March 1, 2012
Officials Weigh In On Rail-Trail Options For Wisconsin Ave. Tunnel
Chevy Chase Patch

By Erin Donaghue

Maryland National-Capital planning staff is supporting an option to route the Capital Crescent Trail at street level across Wisconsin Avenue when the Purple Line is built, but county transportation officials say another study is needed before they will scrap an option to squeeze both rail and trail into a tunnel beneath the busy thoroughfare.

At a meeting of the Montgomery County Council’s transportation committee Thursday, local officials, leaders and transit groups weighed in on what’s becoming a contentious debate over whether the county should consider a costly measure to route the Capital Crescent trail through the tunnel along with a portion of the planned 16-mile light rail that will connect Bethesda and New Carrollton. Some residents say they have long been promised that the trail would continue to be routed through the tunnel and away from traffic once the controversial light rail line is built.

At the two-hour hearing “ during which no vote was taken “ Maryland Transit Administration engineers detailed the results of an analysis they conducted at the request of the county’s planning board. MTA staff ruled out two options that would construct Bethesda’s Purple Line station east of Wisconsin Avenue, leaving the county with two other options to consider“ routing rail and trail through the tunnel at a $50 million price tag, or routing the trail across Wisconsin Avenue at street level for $3.4 million.

Montgomery County is responsible for the costs of reconstructing the trail along the Purple Line.

Routing rail and trail through the tunnel would be a “high risk” operation, requiring rebuilding and reconfiguring of grade beams that hold up the Apex building, said Michael Madden, chief of project development for the Maryland Transit Administration’s Office of Planning.

The construction would need to be carefully monitored and may require evacuations of the building, Madden said.

Planning staff supported the at-grade option and pushed for lighting along the trail at the hearing. But county transportation department director Art Holmes said more options should be explored.

Before such an option is rejected all together, all options should be exhausted. It should be demonstrated to the general public that this is infeasible or prohibitively costly,” Holmes said, “…we believe we’re not there yet.

County Council President and Transportation Committee Chair Roger Berliner (D-Dist. 1) directed Holmes to detail the type of analysis he felt MTA’s study lacked. Holmes will be expected to present at the committee’s meeting next week.

Also weighing in at the meeting was Town of Chevy Chase councilwoman Pat Burda, who said residents were promised the trail would remain in the tunnel along the light rail even though planners knew it would take some tricky engineering.

“Here they are today telling us the trail must be routed to a busy and dangerous intersection,” Burda said. “I’m sorry, but these problems are not news to anyone who has paid attention to this.”

County Councilwoman Nancy Floreen (D-At Large) said the MTA may have made misrepresentations about the trail running along the Purple Line, which she called a serious misstep.

This has been sold from the beginning of time as a pedestrian and bicycle trail next to the Purple Line, Floreen said. I think we have the ability to make that happen. I really consider this to be a fundamental obligation of the county.

Shane Farthing, of the Washington Area Bicyclists Association, argued the trail should not be removed from the tunnel unless an at-grade crossing could be made safe for cyclists” which may require space from parking or traffic lanes to separate the trail from traffic.

If the trail is removed from the tunnel, motorists can be asked to compromise to a lesser degree, Farthing said.

I do think it’s worth serious exploration of what a gold standard trail would look like at street level, whether there was conversation about its impact on the driving public and what that would look like, Berliner said.

Wayne Phyillaier, of Purple Line Now, asked whether planners could consider a five- or six-foot sidewalk through the tunnel, rather than a full-size trail, another option Berliner agreed would be worth exploring.

We’re dealing in a world of sub-optimal outcomes, Berliner said. Let’s look at these sub-optimal outcomes and see whether or not it’s possible.

The committee is expected to meet again next week, when it will vote on which option it will recommend to the full council.