Constructing the underground section of the Capital Crescent Trail in downtown Bethesda in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act would cost the county about $40 million, county planners said at last week’s planning board meeting.
A less costly option would be to allow the tunnel to have a steeper grade than is permitted under the ADA, but install an elevator to meet requirements. That option would cost about $15 million, said David Anspacher, senior planner, at the Bethesda Purple Line Minor Master Plan Amendment session.
The second option also would require closing a private parking lot on Elm Street, which would have to be done through negotiations between the county and the property owner.
Anspacher said the trail is “intended to be one of the best trails in the country.”
The planning staff recommended the Planning Board put the second, less expensive option into the Bethesda Purple Line Station Minor Master Plan amendment, but in the end the board decided to recommend that the plan include an option for the trail to go through the tunnel, beneath the Apex building at 7272 Wisconsin Ave., that is ADA compliant.
Planners want to tear down the Apex building, which also houses the Bethesda Regal 10 movie theater, to build the “optimal” Bethesda station. Doing so would allow access to both the Purple Line and Metro’s Red Line, according to county documents. The Purple Line is a planned 16-mile $2.2 billion light rail that will link Bethesda and New Carrollton.
Planning Board Member Norman Dreyfuss questioned whether an underground tunnel was a good idea at all, pointing out that a newly constructed tunnel would be much smaller than the existing one.
“This is going to be a smaller, less light tunnel,” Dreyfuss said. “You’re not going to see the other end of it.”
He questioned how many people are going to feel comfortable walking through a narrow, darker 225-foot long tunnel.
“I’m very uncomfortable recommending the county spend 20 million on a tunnel they could build on the street,” he said.
But Casey Anderson, who also sits on the board, said the county had promised an underground tunnel and needed to keep that promise.
The credibility of the county is on the line, Anderson said, who used to serve on the Washington Area Bicyclist Association board.
Since 1994, the plan has been to have the Capital Crescent Trail go through the existing tunnel, said Rose Krasnow, deputy director of the planning department.
But that turned out to be very difficult and costly, she said, running about $40 million.
But the Maryland Transit Administration realized a trail could be underground if the Apex building was demolished.
“There’s a huge contingency of people out there who would like to see an underground trail,” Krasnow said.
Without tearing down the Apex building, the Purple Line’s station platform would have to fit into the existing tunnel, planners have said, and there would be no room for the Capital Crescent Trail. If the tunnel is rebuilt, it can be widened to make it safer and more accommodating for passengers and the trail.
However, the owners of the building, the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists, have expressed grave doubts about relocating their business and razing the building.
The county has until the end of the year to persuade the owners to move and demolish the building, which is when the Maryland Transit Administration has said it wants an answer on the issue.
On Dec. 5, the board will meet again to approve the amendment and then send it to the County Council.