Last week, WABA and other community leaders and trail advocates met with Montgomery County T&E Chairman (and now Council President) Roger Berliner to discuss the future of the Capital Crescent Trail (CCT).
The purpose of this posting is to share: (1) the pending decisions on the CCT’s future; (2) the alternatives under consideration, (3) the deficiencies in those alternatives, or information regarding those alternatives, and (4) WABA’s request to resolve those deficiencies.
1. The Pending Decision
Montgomery County must decide how to proceed with the CCT’s crossing of Wisconsin Ave. in Bethesda. The initial plans called for continuing the trail–along with the Purple Line–through the existing tunnel right-of-way with the trail component stacked atop the rail component. However, revised cost estimates from MTA for this portion of the trail have reached $40M due to the difficult construction techniques needed to safely create the necessary height to accommodate such stacking within the tunnel, prompting the County–which is largely footing the bill for trail improvements–to study alternatives.
2. The Alternatives
The County is seeking additional information from MTA on a number of alternatives. The preferred option already presented by MTA, which was the basis of the $40M figure for the trail crossing, included increasing the available height of the existing tunnel to allow for the stacking of the trail above double-tracked rail operation. The County has requested information on a number of potential changes–each of which merits full consideration and entails numerous complexities. For the sake of simplicity, and because WABA’s interest is in the impact of changes on the trail rather than rail operations per se, I have combined several alternatives under “Physical Changes to the Purple Line.”
- A. Physical Changes to the Purple Line
The County has requested further information from MTA regarding potential changes to the physical configuration of the rail platforms that might allow movement of the rail line such that the CCT could use the existing tunnel without the costly stacking.
- B. Operational Changes to the Purple Line
The County has requested further information from MTA regarding potential changes to the operation of the Purple Line that might allow the rail and trail components to safely operate side-by-side within the existing tunnel.
- C. Stacking Trail over Rail within the Tunnel
The County maintains the option to stick with the longstanding design, with the trail stacked above the rail within the tunnel, heightened to allow for both. However, selecting this option at current cost estimates would require rejection of the recommendation of the County Planning Board.
- D. Enhanced On-Street Trail Crossing
The plans for the trail crossing have long included an on-street crossing of Wisconsin Ave. as part of the project to provide connectivity to shops and businesses and an at-grade alternative to the tunnel. This alternative would enhance in some manner that on-street crossing while foregoing any grade-separated crossing.
3. The Deficiencies in the Alternatives Under Consideration, or Information About those Alternatives
As a preliminary to the discussion of the alternatives, it is important to note that separate entities are largely responsible for the highly interrelated rail and trail component of these projects. MTA is largely responsible for the design and funding of the Purple Line, while Montgomery County is largely responsible for the design and funding of the Capital Crescent Trail improvements. Thus, information on changes to the rail come from MTA, while independent assessments of trail options that depend less on changes to the Purple Line could be generated by the County.
Information on options A and B, which require changes to rail design or operations, has been requested from MTA, and extensive study is expected on the potential impact of any change on future rail usage. WABA hopes that MTA’s further study will reveal viable alternatives for the Purple Line that will allow changes to lower the cost of improving the CCT through the existing tunnel.
But we are concerned that if MTA concludes that no such changes are viable, the County is considering no option to retain grade-separation, and seemingly conducting no study–similar to that requested of MTA on the rail component–addressing the impacts of this major physical change in the trail design on future trail usage or safety. County leaders and trail users deserve to know the feasibility and cost of the next-best grade-separated CCT crossing of Wisconsin Ave., as well as the impact of grade separation on the trail’s future usage and success. To treat the existing tunnel as the only possibility for a grade-separated crossing is to unnecessarily constrain the project’s possibility, and to fail even to study the impact of grade-separation at a high-traffic trail crossing is to ignore the importance of this feature on safety and trail usage, as shown in nationwide best-practices and research. Decision-makers, trail users, and residents deserve to know what they will lose if they choose to forego grade separation, and should attempt to include an alternative grade-separated crossing that does not require the use of the existing tunnel among the options for consideration.
In addition to our concerns that an important option is missing from consideration, we are concerned that the on-street option (D) is insufficiently defined to provide a proper basis for decision-making. While decision-makers and trail users are told that this option includes an “enhanced” on-street option and not simply a removal of the grade-separation portion of the existing plans, no further clarity or commitment is provided on the nature or extent of the enhancements. As a result, various decision-makers and groups may have differing visions of this alternative and its strength in providing a safe and efficient crossing suitable crossing for a trail of this stature and usage. All parties deserve a clear definition of the alternatives at-hand. And with a potential cost savings in the range of $40M contained in this alternative, we hope and expect that the enhancements will be substantial and sufficiently important in their contribution to the usability of the trail that they merit full consideration by County officials.
4. WABA’s Proposed Approach
WABA has sent the following letter to Chairman Berliner asking that the County seek the additional information necessary to make a fully informed decision on the future of the trail. While we hope that MTA will find a method of accommodating the trail within the existing tunnel, this would require a change to their preferred method of proceeding. And as advocates for the best possible trail and crossing, WABA asks that the county take steps to evaluate the importance of a grade-separated crossing, account for the importance of grade-separation to trail usage and safety by including an alternative grade-separated option, and clearly define the proposed enhancements that would be included in the on-street option that would make it more than a fallback cost-savings at the expense of trail users and to the detriment of the project.