Plan for Purple Line and Capital Crescent Trail blasted at Montgomery County Council hearing

A plan to re-route the Capital Crescent Trail as part of the proposed $2 billion Purple Line project was sharply criticized today at a hearing of the Montgomery County Council’s Transportation and Environment Committee by Town of Chevy Chase Councilmember Pat Burda.

Burda’s testimony:

The Town of Chevy Chase feels strongly that the Capital Crescent Trail must be kept in the tunnel. The Maryland Transit Administration and others have repeatedly assured the town and the rest of the public that the trail and the Purple Line could and would co-exist in the tunnel. In fact, this was a major selling point. That assurance cannot be ignored now, based on engineering issues that were entirely foreseeable—indeed, predicted—when the assurance was made. And keeping the trail in the tunnel is not just a matter of public officials keeping their word. It is also a significant matter of public safety.

We are told that the trail may need to be moved and diverted to a busy and dangerous intersection because keeping the trail in the tunnel either adds costs to the project or reduces headway operations. These problems are not news to anyone who has paid any attention to this proposed project. The town’s consultant, Sam Schwartz Engineering, called into question the viability of keeping the trail in the tunnel as early as 2008; in presentations to the community, Sam himself referred to the trail through the tunnel configuration as a Rube Goldberg design and said often, “they will never build this – you’ll see.” So the state and county have always known that keeping the trail in the tunnel would be an engineering feat of no small measure.

Yet the state and county told us over and over again that it was doable. More than just doable, the state and county presented the configuration of the train and trail in the tunnel as a fact: just look at the pretty picture of the trail through the tunnel distributed just a year ago showing a spacious well-lighted trail over the trains. Or take a look at MTA’s flyer “Fast Facts about the Purple Line and the Capital Crescent Trail” where it states unambiguously: “the Trail will continue through the existing Bethesda Tunnel.” Not, it “might,” but it “will.” These assurances were made to the community as part of the “sell” of the Purple Line project. Building the Purple Line and enhancing the Capital Crescent Trail are linked as part of that promise. And those assurances were made with knowledge that there would be significant engineering problems that are now being cited as reasons for reneging on those assurances. This is not a case of an unanticipated change in circumstances.

We can agree the trail over the trains in the tunnel is far from optimal. So, we were pleased to hear more from MTA about Alternative E, “the gauntlet track option.” Not surprisingly, however, MTA is not supporting this alternative. That’s because it adds to the headways, which impact the ridership numbers, which are already so modest that even a slight reduction calls into question the proposal’s viability.

But frankly we think you have no choice but to thread the trail with the train through the tunnel. This is not just a matter of living up to your prior statements and assurances as elected officials. It is also a matter of public safety.

As I am sure you have heard before, 8,000 residents signed a petition to open the tunnel in response to a boy being hit by a car when crossing Wisconsin Avenue. This happened 12 years ago. Unfortunately, the number of pedestrian, car and bike accidents between Leland Street and Montgomery Avenue has continued to worsen even with the tunnel, and this stretch of Wisconsin Avenue has been deemed a “high incidence area.” That’s the conclusion of the county’s DOT just last July. Why? Because of the 29 pedestrian and biker accidents with cars and 79 car collisions that occurred in a five-year period on this stretch of the road. And, at Willow Avenue, where the proposed surface trail will cross Wisconsin Avenue, three pedestrians were hit and 12 car collisions occurred. We’re quite flabbergasted that the staff report did not include this information, but I have copies available here for you to review.

We in the town were not surprised about these findings as we know firsthand how dangerous this intersection is. In fact, the town brought safety concerns about this intersection alone to the county’s attention in February of 2009 and again in March of 2011. Therefore, while we do not doubt that the county sincerely wants to create a safe at-grade crossing, we strongly question if that is possible here. My written testimony gives specifics but it is a matter of bad pedestrian behavior, parked trucks, and an unaligned connection between Willow Lane and Bethesda Avenue. You can therefore just imagine how unsafe it will be if you channel 10,000 weekly tunnel users – including numbers of middle school children who ride their bikes to Westland – into this already dangerous area.

You clearly have a problem. You said it could all work – that we would have a Purple Line light rail and a safe, first class trail, both running through the Wisconsin Avenue tunnel. You said it even when questioned early on by those skeptical in the community about the feasibility of that proposal.

And while the Town is deeply concerned that the State and County are considering walking away from such recent commitments, our concerns don’t stop there. The county has also expressed surprise about how much of the trail it is going to have to fund and MTA is still talking about finding alternative sources to cover costs of the trail. Today we are talking about the expense and engineering logistics of the tunnel and other safety features such as lighting, call boxes and landscaping. Tomorrow’s topic might be the above-grade crossing of Connecticut Avenue, which we hear one councilmember has started to question. Clearly, the more we know about the Locally Preferred Alternative (LPA), the more we see how problematic it is – and frankly how expensive each segment will be. Wending the Purple Line and the Trail through communities all up and down the alignment was always going to be like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

But you chose to endorse the Governor’s hybrid, more expensive version of the Purple Line – with a tunnel/trail/train option and an above-grade crossing of Connecticut Avenue – for the Locally Preferred Alternative for a reason. Please don’t let it be that the sole reason was political expediency. Giving you all the benefit of the doubt, you need to follow through and make this alternative work based on the assurances you gave to those who questioned its viability.

In closing, I want to reiterate that this has been a long-term commitment to the community that needs a permanent solution. Skimping on safety commitments now because of entirely foreseeable cost concerns will have major negative ramifications, both for public safety and the public’s trust.