Deja vu all over again.

August 30th, 2014

In case you don’t think one fence fight is enough, here comes another one!


New fence going up in the Georgetown Branch r.o.w.

This fence is going up behind 4303 Elm Street, Chevy Chase. The old house on that property has been demolished, a new house is under construction, and this new fence is part of the project. A search of the Department of Permitting Services (DPS) shows that a fence permit has been issued for this property, Permit #685589 issued 08/26/2014.

The publicly owned Georgetown Branch right-of-way is 66′ wide here. The new fence is clearly being built well inside the publicly owned r.o.w.

There are two possibilities:

  1. The builder has screwed up, and is building the fence where it has not been permitted, or
  2. The Department of Permitting Services has screwed up, and issued a permit that should never have been given.

DPS issued Ajay Bhatt a permit just last year to build a fence well within this publicly owned r.o.w. If they’ve done it again, then we need changes at DPS.

“Save the Trail” fence fight continues.

August 27th, 2014

Ajay Bhatt’s appeal set for Thursday, Aug. 28.

The fence fight that I reported in a March 2014 post and also covered by Bethesda Now, The Washington Post, and WJLA goes on.


Back yard fence going up on 5/13/2013
as seen from the Georgetown Branch Trail

On January 21, 2014 Mr. Ajay Bhatt, president of “Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail” (a.k.a. Save the Trail} was found guilty by the Maryland District Court of building his back yard fence beyond his property line and on the county owned Georgetown Branch right-of-way. He was fined $500 and ordered to remove the fence.

Mr. Bhatt chose to appeal his conviction to the Circuit Court. An appeal trial date was set for April 23, 2014. Two days before trial Mr. Bhatt requested a delay. The delay was granted to June 24, 2014. One day before that scheduled trial Mr. Bhatt asked for yet another delay. The delay was granted to August 28, 2014.

Mr. Bhatt has the right to use every legal means at his disposal to resist removing his fence, even though Mr. Bhatt has acknowledged his fence is within the publicly owned right-of-way, But regardless of whether Mr. Bhatt succeeds in finding a legal technicality that saves his fence, his fight exposes an inconsistent position about “Save the Trail”. While Mr. Bhatt argues in public that the right-of-way is a precious public resource that should be recognized as a de-facto park for the benefit of all, he argues in court that he should be able to keep some of the same right-of-way behind his fence for his exclusive private use.

We don’t need to wait for the court finding to know whether Mr. Bhatt respects the Georgetown Branch as a park. This is no way to treat a park.

But then again, maybe the fence is there to create an endangered amphipod preserve – from the Washington Post: Trail Advocates sue over Purple Line Route, say endangered species needs protection.

MCDOT calls time out.

August 15th, 2014

There has been much political activity over the last several days in response to MCDOT’s surprise order to MTA to change the design of the CCT at Jones Mill Road.

1 – This afternoon Bruce Johnston of MCDOT sent an email to Shane Farthing, Executive Director of WABA, with this news:

As directed by Director Holmes, MCDOT staff has contacted MTA to suspend the previous orders to MTA to make changes to the Capital Crescent Trail configuration at Jones Mill Road.
Subsequent to the aforementioned order, additional engineering information has been provided to our staff, which is currently being reviewed by MCDOT engineers.
After our evaluation is complete, and before any further decision is made, the results of our evaluation will be vetted with the Capital Crescent Trail stakeholders, including the bicycling community.
Be assured that Washington Area Bicyclist Association will be involved.

2 – Councilmember Berliner has scheduled a session of the T&E Committee to review this matter and others related to the Purple Line and the Trail. His office promises to be in touch with the concerned members of the community who have reached out about Councilmember Berliner’s response on this issue.

3 – Planning Board Chairman Casey Anderson has reached out to the County Executive’s office, and received assurances from Tom Street that the change will not go forward without public participation.

4 – Councilmembers Leventhal and Riemer have made calls to the County Exec’s office and others to challenge the MCDOT “August surprise”.

5 – WABA issued a call to its members to email the County Exec. and Council to protest the way MCDOT was acting with no public notice, and to emphasize the importance of the CCT and of this grade-separated crossing. CCCT was preparing a similar message. These are now suspended.

6 – I met with M-NCPPC planners Dave Anspacher and Tom Autrey this a.m. to discuss the technical issues of MCDOT’s proposed design change. Their preliminary assessment of the detailed profiles and section drawings in the area, and information about traffic safety at the crossing, appeared to me to indicate that M-NCPPC would not support MCDOT’s proposed design change.

My prior post is moot – for now. MCDOT may yet come forward with design change proposals. We will hold them to their word that they will include trail stakeholders in the discussion.

MCDOT orders a major CCT design change,
but where is the public outreach?

August 14th, 2014

The Purple Line/CCT design has been publicly discussed for many years at more open houses, neighborhood work group meetings, M-NCPPC master plan and mandatory referral public hearings, and MoCo Council budget public hearings than I can remember. Public participation has been a major feature of the Purple Line/CCT planning process. For years it has been planned and agreed that the future CCT would have an underpass crossing at Jones Mill Road when it is rebuilt to be alongside the Purple Line. The Request for Proposals (RFP) has been released with this grade-separated crossing included as a requirement. But now Montgomery County DOT (MCDOT) is ordering MTA to change the trail design to eliminate this long promised grade-separated crossing – without any public participation.

Jones Mill Road crossing
Cyclists wait for the signal at Jones Mill Road.
MCDOT is now opposing the long planned trail underpass.

This issue is important for two reasons:

  1. This is a major regional trail crossing of a busy road and there are major tradeoffs that need to be fairly considered.
  2. The manner in which MCDOT is pushing this major change in plans calls into question whether the culture at MCDOT takes any public input seriously.

This post will explore both of these issues in turn. The discussion of the design tradeoffs is lengthy, skip to near the bottom of this post if you are more interested in the shorter but important discussion of MCDOT’s apparent lack of interest in public input.

1: The Trail Design Tradeoffs

(August 15 update: M-NCPPC planning staff have pointed me to the online engineering drawings for the Mandatory Referral for more exact information about the design. The tradeoff assessment below will be revised in a follow-on post soon – to show that the visual impact from the trail of the retaining walls for the cut is even less than I described below, and to show that the difference in the trail elevation between the Rock Creek bridge and the Jones Mill crossing for the two concepts is less than I described below. I do not change the overall assessment that MCDOT’s new plan is worse, however.)

Montgomery County DOT (MCDOT) representatives briefed the Purple Line Implementation Advisory Board (PLIAG) on their new plans for the Jones Mill Road crossing at the August 12 PLIAG meeting. The briefing was given on short notice at the request of PLIAG and no design drawings were shown. PLIAG had only learned a few days before the meeting that MCDOT was acting to significantly change the trail design. This analysis of the tradeoffs is based largely on the oral MCDOT presentation, and may therefore need to change as MCDOT brings forward more detailed information.

MCDOT claims three benefits of the MCDOT proposed at-grade crossing: keeping the trail safer from crime; cost; and having easier local trail access. There are two major drawbacks to the at-grade crossing: the risk and inconvenience of crossing a busy road, and having a hard climb up from the Rock Creek trail bridge.

Benefit – Keeping the Trail User Safe from Crime:

MCDOT representatives strongly asserted at the PLIAG meeting that the original plan for an underpass crossing would force the trail to be in a long, deep cut in the vicinity of Jones Mill Road, and this would severely raise both the perceived and real risk to trail users to crime. They argued that having the trail at the grade level through the area, as it is today, would keep “eyes on the trail” from adjacent homes to deter criminal activity. They also argued trail users would not like the aesthetics of feeling like they are in a deep trench vs. being up on the level with the neighborhood.

While this is a good point, MCDOT representatives greatly overstated the effective length and depth of the cut that would be needed. They insisted the cut must be at least 1500′ long and 20-25′ deep to get the trail and transit beneath Jones Mill Road in this area where (they claimed) the terrain is level. But MTA drawings clearly show the cut would be less than 900′ long for the transit. The trail, which could be 8+ feet higher than transit, would need to be in the cut even less than 900′.


MTA map from May 2012
(click on image for full map as large .pdf)

MTA presented a map with detail cross sections at a May 2012 meeting with the Coquelin Run Civic Association that clearly show MCDOT’s claim of a 1500′ long cut to be wrong, see MTA map (as a pdf). The pdf shows two cross sections below the aerial map, Section B-B at station 398+00, and Section D-D at station 407+00, that bracket the cut and are 900′ apart. Section D-D is only 100′+ east of Jones Mill, yet the cross section drawing shows the trail is not in a cut there. That is because the local terrain drops in elevation quickly immediately east of Jones Mill as the terrain begins to fall into the Rock Creek stream valley. At Section B-B only 900′ to the west the cross section drawing shows both the trail and transit have already climbed out of the cut. The trail can be 8+’ higher than the transit in the cut, so the trail can have climbed out of the cut hundreds of feet before the transit can. So why is MCDOT asserting the trail must be in a cut for at least 1500′ here??

The MTA map also gives us some perspective on how deep the trail must be in the cut, see Section C-C at station 404+00 in large scale at MTA map, and shown in small scale below.

Section C-C 100′+ west of Jones Mill Road

The MTA cross section above, just over 100′ west of Jones Mill Road, shows that because the trail can be 8+’ higher than the Purple Line it needs to be only a little more than 10′ below the top of the adjacent retaining wall near its deepest section. The average depth of the trail over the length of the cut will be much less. This is far from having the trail at the bottom of a 20-25′ cut as MCDOT described in their brief.

MCDOT went on at the PLIAG briefing to directly compare the safety of the trail in an underpass at Jones Mill Road with the safety of the pedestrian path under the Beltway at Georgia Avenue.


View Larger Map
The looking south on Georgia Avenue, the pedestrian path is on the right.
MCDOT says a Jones Mill Road underpass would be like this. Really?

I think it is telling of MCDOT’s lack of objectivity that they would choose this example as their only comparison for their briefing. They could have chosen to use, say, the underpass on the trail at East-West Highway, or either the Air Rights or Dalecarlia Tunnel, or any of the many secluded sections along the trail now where there are no “eyes” on the trail from neighbors. But instead MCDOT chose for direct comparision a beltway underpass that must go under eight main traffic lanes plus two exit ramp lanes plus two shoulders (the equivalent of 12 lanes) with very poor sight lines at either end. They directly compare this with the proposed Jones Mill underpass of two traffic lanes and two sidewalks (equivalent to three lanes) with excellent sight lines at either end.

Benefit – Reduction in Cost:

MCDOT asserted that the cost to the county for the CCT part of the Purple Line project could be reduced by “several” million $$ if the trail is not in the long cut. They mentioned the high cost of the three retaining walls that the cut requires, but did not give any specific estimates of the retaining wall costs.

I suspect that a several million $$ cost savings is largely overstated. Yes, there will be some savings by only needing to haul away enough dirt for a cut that is wide enough for the two transit tracks, but the Section C-C above shows that even in this deepest section the difference in how much dirt must be hauled is fairly small, in part because the trail will be higher than transit. There will be little difference in how much concrete must go into retaining walls, since removing the trail simply means the two shorter retaining walls on the trail side must be replaced by one wall of equal total height. The total length of the Jones Mill Road bridge span(s) will be reduced, and the need for a local trail access ramp will go away. But do these add up to several million $$ in savings? MCDOT needs to break these costs savings down for us.

Benefit – Easier Local Trail Access:

MCDOT pointed out that keeping the trail at-grade at Jones Mill would allow much better access to the trail from the local neighborhoods and from the road. There would be no need for a long local access ramp that would have a steep grade, and that would require some people to cross the road to reach. Direct access could be to the trail from the sidewalks on both sides of Jones Mill Road, much as now exists.

This is, in my view, the one benefit that MCDOT described fairly without overstating in their PLIAG briefing. But the importance of easy access for local users should be kept in perspective with the much larger number of trail users who want a safe and easy through passage.

Drawback – Risk and Inconvenience at a Crosswalk:

The major drawback of having a regional trail cross a busy road at-grade, near an intersection with traffic coming around a blind curve, was hardly mentioned by MCDOT in their presentation to PLIAG.


View Larger Map
Looking south from the Jones Bridge Road corner.

Trail traffic across Jones Mill Road will increase greatly over the traffic seen now after the trail is completed into Silver Spring. All through users of the trail would need to stop, press the call button for the pedestrian signal, and wait for the signal. I cross Jones Mill Road at the existing trail crossing frequently, and I see frequent J-walking from trail users here – much more frequent than at the existing Connecticut Avenue crossing. I believe this is because the Jones Mill Road J-walk crossing danger is mostly hidden whereas the danger is obvious at Connecticut Avenue. Jones Mill Road is only a two lane road, the crosswalk looks short, and the traffic coming from Jones Bridge Road is hidden around the blind corner. Trail users are tempted to take the chance of J-walking, and do. Eastbound traffic from Jones Bridge Road can come around the corner and be on top of anyone in the crosswalk before they have time to react.

One can argue that a J-walker has chosen to behave badly, and we should not make trail design decisions for bad behavior. But I don’t think that is a responsible position. If we do choose to have an at-grade trail crossing, then we must recognize that there will be a significant safety issue here unless we address the J-walking issue. Quite frankly, I don’t know a practical design solution to this problem. I doubt that MCDOT does either. Absent a credible solution, safety will continue to be a very serious drawback to an at-grade crossing.

Drawback – Having a Hard Climb from the Rock Creek Trail Bridge:

As a no-longer-young trail user, I find this drawback to be potentially the most serious. Yet because it is hard to visualize it can be overlooked easily. MCDOT made no mention of it in their PLIAG briefing.

To understand this problem, you need to understand that the future CCT will be much lower at the new trail bridge over Rock Creek than it is now on the restored railroad trestle.

Purple Line and CCT bridges over Rock Creek
Proposed Purple Line and CCT bridges over Rock Creek
(source: MTA at www.purplelinemd.com)

The existing railway berm across the Rock Creek strean valley was built to carry only one track. It will have approx. 15′ removed from the top so that it will have a wider base that is wide enough to carry two transit tracks. The trail will be lowered even further, to be lower than the tracks and on the north side of the berm. The Purple Line RFP requires that the new trail bridge over Rock Creek be low enough so that trail users can get a clear view under the adjacent transit bridge, to be able to see some of the Rock Creek viewshed to the south. That means the trail bridge will be at least 15′ below the new transit bridge and at least 30′ lower than the trail that is there today.

The Rock Creek bridges will be approx. 800′ east of Jones Mill Road. Do the math for an at-grade crossing at Jones Mill – the trail will have less than 800′ to climb over 30′ from the Rock Creek bridge to the east side of Jones Mill Road. That would be a grade of about 4%. That is about the same grade as the ramps for the trail bridge over River Road, but would be for a longer distance. That will be a stiff climb for everyone passing through. Compare that with what the climb would be to a grade-separated underpass crossing at Jones Mill – a vertical climb to the underpass level will be only about half as much as to the at-grade crossing, or a grade of only about 2%. I would vastly prefer a mild 2% grade, even if it carries for a longer distance to get to-grade west of Jones Mill.

Benefit and Drawback Summary:

When I weigh the benefits and drawbacks that I can see for an at-grade crossing at Jones Mill Road, I find the drawbacks outweigh the benefits from my perspective. MCDOT has greatly exagerated the chief benefit that they claim from not having the trial in a cut, by grossly exagerating how long and deep the trail would be in a cut.

Other trail users and neighboring residents can very reasonably disagree based upon their own perspective. But I think we all can agree that we need to have a full discussion of these tradeoffs, and not just trust to MCDOT to make this decision without meaningful respect for our preferences.

2: The manner in which MCDOT is pushing this major change calls into question whether the culture at MCDOT takes public input seriously.

Any public discussion of the pros and cons of an at-grade trail crossing will be moot if MCDOT is only making a show of listening, and is allowed to press ahead regardless of public input. There are disturbing signs that MCDOT has little regard for public participation in this decision.

MCDOT has already given direction to MTA to begin redesigning the CCT for an at-grade crossing at Jones Mill Road. MCDOT gave its briefing to PLIAG only upon request from PLIAG coordinator Tom Street, after hearing concerns about the issue from me as the CCCT PLIAG reprentative and from the office of Councilmember Leventhal. There is no indication that MCDOT had any intention to present any of this information in any public forum before executing the change.

The presentation MCDOT gave to PLIAG was so one-sided that it appears that MCDOT management is already fully committed to the at-grade crossing. The benefits-drawbacks discussion above outlines how MCDOT grossly exagerated the unattractive attributes of a Jones Mill Road underpass. MCDOT hardly mentioned the significant benefits. It was hard to listen to the briefing without thinking “the fix is in”.

MCDOT is now promising to hold a public meeting to take input after being challenged about this process failure. But MCDOT has not made any promise to change course, or to ask MTA to put its directive for an at-grade crossing on hold pending public input. I doubt that they will do so, and until they do we can ask if any public meeting is just window dressing designed by MCDOT to repair its public relations image.

There are several things that can be done to repair the damage that this MCDOT behavior is doing to the integrity of the Purple Line/CCT public outreach process:

  1. MCDOT should agree to put this very signicant change on hold until there is real public participation.
  2. Planning staff at M-NCPPC should be brought into to process, they have trail design experience to offer.
  3. A mandatory referral with a public hearing should be held by the Planning Board for such a significant design change.
  4. The county council should be made aware of this proposed change and get involved as appropriate.
  5. Most importantly all stakeholders including trail user groups, the adjacent neighbors, and PLIAG representatives should have a meaningful public input process where we can share the impacts of this design change from our own perspective. MCDOT should listen, and not just talk at us.

A sure sign that MCDOT is serious about public participation will be if they will put their design change on hold until after the public can give meaningful input. If they fail to do so, then the public participation for the CCT design during the Purple Line design process has been little more than “window dressing”. We may know soon.

Notes from July 2 PLIAG

July 4th, 2014

Design issues for the future Capital Crescent Trail between Bethesda and Silver Spring were the topic of discussion for the July 2 Purple Line Implementation Advisory Group (PLIAG). The discussion closely followed the issues listed in the white paper prepared for the meeting by Kate Detwiler and discussed briefly here in my previous post. This is a rough summary of that PLIAG meeting from my perspective.

About 40 representatives were present, mostly for various neighborhood and civic groups. There were several representatives from the County Executive’s Office (with Tom Street moderating the discussion), two staff planners from M-NCPPC, John Thomas to speak for MCDOT, and Councilmember George Leventhal. There was an outreach coordinator present to represent MTA, with no other MTA Purple Line project members present.

Kate Detwiler, reprsentative to PLIAG from the Edgevale neighborhood, lead the discussion of the issues from the white paper. The discussion was civil although spirited at times. Generally speaking, no hard conclusions or design recommendations were achieved on the various issues, with PLIAG members often “agreeing to disagree”. I took away these impressions on the several most difficult issues:

Sound walls - This was one of most strongly discussed issues. Several neighborhood representatives insisted strongly that sound walls should generally be between the rail and trail, while I was joined by a few others present to argue that too many walls and fences too close to both sides of the trail would create a “cattle chute” effect. While there were few minds changed, there did appear to be a rough agreement on two points. One is that there is no “typical one size fits all” trail profile for privacy fences and sound walls since the relationship between trail, rail, and neighborhood elevations changes every few hundred feet depending upon how the topography changes. The other is that the need for sound walls to silence transit noise should be balanced against the desire to have an “open” trail experience, and the best balance point may differ as the neighborhoods and topography vary.

An “exercise” in designing for a balance between noise reduction and an “open” trail:
(The following is solely my own interpretation of where balancing can lead in trail design, for only one of the many situations we will find along the corridor. This is not from the PLIAG meeting.)


A typical section, from MCDOT

The topography in the profile above is similar to that we find along a section of trail along the Town of Chevy Chase, between the Bethesda Tunnel and the E-W Highway underpass. The terrain is higher on the north (left) side than on the south. The profile above shows the retaining wall placed on the north side of the trail, and the trail is lowered below the current grade to be at the same elevation as the transit. Some PLIAG members might request we modify the profile shown above to have a tall, solid sound wall between the trail and transit to reduce transit vehicle noise. The trail would then be between two solid walls, which is in my view a change in the wrong direction. But there may be a better way – keep the trail at the same elevation as the existing terrain on the north (left) side! Put the retaining wall between the trail and transit instead of on the north side of the trail, so that the transit is 4-5 feet lower than the trail. The retaining wall will then act as the sound wall. Place a minimal (say 40 inch high) fence on top of the retaining wall for trail safety. Have no, or very minimal, fencing on the north (left) side of the trail so the trail is open to the properties on the north side. Noise is addressed, yet the trail avoids being close against a solid wall. The result can look similar to the profile shown below.


Profile from MTA. Note the retaining wall between transit and trail acts as a sound wall, and trail users only see a low fence on the transit side. In my view, the solid wall on the neighborhood side is not needed.

Closing tunnels at night - Also a topic with a spirited debate, with several neighborhood representatives feeling strongly that trail tunnels should be closed at night from 10 pm to 6 am when transit is not running. The vandalism and loitering of teenagers in the Air Rights Tunnel at Bethesda was cited as proof that tunnels need to be kept closed after dark. I feel that the stakes of this issue were raised significantly when it was asserted by a few that underpasses were like tunnels and should also be closed at night. There will be underpasses of E-W Highway, Jones Bridge Road, 16th Street and Spring Street along the CCT. Closing these at night would amount to an almost total shut down of the CCT.
M-NCPPC staff pointed out that Parks policy now allows the CCT to remain open for commuter use 24 hours a day from Bethesda to Georgetown. I argued that the Dalecarlia Tunnel has been open all night every night for the approx. 20 years the CCT has been open, with no reports of significant problems. I suggested we should not take the Air Rights Tunnel experience, with the problems that come with its strong “urban” location, as proof that all trail tunnels and underpasses everywhere must be locked at night.
Little agreement was reached on this issue. Some neighborhoods will likely continue to ask for the tunnels and underpasses to be closed at night. I’m guessing MTA and MCDOT will likely resist this, and instead focus on trying to make them safe with lighting and design. I hope trail users will push for a 24 hour trail. This debate will likely continue.


The Dalecarlia Tunnel has been open 24/7 for many years.

Trail lighting - Surprisingly this topic generated little debate. Early in the discussion the M-NCPPC representatives assured the PLIAG that the modern lighting standards and methods could keep the light focused down onto the trail with no “spill over” into neighborhoods. Someone pointed to the lights on the Metropolitan Branch Trail as a good example. I sensed that most neighborhoods would be open to lighting the trail if the Purple Line designers use these good practices. Several commented that lighting, if done, should be done as part of the first construction and not be left to be revisited later.

Minimizing ‘taking’ of land in Lyttonsville - I opened the topic discussion by objecting that the white paper language could appear to support a further narrowing of the trail at Talbot Avenue in order to spare taking a few feet from the yards of several homes. My concern is that the trail is already a “choke point” along Talbot Avenue at only 10′ wide between curb and retaining wall, and any further narrowing would severely harm it. But the Rosemary Hills neighborhood representative quickly informed us that MTA and MCDOT had a “walk through” of the area with Rosemary Hills and Lyttonsville neighbors a few weeks ago, and as a result the property owners along Talbot Avenue have expressed they are content with the MTA Purple Line plans that they had been shown. With Rosemary Hills/Lyttonsville apparently satisfied, this issue was put to rest for now. (I note here that there still remains the substandard trail width, which perhaps can be addressed in part by design to use relatively quiet Talbot Avenue traffic lanes to carry the “purposeful adult” cycling traffic.)


Talbot Avenue in Lyttonsville.
The CCT will be a 10′ wide sidepath on the north (right) side

MCDOT presentation, Good News about CSX

MCDOT engineer John Thomas gave a brief Powerpoint presentation on the CCT design. Gary Erenrich usually represents MCDOT as their CCT project coordinator, but he was on leave. John Thomas’ powerpoint presentation to PLIAG is available Here.

John Thomas gave PLIAG the good news during his presentation that MCDOT and CSX have been working together toward achieving a mutually agreeable CCT alignment along the baseline master plan route on CSX property behind Park Sutton. MCDOT and CSX representatives had recently walked the area, and MCDOT is now expecting to conclude an agreement with CSX this fall. MCDOT does not believe they need to explore the alternative alignments any further, they now expect to be able to complete the trail as planned including the grade-separated crossing under the 16th Street Bridge.


The master plan trail alignment at Park Sutton (in green)
and an alternate “Plan B” alignment (in red).

Summary: Why is this so hard when we have experience with 161 trails-with-rails in 41 states??

Overall the PLIAG meeting seemed to move foward, to a place of slightly more agreement among the very diverse entities represented. But why must it be so tedious to get there?? It is as if building a trail alongside transit is a threatening alien concept from Mars. An example of this fearful resistance – late in the meeting there were questions from Town of Chevy Chase representatives about requests made to MTA at earlier meetings for fencing between trail and rail high enough to prevent suicide attempts. Since MTA senior project managers were not present, it appears the request will carry forward to future PLIAG meetings.

I find raising “suicide by transit” as a trail issue to be bizarre. Rail transit has been operating widely worldwide since long before the automobile. Yes, suicide by transit does occur. But so does suicide by stepping off curbs into the path of buses and trucks. We do not demand high safety and suicide fences be built along the curbs of our sidewalks along all of our busy highways. The risks of walking down the sidewalk along E-W Highway in front of the B-CC High School and being struck by a vehicle appear to me to be much higher than that of ever being struck by a Purple Line vehicle while walking down the future trail.

We have experience with 161 trails alongside active rails in the U.S. , with information detailed in a New RWT Report. The report summarizes that the many numbers of rails-with-trails are “safe, common, and growing”. I see no suicide fences in the dozens of photographs of the many trails alongside active rails in the report. It is not unusual for there to be no more that a few strands of wire between trail and rail.

So why the call for “suicide fencing”?

Neighborhoods list CCT design issues.

June 30th, 2014

PLIAG to take up CCT design at July 2 workshop.

The Purple Line Implementation Advisory Group (PLIAG) is an advisory group appointed by Mont. Co. Executive Ike Leggett to represent neighborhood interests during the implementation of the Purple Line design and construction. No groups that focus primarily on trail user interests, like CCCT, WABA and MoBike, are appointed to PLIAG.

PLIAG will take up what the neighborhoods consider “issues” with the proposed Capital Crescent Trail (CCT) design at its next regular meeting. at 7 pm Wednesday July 2, at the Silver Spring Civic Center. Meetings are open to the public. Trail advocates need to attend to balance the neighborhood’s perspective, so CCT design recommendations are not skewed to address only the concerns of the local neighborhoods.

PLIAG member Kate Detwiler, representing the Edgevale Neighborhood of Chevy Chase, has submitted a “white paper” to PLIAG to use to guide the discussion of CCT design issues at the upcoming meeting. The white paper is online as text in a pdf file here and as a Powerpoint file here. The white paper raises many important issues that trail users will agree with – such as maintaining or replacing as many trees as possible and giving the contractor strong incentives to keep any trail closures as brief as possible during construction. Trail users and neighborhoods can work together constructively to address many of the CCT design issues raised in the white paper.

There are a few design recommendations in the white paper that many trail users will take exception to, however, because the perception as a trail user is sometimes different than that from the neighborhoods. Those differences that are notable to me after a quick read of the white paper include:

  • The major design goals like trail width and completeness are not highlighted.
  • Extensive, tall sound walls are called for between the trail and tracks – which can create a “cattle chute” effect.
  • Trail tunnel closures are called for at night.
  • Trail lighting may not meet trail needs.
  • Avoidance of taking private land is given priority over maintaining safe trail width in Lyttonsville.

Major design goals.

The CCT major design goals include providing a 12′ usable trail width over its length, extending the trail into downtown Silver Spring along the CSX corridor, providing grade separated crossings by trail bridges or overpasses at major roadways (including at Connecticut Ave., Jones Bridge Road, 16th Street and Colesville Road), and paving the trail. Perhaps these design features – which together will create a truly regional trail to serve a much larger population – are simply taken as a “given” by the white paper, but they should be stated to put the remaining lesser design issues into perspective.

Providing a tunnel crossing of Wisconsin Avenue and connection to the Bethesda Purple Line station is certainly a major design goal. While it is becoming increasingly unlikely that an agreement can be reached with the owners of the APEX building quickly enough to meet the Purple Line schedule to facilitate a new CCT tunnel in Bethesda, this goal should be kept on the table as long as there is any hope.

Sound walls – who needs them?

One of the major trail design requests of the PLIAG “white paper” is a request for tall sound walls between the trail and light rail tracks, to reduce noise on the trail from passing transit vehicles. These walls would be close to the trail, would block trail users from seeing anything on that side, and would to create a walled in “cattle chute” experience for trail users.

Are intrusive and confining sound walls needed to protect the trail user from transit noise? NO, we do not need extensive sound walls.

I’ve posted on this blog about the Hiawatha Trail in Minneapolis, at Hiawatha Trail.

A typical Hiawatha Trail section.
A simple fence is all that separates the trail from rail.

Rails-to-Trails shows more about the compatibility of light rail with trail on the Hiawatha at Hiawatha Trail and Minneapolis Light Rail. My experience riding on the Hiawatha Trail causes me to agree with the Rails-to-Trails conclusion that trail users feel comfortable near light rail vehicles. Typical sections along the Purple Line will give trail users better separation from transit than is typical of the Minneapolis Hiawatha light rail shown above, without additional sound barriers. The Hiawatha is only one of many trails alongside rails nationwide, and these trails succeed very well with no sound barriers.

Trail users need not oppose sound walls if the neighborhoods feel they need them to mitigate the neighborhoods from transit vehicle noise. But any sound walls near the trail should be kept low – no more than the 4′ height recommended by MTA as effective – so the walls do not create an excessively confining feeling for trail users. And the cost of sound walls should be charged to those interest groups who want them. The cost of sound walls should not be charged as a trail funding requirement when the trail does not need them.

Trail tunnels should not close.

The white paper recommends that trail tunnels be closed and locked at night for safety, just as the Bethesda Tunnel is now. Future trail tunnels include a tunnel where the main trail passes under the Purple Line tracks immediately east of the Rock Creek bridges, a tunnel for an access path from Edgevale, possibly a new trail tunnel under Wisconsin Avenue, and possibly a tunnel for an access path from Lynn Drive in the Town of Chevy Chase.

The tunnel for the main trail at Rock Creek has no reasonable alternative, closing will effectively close the main trail near its mid-point between Bethesda and Silver Spring. Further, closing any of these tunnels in the evening and early morning while the Purple Line is operating will create a major obstacle for transit users. Trail tunnels, especially those with no reasonable alternative route, should not be closed. Crime and safety issues should be addressed with proper lighting, sight line design, and surveillance cameras.

Lighting must be adequate for safe trail use.

The PLIAG white paper suggests there may be some areas where there should be no trail lights – to not have stray light intrude on neighborhoods or, oddly, to not call attention to access path locations. But modern lighting technology can provide lighting that is directed down onto the trail without spilling up and out into adjacent properties. Potential trail conflict points such as access path entries need lighting even more than other sections of trail. Trail lighting will be important for safe access to and from all of the five Purple Line stations along the trail during transit operation.

More trail width is needed at Lyttonsville for safety.

The white paper recommends that the trail design should avoid taking any additional strips of private property along Talbot Avenue in Lyttonsville. But the very constrained design space along Talbot Avenue has already caused a CCT design proposal that is barely adequate, even while “taking” a few feet from the yards of the several houses along Talbot Ave. between Michigan Ave. and Lanier Drive. The design proposal calls for the CCT to be only 10′ wide with no “shy space” between a curb and a retaining wall, along Talbot Avenue. This gives only a 6′ usable width for trail users, far from the design of 12′ usable width that is the ASHTO standard and that will be followed elsewhere on the rebuilt CCT. At this minimal width, it will be necessary to use strong street design and traffic calming measures on Talbot Avenue to encourage all cyclists, except children, to leave the off-road trail and use this two block long section of Talbot Avenue to minimize the dangerous conflicts on the substandard width CCT. Restricting the CCT width even more in this area is unacceptible – the home owners should instead be fairly compensated for the few feet of yard that they will lose.

PLIAG should not have the final say on CCT design.

I’ve had little time to study the white paper, and have put the above comments out in haste. My goal is to leave other trail users some time to consider the issues and respond. I apologize in advance to Kate Detwiler if I have mischaracterized some of the issues in the white paper.

Trail users should not leave it to the neighborhoods to be the sole advisors to MC DOT and MTA about trail design issues. If we do, we may find a trail that feels like a cattle chute, is effectively closed at night at key points, and is dangerously narrow in Lyttonsville. We should demand that Montgomery County and MTA planners give us an opportunity to respond to PLIAG. An “advisory group” of neighborhoods, that has no representation from CCCT, WABA and MoBike, should not be given control of the trail design.

Fence trial delayed yet again.

June 25th, 2014

“Save the Trail” President Ajay Bhatt filed a motion yesterday to delay his appeal trial, that had been scheduled for today. This is the second time he has requested a delay of the appeal trial of his conviction for building a fence in the Georgetown Branch Trail right-of-way. The Post has the story of his conviction at Fence in the Purple Line’s path earns trail advocate $500 fine.

June 27 Update: The court has granted the second motion to delay the trial and has set a new trial date of August 28. Court records show that Bhatt is now represented by a lawyer. He had represented himself during the first trial and the first motion to delay.

Mr. Bhatt may succeed in using legal maneuvers to avoid removing the fence that even he acknowledges is on public property. But regardless, “Save the Trail” still needs to answer the policy question: “Should we allow encroachment onto the public land for private uses?” The Parks Dept. has a strict policy against allowing encroachment. The Coalition for the Capital Crescent Trail (CCCT) opposes any encroachment on the publicly owned trail r.o.w. Where does “Save the Trail” stand?

If Mr. Bhatt’s encroachment is acceptible to the “Save the Trail” group, then they should explain how that is consistent with advocating for the public use of this corridor as a park.

CSXT reverses. It is time for “Plan B”

March 30th, 2014

June 6 2014 Update: CSXT right-of-way is still in play.

My call below to bring forward “Plan B” may turn out to have been premature. Gary Erenrich of MCDOT reports that MCDOT and MTA have recently had very promising discussions with CSXT on the issue, and CSXT now appears to be open to making a deal that would allow the trail to be built on or very near the baseline alignment. CSXT has become more friendly to the idea now that they have learned more about the plans. The deal is still not done, but MCDOT hopes to be able to announce an agreement soon.

March 30, 2014 post:

Plans for completing the CCT with the Purple Line have received a serious setback. CSXT has apparently reversed its position, and is now refusing to grant any right-of-way for the trail between Talbot Avenue and downtown Silver Spring.

I had reported last fall that MTA appeared to be well on its way to negotiating trail right-of-way with CSXT, at Purple Line nears agreement with CSXT on the Trail. MTA had received a letter from CSXT indicating that it would grant right-of-way if a 50′ standoff requirement could be met, and MTA was confident it could meet this requirement. Everything appeared on-track for completing the CCT into downtown Silver Spring as long planned.

CCT plans now appear to be up in the air again. Gary Erenrich, MCDOT’s Purple Line project coordinator, broke the news at the 20 March 2014 Planning Board Purple Line/CCT mandatory referral. Mr. Erenrich announced that CSXT was now refusing to grant right-of-way to MTA for the CCT, MCDOT was now responsible for any further negotiations with CSXT for trail right-of-way, and that as things stand now the CCT would end at Talbot Avenue as an off-road trail. I have since had an email exchange with Mr. Erenrich, and he has clarified that MTA received a letter from CSXT mid-January stating they would not grant any CSXT right-of-way for a trail alone, and that MCDOT was now evaluating the physical feasibility and the cost of alternative trail alignments. Mr. Erenrich expects their preliminary evaluation of the alternatives to be completed in a month or so.

At issue is an approximate 1300′ of the planned CCT alignment behind the Park Sutton Condominium Building. The CCT can still be extended with the Purple Line to Talbot Avenue, where the trail will cross the CSX tracks on a new Talbot Avenue Bridge. There is non-CSXT right-of-way
that can be used for the trail from the Talbot Avenue Bridge to Lyttonsville Road. County owned Third Avenue right-of-way will be used from 16th Street south to Colesville Road. But a significant bypass of CSXT property will be needed behind the Park Sutton building if CSXT refuses to grant trail right-of-way there.

It is time for “Plan B”!


The master plan trail alignment at Park Sutton (in green)
and an alternate “Plan B” alignment (in red).

Fortunately there is a good alternative trail alignment that can avoid CSXT property behind the Park Sutton building, shown above. This alternative would go around the front of Park Sutton by using Lyttonsville Road and 16th Street. Lyttonsville Road is overbuilt, and that extra wide road right-of-way can accomodate a full width trail with no need to ‘take’ private property. A trail along the west side of 16th Street will require either taking a strip of right-of-way from the Park Sutton Condominium Association, or putting 16th Street on a “road diet” and closing a southbound lane of the roadway for trail and sidewalk use.

Toole Design Group has done a preliminary assessment of these and other alignment alternatives that were developed by M-NCPPC, and they reported their conclusions at Assessment of Bicycle and Pedestrian Issues Along the Purple Line Corridor (pp. 27-29). Toole Design Group assesses the bypass route to be less desirable than the more direct alignment in the CSXT right-of-way, and urges trail planners to make every effort to continue working with CSXT to achieve this alignment. Toole cites the bypass route’s longer distance and a roadway and parking lot crossing as deficiencies that make the bypass less desirable. But missing from the evaluation is any consideration of elevation changes along the alternative routes, and that is a MAJOR omission which, in my view, invalidates the Toole rankings!

The terrain behind the Park Sutton building is challenging for building a trail. Even if CSXT reverses itself yet again and agrees to grant right-of-way, the trail will be required to maintain a 50′ standoff from the railroad tracks vs. the 25′ standoff that had been assumed in the earlier master plan alignment. That additional standoff will push the trail down the side of the railroad berm, to be at or near the very low elevation of the Park Sutton parking lot. Take a “walk about” in this area and you quickly realize that if the trail drops to the parking lot elevation, then the trail must rise 30-40′ in elevation in a short distance to rise out of the parking lot to the 16th Street Bridge at its south end. Extensive and expensive switchback or elevated structures will be needed to manage the trail elevation change along this alignment. In contrast, the total trail elevation change along the bypass option alignment would be much less because this alignment skirts around the low elevation of the parking lot. Most trail users would much prefer the much gentler grades along the bypass option alignment, even if there is an additional distance of 500′ and a crossing of a driving lot entrance and driveway. The bypass alignment also has the significant advantage of being less isolated, with more “eyes on the trail” and more escape opportunities, for better perceived and real safety.

Toole correctly recognizes in their alternatives assessment that the 1300′ section behind Park Sutton is not the only area where trail planners will need to work with CSXT. There are other small areas where CSXT right-of-way or construction easements will be wanted. (At Talbot Avenue, under the 16th Street Bridge, and at Colesville Road come to mind.) MTA and MCDOT should continue to make every effort to engage CSXT in discussion of trail issues. But in my view, opting for “Plan B” now at Park Sutton can take the major 1300′ long sticking point off the table in CSX negotiations. That can improve the chances of getting CSXT cooperation on the remaining much smaller pieces. Any remaining pieces could be portrayed as not significantly challenging the overall CSXT corporate policy of no right-of-way for trails.

Fence fight exposes “Save the Trail” conflict of interest.

March 5th, 2014

An upcoming appeal trial about a back yard fence exposes a severe conflict of interest of “Save the Trail”. In short, the president of “Save the Trail” has been found guilty in District Court of building his back yard fence and shed on the publicly owned Georgetown Branch right-of-way, and he is appealing the order to remove it.

The appeal is scheduled for trial on 04/23/2013. (Case #8929D, filed on 02/21/2014 with the Maryland Circuit Court for Montgomery County, for Violation of Montgomery County Code.) Mr. Ajay Bhatt of the 3300 block of Coquelin Terrace, Chevy Chase, is appealing the District Court of Montgomery County finding on 01/21/2014 that he was guilty of violating county code by installing a fence beyond his private property.


Back yard fence going up on 5/13/2013
as seen from the Georgetown Branch Trail

A brief background:

A few key dates put Mr. Bhatt’s fence into perspective:

  • 1988: The Montgomery County Council allocates $10.5M to purchase the abandoned B&O Railroad right-of-way, for potential shared use for both transit and a trail.
  • 1994: An interagency task force recommends an Interim Trail be installed on the r.o.w. between Bethesda and Stewart Avenue, to have a gravel surface built on the railbed with minimal improvements to convey the INTERIM nature of the trail pending a decision about the kind of transit to be build in the corridor. Two years later the Interim Trail opens.
  • 2006: Ajay Bhatt purchases his house adjacent to the publicly owned Georgetown Branch r.o.w. and Interim Trail, at the 3300 block of Coquilin Terrace. The County Council is on record in support of building the Purple Line in this r.o.w. and the MTA is holding public meetings evaluating alternative transit modes in this r.o.w. throughout this time period.
  • May 2012: MTA representives meet with the Coquelin Run Citizens Association (CRCA) and give a briefing on current Purple Line plans in the neighborhood. MTA presents a detailed map showing where lot lines are on Coquelin Terrace relative to future Purple Line construction.


    Partial MTA map presented to CRCA
    (click on image for full map as large .pdf)
  • May 2013: Mr. Bhatt constructs his fence at an approx. 27′ standoff from the centerline of the Georgetown Branch r.o.w. (a minimum 45′ standoff is needed here to stay out of the publicly owned r.o.w.). The fence stands directly in the path of a proposed Purple Line retaining wall.
  • October 2013: Montgomery County issues a citation for a Building Code violation – building a fence beyond private property. Mr. Bhatt challenges the citation and the issue goes to court.
  • Jan. 21, 2014: Mr. Bhatt is found guilty of the violation in District Court and is fined $500, suspended and is given 30 days to remove his fence and shed. Mr. Bhatt appeals, and the appeal is scheduled to be heard in the Maryland Circuit Court on 4/23/2014.

A fight Montgomery County must win for the public:

The Georgetown Branch Corridor right-of-way is lined along its length by many encroachments from adjacent property owners. The majority of the encroachments are old fences and sheds that were erected years ago when the B&O Railroad still ran trains, before the county had purchased the r.o.w. and declared its intention to use the corridor for joint transit/trail use.

Mr. Bhatt’s encroachment is very recent – done after specific plans for public use of the right-of-way had been published widely. Mr. Bhatt’s encroachment is very egregious – extending deep into the publicly owned r.o.w. so that his fence and back yard shed stand directly in the path of a planned Purple Line retaining wall. The County has little choice but to defend this right-of-way against Mr. Bhatt’s direct challenge.

This fence exposes a conflict of interest for “Save the Trail”:

No one questions Mr. Bhatt’s right to use the court system to assert his claim that he can legally build a fence in the Georgetown Branch right-of-way. But his fence does raise some questions about “Save the Trail” regardless of the outcome of the trial.

1) “Save the Trail” is hiding a serious conflict of interest.

Opponents of the Purple Line frequently assert that proponents have a conflict of interest – and in particular that they are mostly developers or paid by developers who will benefit financially from the Purple Line. And nearly all of us do have a conflict of interest of some kind. We expect advocates to disclose their major interests so we can better evaluate their positions. I have disclosed my affiliations and interests at About the author. The advocacy organization Purple Line NOW! lists its board member affiliations and its major fundraising event sponsors on its website.

Ajay Bhatt is the president of Save the Trail. Mr. Bhatt is attempting to enclose part of the publicly owned Georgetown Branch r.o.w. for his own private use. If he succeeds, the value of his home will increase substantually. He has a very strong and direct financial and personal interest in stopping the Purple Line that has nothing to do with the merits of the project. Mr. Bhatt has every right to speak out about the Purple Line, but “Save the Trail” should disclose that their president and chief spokesman has this unusually strong conflict of interest. There is nothing on the “Save the Trail” website or Facebook page to make this important disclosure.

2) “Save the Trail” is pursuing an agenda very different from “saving” trees, park or trail.

“Friends” of parks or trails typically give to their favored park or trail, not take. “Save the Trail” publicly asserts the Georgetown Branch corridor is a precious and unique park-like public space that should be cherished and shared by the public. Yet we have the president of this so-called friends of the trail group attempting to take a significant chunk of the Georgetown Branch rignt-of-way out of public use as a park or trail, and convert it into an extension of his own very private back yard.


This is no way to treat a park!

Regardless of the outcome of the upcoming trial, this case shows us a lot about “Save the Trail”.

WABA submits 400+ Purple Line FEIS comments

October 30th, 2013

MTA Purple Line team member Joy Hamilton informed the Purple Line NOW! board at their monthly meeting that MTA has received over 1000 comments on the FEIS. 400+ were from WABA!

WABA used its website to encourage its members to submit comments on the Purple Line FEIS. The WABA comment input form had this suggested text:

I write to express my support for the Purple Line project because I support the accompanying work to complete the Capital Crescent Trail between Bethesda and Silver Spring.

The CCT must be completed as part of this project as a paved, grade-separated, safe connection between downtown Bethesda and downtown Silver Spring. This should be done regardless the details of the alignment and the ownership of the necessary right-of-way, and the FEIS should more clearly state that MTA will work with MCDOT and necessary stakeholders to ensure that the trail is built as promised.

While I support the Purple Line as a means of providing alternatives to the use of single occupancy vehicles for east-west transportation in the region, the completion of the CCT as a viable bicycling connection is critical.

The CCCT has also submitted comments on the FEIS, available at FEIScomments.pdf . The CCCT continues to neither support nor oppose the Purple Line, and concluded in its comments:

“MCDOT and MTA must act well together as a CCT design team if we are going to realize the potential of the CCT. If the Purple Line proceeds to final design, the design team should include designers who have professional training and experience specific to multi-use trail design, and who have the responsibility to design the CCT to meet or exceed current trail design guidelines and best practices.”

Purple Line Project Manager Mike Madden has stated that the FEIS comments are not meant to be a “beauty contest”, meaning they were not counting “for” and “against” but were looking for new issues that had not already been dealt with in the many public meetings and hearings. But still, this large response does effectively counter some of the “Save the Trail” hype that a few local Chevy Chase residents have been pushing.