the tunnel under Wisconsin Avenue in Bethesda, said Montgomery County Planning Department Senior Planner David Anspacher.

Rebuilding the tunnel would cost an estimated $40.5 million, almost half of the $93.9 million expected cost of rebuilding the entire trail.

Extending from Silver Spring to Georgetown, sections of the Capital Crescent Trail need to be rebuilt to make way for the Purple Line, the proposed light rail planned to run 16 miles from Bethesda to New Carrollton. The project would cost an estimated $1.93 billion to build, much of which local officials hope to fund with federal and state dollars.

However, the Capital Crescent Trail is expected to be funded largely — maybe even exclusively — by Montgomery County taxpayers, said County Councilman Roger Berliner, D-Bethesda, who called the new $40.5 million price tag on the tunnel a “wrinkle” in the plans.

Getting state or federal funding for the project hasn’t been formally discussed, Berliner said. However, adding the costs of the Capital Crescent Trail project to the request for federal funding could be detrimental to the Purple Line, altering its “cost-effectiveness.”

The cost of rebuilding the tunnel represents a significant hurdle to a county that continues to slash its budget and has begun an effort to reduce its debt obligations.

There is no money in the current budget for the trail, said Gary Erenrich, special assistant to the director at the county Department of Transportation.

“However … we don’t believe there’s enough information to firmly say that that cost difference [between a tunnel and no tunnel] is $40 million,” Anspacher said.

The Planning Department is urging the Maryland Transit Administration to conduct further cost analysis, he said.

Rebuilding the tunnel also poses significant risks since the project requires developers to excavate beneath the Ajax building on Wisconsin Avenue. The building would have to rely on temporary supports while developers reconstruct 35 columns holding the building up, Anspacher said. He couldn’t say if the building would need to be evacuated.

Whatever the cost, the tunnel is necessary, said Ajay Bhatt, president of the Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail. Without the tunnel, young children who walk or bike the trail with their families would have to cross busy Wisconsin Avenue.

Bhatt is scheduled to testify at a hearing before the county’s Planning Board Thursday, where the tunnel will be one of the topics up for discussion.

The board also will discuss adding new lighting and emergency callboxes for the trail for an estimated $9.4 million, which would bring the cost of the trail to $103.3 million.

MTA Purple Line project manager Mike Madden did not return requests for comment.