MTA to Explore Options for Wisconsin Avenue Crossing of Purple Line and Capital Crescent Trail
Running both rail and trail through a tunnel under Wisconsin Avenue could be cost-prohibitive. The MTA is considering other options, including putting the Bethesda Purple Line station east of Wisconsin Avenue, near Chevy Chase's Elm Street Park.
In case the variety of options available for how to route both the Purple Line and the Capital Crescent Trail across (or under, or over) Wisconsin Avenue at the Bethesda-Chevy Chase border wasn’t broad enough already, a couple more options have been added to the mix.
At a Montgomery County Planning Board meeting on Thursday, planning commissioners asked Maryland Transit Administration staff to consider building the Bethesda Purple Line station east of Wisconsin Avenue, rather than west of it or under it, as previous options had suggested.
Right now, the Capital Crescent Trail, which follows an old CSX railroad right-of-way from Bethesda to Silver Spring, crosses Wisconsin Avenue underground, through a tunnel that passes (from west to east) under the Apex Building, Wisconsin Avenue and the Air Rights Building.
When the Purple Line is built alongside the Capital Crescent Trail, it, too, will pass through the tunnel, but squeezing both trail and rail together (the trail in a sort of giant tube above the rail) through the tunnel will be expensive—about $40 million more than the cost of putting just the train through the tunnel and re-routing the trail across busy Wisconsin Avenue at the street level.
The extra cost would come from having to dig the tunnel more deeply to accommodate the train and the trail-tube above it, and to strengthen many of the columns supporting the buildings over the tunnel, Patch reported last week.
While the state will be responsible for covering the costs of constructing the Purple Line, Montgomery County is responsible for paying for the re-construction of the Capital Crescent Trail alongside the Purple Line.
At Thursday’s hearing, the planning board heard testimony from residents about how important it was to the safety of the community to keep the trail in the tunnel.
“[While] we always knew this would be an additional cost [to keep the trail in the tunnel] … skimping now because of cost concerns will have major ramifications [in terms of] safety,” said Town of Chevy Chase Council Member Pat Burda, citing an accident at that intersection 12 years ago that resulted in a child being hit by a car.
“While we believe the county has the best of intentions [to stick to a budget] … we know how dangerous that at-grade crossing really is,” Burda added.
Ajay Bhatt, president of Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail, agreed.
“Safety should be the first concern of our planning officials. … The tunnel is much safer [for crossing Wisconsin Avenue]. … There will always be budget problems, but where do you draw the line?” he asked the planning board.
Chevy Chase resident Jim Roy agreed.
Last week, when members of the planning board (with an entourage of local residents and MTA staff) toured the tunnel and the alternative street-level crossing for the trail over Wisconsin Avenue, Roy had to caution several members of the group to watch out for fast-moving traffic.
Some tour participants even crossed Wisconsin Avenue against the light, Roy noted.
And, a 2010 flier promoting the Purple Line had promised that the trail and the train would be fit into the tunnel, Roy added, holding the flier aloft.
“Promises like this were part of the factors that allowed planners to get to the next stages” of the planning process for the Purple Line, Roy said.
Linda Skalet of the Bethesda Civic Coalition (an organization of homeowners in the central business district of Bethesda), agreed that re-routing the trail to cross Wisconsin Avenue at the street level “will create very significant safety and quality-of-life issues.”
“It might make sense on paper, but not on the ground,” she added.
“It’s a recipe for disaster.”
Re-routing the trail to cross Wisconsin Avenue at the street level would disrupt the continuity of the trail, leading pedestrians and bicyclists along a circuitous route with several right-angle turns—a route that Montgomery County Planning Board Commissioner Marye Wells-Harley likened to a gerbil maze.
“That does not constitute to me a good trail experience,” she said.
Greg Drury, chair of the Coalition for the Capital Crescent Trail’s Light Rail Sub-committee, asked the planning board and the MTA to consider single-tracking the Purple Line through the tunnel as a way to keep rail and trail in the tunnel without running up the $40-million price tag.
But single-tracking the train at the western end of the line would be detrimental to the project, MTA staff said. Single-tracking would lead to delays in service and maintenance, and if only a single platform was available, it would have to be much wider than would be a platform that was one of a pair of platforms lining a double-track station.
With such strong opposition to re-routing the trail to cross Wisconsin Avenue at the street level, and with the cost of putting the Bethesda station under the Apex Building (to the west of Wisconsin Avenue) high, planning board officials urged MTA staff to consider all possible options, including moving the Bethesda station—the busiest station for the Purple Line, predicts MTA Project Manager Michael Madden—from under the west side of Wisconsin Avenue to under the east side.
That could entail acquiring the rights to the Air Rights Building just east of Wisconsin Avenue, and tearing it down and re-developing the site.
“Think about what a wonderful station you could make if you built the station and the building at the same time,” said Françoise Carrier, planning board chair.
To build the Bethesda station outside of the tunnel completely—and at the northern part of Elm Street Park (a block east of Wisconsin Avenue in Chevy Chase) could be possible, but it would impact surrounding properties, as the amount of land necessary to build a station outside of the tunnel is not currently in the state's right-of-way, said MTA consultant Harriet Levine.
Building the station there or under the Air Rights building might “[turn] out to be really difficult and expensive,” but “I’d like to know how much, exactly,” in terms of time and money it would cost, Carrier said.
“[If] we decide not to put [the trail] in the tunnel … it would have to be the only really viable option,” she added.
“We don’t know enough yet to make a decision.”
MTA staff will examine possible options for placing the Bethesda station east of Wisconsin Avenue to keep the trail running through the tunnel with minimum cost and maximum safety.
MTA staff will report back to the planning board later this year or in early 2012.