A Montgomery County Council Transportation Committee Thursday recommended routing the Capital Crescent Trail at street level across Wisconsin Avenue when the planned Purple Line is built – rather than in a tunnel beneath the busy thoroughfare above the planned 16-mile light rail line.
“We cannot at this time responsibly maintain the hiker and biker trail through the tunnel,” said committee chair and Council President Roger Berliner (D-Dist. 1.) “It’s just too risky and too costly.”
The debate over whether the county should consider a $50 million measure to route the Capital Crescent trail through the tunnel along with a portion of the planned light rail line that will connect Bethesda and New Carrollton has become a contentious one.
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.
But planners with the Maryland Transit Administration said routing rail and trail through the tunnel would be not only costly, but a requiring rebuilding and reconfiguring of grade beams that hold up the Apex building.
Berliner said he reached the conclusion to recommend routing the trail across Wisconsin “reluctantly, but firmly.” He called for a task force comprised of local stakeholders and transportation officials to study a “gold standard” at-grade crossing.
“We can and will make this crossing safe,” he said.
Routing the trail across Wisconsin is estimated to cost $3.5 million --- significantly less than the $50 million required to keep both rail and trail underground.
Berliner also pushed for further study on a five-foot sidewalk that could be routed through the tunnel along the light rail.
The committee recommended allocating $49.5 million in construction funds for the trail between Bethesda and Silver Spring, which includes a bridge over Connecticut Avenue, a new underpass beneath Jones Mill Road, landscaping, and lighting at “critical” points along the trail like underpasses and junctures, according to a council staff report. Of those costs, the committee is calling for $27.6 million to be included in the county’s capital spending plan for fiscal years 2013 to 2018.
Should the committee’s recommendation be approved as a part of the county’s six-year capital spending plan by the full council in May, it would mark the first time funds have been allocated for the new Capital Crescent Trail in the county’s Capital Improvements Program.
In a May 7 memo to Berliner, however, County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) blasted the proposal to earmark CIP funds for both the trail and the planned south entrance to the Bethesda Metro, which planners have called “inseparable” from the construction of the Bethesda station on the Purple Line.
With funding remaining unsecured for the $1.9 billion Purple Line project, Leggett said setting aside construction costs for both projects in the current spending plan a “premature and troubling” action that could come “at the expense of projects that have been in the county’s planning and design process for years.”
The transportation committee last month recommended pushing off to coincide with Purple Line construction.
“A move in this direction would devastate many critical transportation projects necessary to address very real public safety issues, relieve congestion and provide sorely needed road maintenance throughout the county,” Leggett wrote. “It is a wrong public policy position in the extreme.”
While Leggett said he would fund both the trail and new Metro entrance at the “appropriate time,” he questioned the argument that funding the entrance project now would demonstrate the county’s commitment to the Purple Line.
“Do we want to essentially gut a major portion of our transportation CIP, and set aside a sum of more than $100 million for demonstration purposes?” he wrote.
More study is needed of an option that would single-track trains through the tunnel, according to Councilwoman Nancy Floreen (D-At Large). Single-tracking would allow for a full-sized trail to run underground alongside the light rail without the hefty price tag, but Maryland Transit Administration officials have ruled it would cause delays that would render the option infeasible.
Thursday, however, county transportation engineers said the option shouldn’t be taken off the table just yet.
Should funds for the Capital Crescent Trail and the new south entrance to the Bethesda Metro station be included in the CIP, or should the funds be freed up for other needed transportation projects as plans for the Purple Line gel? Tell us in the comments.