February 26, 2012
Planners reject proposal to keep trail inside tunnel for future Purple Line
Washington Post

By Katherine Shaver

Maryland transit planners have rejected two proposals to keep a popular recreation trail inside a tunnel in downtown Bethesda alongside future Purple Line trains, making it increasingly likely that trail users would have to cross busy Wisconsin Avenue and navigate the crowded shopping and entertainment district along local streets.

The tunnel issue is likely to become increasingly contentious as Purple Line supporters and state officials grapple with how to keep the $1.93 billion project competitive for federal construction funding. Some Montgomery County residents and trail users say opting for a cheaper surface trail would betray promises from state and local officials that Purple Line trains and trail users would share the tunnel on the northeast corner of Woodmont and Bethesda avenues.

In its latest analysis sent to the Montgomery County Council late Friday, the Maryland Transit Administration said building a Purple Line station east of the tunnel would add three minutes of walking time for Purple Line passengers transferring to and from the Metro Red Line’s Bethesda station. That would reduce Purple Line ridership, lengthen travel times and make the project less competitive for federal funding, the report said. Another option — tearing down and redeveloping an office building to expand the cramped tunnel — would be too expensive, according to the report.

That leaves the Montgomery council with two options: funneling cyclists and joggers through a “concrete box structure” built above the trains’ overhead electrical lines or routing them around the tunnel via local streets.

The Montgomery planning board said in November that rebuilding the trail above trains would be too expensive. The cost estimate that the planning board rejected has since increased to $50.9 million from $40.5 million. The higher estimate accounts for inflation from 2011 to 2018 dollars, according to the new report. The surface street plan is estimated to cost $3.5 million in 2018 dollars.

The MTA “basically said it would be exceedingly difficult to put the trail through the tunnel and that it would be cost-prohibitive,” Council President Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda), who chairs the council’s transportation committee, said Saturday.

Berliner said he wants to hear from the community before he deems the trail-in-the-tunnel plan as too expensive. “Whether it warrants spending $47 million more to run the trail through the tunnel rather than at street level is a significant question,” he said.

The committee is scheduled to discuss the issue Thursday. The council will also consider how much the county should spend on trail lighting, benches and landscaping adjacent to neighborhoods. Money for a trail design would be included in the county’s six-year spending plan to coincide with the state’s schedule for Purple Line construction.

The state is seeking federal money for half the Purple Line’s estimated $1.93 billion construction costs. State officials have said construction on the 16-mile line between Bethesda and New Carrollton could begin in 2015, with the line opening in 2020. The county is responsible for the costs of rebuilding the 4.5-mile trail between Bethesda and Silver Spring.

MTA officials said keeping the trail in the tunnel would require sinking the light rail tracks up to 10 feet and reinforcing critical support beams for two office buildings and the Wisconsin Avenue bridge above. The buildings would need to be closely monitored and possibly evacuated if the building settled or rotated too much.

“This is likely to be a very time-consuming and expensive procedure that carries great risks,” the 33-page report said.

The council is likely to face significant political pressure from local residents and trail users who say state and local officials have long promised that the trail would remain inside the tunnel if a Purple Line were ever built. Routing runners and cyclists across busy Wisconsin and along local streets would be unsafe, they say, particularly for stroller-pushing families and children who use the trail to get to school.

Ajay Bhatt, president of Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail, said trail supporters have counted 10,000 people using the trail through the tunnel weekly.

“How do our elected officials sell a project because they promised it one way and turn around a couple years later and say, ‘We can’t deliver that, but we’re going to build [a Purple Line] anyway?’ ” Bhatt said. “The idea of them going back on a promise of keeping the tunnel open is going to create a lot of angry people.”