A proposal to stack the Capital Crescent Trail above the Purple Line could be in doubt, after a state report identified approximately $51 million in construction costs, plus unknown structural risks to a commercial building.
The county would foot the bill for the dual-purpose tunnel in downtown Bethesda, plus potential damage to the Apex Building at 7272 Wisconsin Ave. Construction would expose beams and columns that support the structure.
Even if the Apex and nearby Air Rights buildings were redeveloped, the stacked tunnel would be “costly and disruptive,” said the report from the Maryland Transit Administration.
“I think it is a very serious change from what all of us had expected when we conceived of the trail going through the tunnel,” said Montgomery County Council President Roger Berliner (D-Dist. 1). “The combination of the engineering challenges and cost considerations are serious matters, and our council would be derelict in its duty if it didn’t take those into account.”
Berliner is chair of the three-person transportation committee. He said the MTA report changes the context of the decision, but he wants to give the community a chance to weigh in before announcing a position.
The Purple Line is intended to ease east-west traffic in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. The $1.9 billion light rail has been under discussion in the state for more than 20 years. Construction is expected to start in 2014 and be completed in 2020. It would connect Bethesda to New Carrollton via Silver Spring.
The MTA projects the Purple Line will attract 60,000 riders daily and result in 20,000 fewer vehicles on the roads.
Alternatives to the stacked tunnel include a surface route for the Capital Crescent Trail planned from Elm Street Park to Willow Lane that would cost $3.5 million, according to the report.
That would force the nearly 11,000 people who use the trail at Elm Street Park every week to cross Wisconsin Avenue in downtown Bethesda, according to a 2006 survey by the Coalition for the Capital Crescent Trail, an organization dedicated to trail advocacy and improvements.
In November, county planning staff recommended an aboveground crossing if a cost differential remained between an aboveground trail and the dual-purpose tunnel.
To improve safety, surface route upgrades could include prohibiting left turns from Bethesda Avenue to northbound Wisconsin Avenue, prohibiting right turns on red in the southbound direction, a raised crosswalk at the intersection of 47th Street and Willow Lane, and converting parking spots on the north side of Bethesda Avenue between Wisconsin and Woodmont avenues to a trail-only lane separated by a buffer from pedestrians and vehicles, planners previously said.
Some doubt whether a safe Wisconsin Avenue crossing can be developed.
Wisconsin Avenue between Montgomery Avenue and Leland Avenue was identified as a high-incidence area, as part of the county’s Pedestrian Safety Initiative. Between January 2003 and December 2007, there were 29 pedestrian and biking collisions, according to a report by the County Department of Transportation.
Councilwoman Nancy Floreen (D-At large), a member of the transportation committee, said the county made a commitment to keeping the trail inside the tunnel, and she stands by that commitment.
“The crossing at Wisconsin Avenue is incredibly dangerous,” she said. “This conversation has been consistent over the years that the trail would be protected at all costs. There is a cost, that’s true, but one that the county will have to face.”
It makes no sense to route thousands of trail users onto Wisconsin Avenue, said Town of Chevy Chase Councilwoman Pat Burda. The Town of Chevy Chase supports maintaining the trail inside the tunnel as the safest option.
“Everybody knows this is a bad stretch of Wisconsin Avenue,” Burda said. “There are places to put bike trails, bike lanes, and all that, but this is not that place.”
The transportation committee will discuss the issue March 1. The County Department of Transportation will weigh in on the safety of a street level Wisconsin Avenue crossing, Berliner said. The committee is expected to vote on an alternative March 1 or March 8.
The issue will come before the full council as part of a vote on the Capital Improvements Program budget, a six-year outline of funding for county projects.