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.

Purple Line nears agreement with CSXT on the Trail.

October 9th, 2013

Oct. 18 update: Proposed trail design at Talbot Avenue needs to be reworked.

M-NCPPC has recently released a “Peer Review” of the CCT design that Toole Design Group performed, available online at Peer Review of Trail Projects. Toole Design Group examined the drawing of the proposed trail alignment along Talbot Avenue more closely than I had, and found the effective trail width is only 6′ there. While the trail is a nominal 10′ wide, there is no buffer, fence or shy space between the trail and the Talbot Ave. curb, and there is no buffer or shy space between the trail and fence on the CSXT side. This fails to meet current design guidelines and best practices. Toole recommends the design be completely redone in this area.

I had found the design to be acceptible in my post below. My bad – I had not examined the drawings closely enough. The devil is in the details, and the details stink in the MCDOT design.

The release of the Purple Line FEIS for public comment last month brought attention to a serious problem that threatened the Capital Crescent Trail – the difficulty of reaching agreement with CSXT for right-of-way to complete the trail into downtown Silver Spring. As reported here at Giving up on the CCT too easily, language in the FEIS dealt with the issue badly by stating that if agreement is not reached the trail would be dumped onto local streets and would not be completed as an off-road trail. Early this month we received word from Purple Line project manager Mike Madden that a recent CSXT policy change on trails?! would allow the Purple Line to go forward with its plans to complete the CCT.

We are learning more about how the plans are moving forward. On Friday, Oct. 4 the MTA Purple Line design team and MCDOT engineers had a monthly design working group meeting, and MTA shared its most recent letter from CSXT. The CSXT letter was dated Sept. 3, 2013 and answered an MTA letter of Oct. 23, 2012 about CSXT’s concerns. The CSXT letter states:

“The main concern we have is the proposed construction of the Trail on CSX property and the distance shown to the CSX live track. The minimum distance accepted for any trail on CSX property is 50 feet from the centerline of the near track.”

MTA shared more recent design drawings and described how the Purple Line project hopes to meet this CSXT requirement at the design working group meeting. A summary follows.

At Talbot Avenue: change the bridge

MTA is realigning the Trail in the vicinity of Talbot Avenue and 4th Avenue to avoid using any CSXT r.o.w., since CSXT r.o.w. is not wide enough to maintain a 50 foot offset in that area. The trail will be routed onto a new bridge over the railroad tracks to do this. Drawings dated August 1, 2013 show the new bridge location to be about where the existing historic one-lane bridge is today.

The bridge proposed to replace the existing Talbot Ave. bridge.
(click on the image for a wider view)

The proposed new trail alignment on this new bridge would be about equal in quality to a trail alignment over a trail bridge near Lanier Drive as previously proposed. The trail will cross the CSX tracks on the new vehicle bridge alongside two lanes of traffic, instead of on a separate trail bridge. Because the trail is shifted from CSX property onto the 4th Ave. r.o.w. on the north/east side, the trail will have to cross the bridge traffic lanes at the end of the new bridge. But motor vehicle traffic will be light and can be calmed by a “all way” stop much as bridge traffic is today, so there need not be a heavy impact on trail safety or convenience. The long trail ramp that had been planned along Talbot Avenue to the trail bridge is gone, since the new alignment will allow the trail to follow the more gentle grade of Talbot Avenue to get the elevation needed for the cross-over on the new motor vehicle bridge. The new alignment will allow direct access from the trail to Lanier Drive. Overall the new proposed trail alignment compares well with the old in this area.

The historic Talbot Avenue Bridge

I gave a brief summary of the history and local importance of the Talbot Ave. Bridge at 90 years and counting. Local passions will likely be aroused by any proposal to remove this bridge. But MCDOT engineers have previously expressed concerns about the feasibility of modifying this bridge to accommodate the Purple Line. In particular, it is doubtful that state and federal funds can be used to rebuild the historic bridge since it so badly fails to meet current bridge design and safety standards. I doubt that the Trail is the primary driver forcing the replacement of this bridge – the trail could likely be accommodated by a new trail bridge that would avoid CXST r.o.w. if built adjacent to the historic bridge. Trail supporters should try to avoid taking sides if another bridge fight breaks out between neighborhoods.

At Park Sutton: increase the trail offset

The Trail can use 4th Ave. r.o.w. south from the Talbot Ave. Bridge to the Woodside Mews townhomes. MTA is proposing to move the trail a few feet at Woodside Mews to be entirely outside of CSXT r.o.w. until it reaches Lyttonsville Road. That will put the trail a little closer to the curb of the Woodside Mews parking lot and there may be calls for stronger measures to provide privacy and noise screening between the trail and the townhomes. But the impact of this move appears to be reasonable.

The Trail is planned to be inside CSXT r.o.w. for the 1300′ section between Lyttonsville Road and the 16th Street Bridge, behind the Park Sutton Condominiums. The CSXT r.o.w. is very wide there, and MTA has indicated it is revising plans to increase the planned trail offset in this section to meet the CSXT 50 foot offset requirement.

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

Trail supporters need to watch how this alignment shift might impact the trail elevation in this area. The most recent elevation drawings for the trail show that the trail drops 36 feet from the high point at the Talbot Ave. Bridge to a low point adjacent to the Park Sutton parking lot, then rises 20 feet from the parking lot to the 16th Street highway bridge. The maximum grade is 4.5%, within recommended design allowable for a trail. That is a substantial elevation change. Shifting the alignment further from the CSXT active track should not be allowed to cause even more elevation change. MTA may need to use elevated trail structure in the vicinity of the Park Sutton parking to improve the trail elevation.

The alternate “Plan B” trail alignment shown above should be kept in mind by MTA and MCDOT Purple Line planners. While it now appears that an alternate alignment will not be needed, it is good to have an alternate in the event an unforseen issue blocks completing a trail r.o.w. agreement with CSXT.

The proposed trail alignment enters county owned 3rd Avenue r.o.w. after passing under the 16th Street Bridge, and remains within county owned r.o.w. until it reaches the Metro Plaza at Colesville Road. No changes in the proposed trail alignment are needed in this section to meet CSXT requirements.

At Metro Plaza: the Trail is supported by Purple Line structure

The Sept. 3, 2013 CSXT letter and attached responses to MTA plans did not raise any objections to the proposed trail alignment on elevated structure in the Metro Plaza and Silver Spring Transit Center area. CSXT did request more information on the placement of the Purple Line elevated structure support piers and the design of the train crash barriers that would protect the piers.

Proposed Trail alignment at Metro Plaza
(source: MTA Purple Line website)

I think that CSXT is not applying its 50′ offset requirement for trails at Metro Plaza and Colesville Road because the CCT is integrated into the Purple Line support structures and is not a “trail alone” in this area.

Seventeen years, and still waiting!

The off-road interim CCT was built on the Georgetown Branch r.o.w. in Bethesda/Chevy Chase neighborhoods in 1996. Downtown Silver Spring and Silver Spring neighborhoods are still waiting for any off-road CCT seventeen years later. The Purple Line design team has a clear path now to complete its plans to build the CCT into Silver Spring along the CSXT corridor as long promised. It is time to complete the plans, and to start building!

CSXT policy change on trails?!

October 3rd, 2013

CSXT has very recently informed MTA it will now sell r.o.w. for trails, so long as their offset requirements are satisfied. This is an apparent policy change for CSXT.

CSX corridor to Silver SpringPurple Line project manager Mike Madden says MTA is going forward with its plans to finish the CCT into Silver Spring as described in the Purple Line FEIS. The language in the FEIS that has raised so much concern, i.e. that the CCT would be routed onto local streets if CSXT r.o.w. is not obtained, will become moot if MTA does get the r.o.w.

It is too early to celebrate. The CSXT r.o.w. has not been negotiated and purchased yet. Even with this more favorable CSXT policy, negotiations on the price and conditions may be difficult. County and state leaders may still need to impress upon CSXT that this is a priority project. MCDOT should explore a fallback trail alignment until the CSXT r.o.w. is in-hand.

Council asks Leggett to save the CCT extension

September 13th, 2013

The Montgomery County Council T&E Committee has responded to the serious threat to the future CCT that I described here in my previous post, i.e. the Purple Line FEIS plan to dump the CCT extension onto streets in Silver Spring if CSXT refuses to grant r.o.w. for the trail.

The T&E Committee has sent a memorandum to County Executive Ike Leggett urging action. The memo says in part:

We believe we absolutely must do everything we can to work with CSXT toward completing this section of the trail: the FEIS makes it clear it is up to Montgomery County to do so. The current signed bike route through local streets crosses a significant number of intersections and would greatly reduce the trail’s value to pedestrians and bicyclists. On any kind of permanent basis, this is simply unacceptable.

In the meantime, at least one alternative to the route currently planned does exist, using available right of way on Fourth Avenue. Council staff is familiar with this alternative and agrees that it deserves serious exploration. We urge you to work with MTA to give this and any other possible alternatives serious consideration.

The memorandum is online at Alignment Memo, a pdf.

We owe a big Thank You! to T&E Chairman Roger Berliner, committee members Hans Riemer and Nancy Floreen, and District 5 Councilmember Valerie Ervin for reacting so quickly to try to set the county on the right course.

Sept. 14 Update: Councilmember Leventhal did not have the opportunity to sign the memo because he is not on the T&E Committee. He has emailed me, cc’d to MCDOT, expressing his strong support for the memo and for completing the CCT.

The ball is in the court of Ike Leggett and the MCDOT. The MTA Purple Line will follow the guidance MCDOT gives on the CCT design, but MCDOT must step up and take the ball now.

Giving up on the CCT too easily

September 8th, 2013

(A version of this is also posted on Greater greater Washington)

The Purple Line Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) is out.

The Maryland Transit Administration released the Purple Line FEIS on Sept. 6. Comments will be collected and provided to the FTA, which will then issue a Record of Decision on whether to move the project toward further design development and the right-of-way acquisition process. The 10 Chapter FEIS and information on how to comment is on the Purple Line website: FEIS Document.

Profile of Purple Line and CCT, by MTA as shown in the FEIS
(Source: FEIS Document)

Most of the material in the FEIS follows closely to the issues and concerns we have followed over the years of public meetings, hearings and open houses. But the FEIS raises a major issue about the completion of the CCT into Silver Spring that has not drawn much attention before.

The FEIS has finishing the CCT contingent on CSXT cooperation.

The FEIS describes the plan to complete the CCT into Silver Spring on the preferred trail alignment along the east side of the CSXT corridor.

Planned route of the extended CCT with the
Purple Line “Preferred Alternative”

(Source: FEIS Document)

The preferred alignment will require acquiring CSXT r.o.w. for the trail at several locations. CSXT has a general policy to not allow its r.o.w. to be used for trails, but MTA sent CSXT a letter last November requesting that they make an exception for this project. It is hoped that The State of Maryland can succeed in getting an exception for a Purple Line joint transit/trail project, where a local government seeking an exception for a trail alone would not. But CSXT has still not granted the exception to date.

MTA addresses the CSXT trail r.o.w. issue in the FEIS at Chapter 2 – Alternatives Considered, p. 2-24 (emphasis mine):

“…At the junction with the CSXT Metropolitan Subdivision, the County’s current plan calls for the permanent Capital Crescent Trail to continue on the north side of the CSXT corridor to the SSTC. The Preferred Alternative as shown in the FEIS includes completing the Capital Crescent Trail in CSXT right-of-way in accordance with the County’s plan. The completion of the trail along the CSXT corridor, however, is contingent on agreement between Montgomery County and CSXT on the use of their property on the north side of the CSXT tracks for the trail. If agreement is not reached by the time the Purple Line construction occurs, MTA would construct the trail from Bethesda to Talbot Avenue. From Talbot Avenue to Silver Spring an interim signed bike route on local streets would be used...”

As the FEIS is written, the MTA and State of Maryland appear ready to give up on working with Montgomery County to complete the CCT into downtown Silver Spring if it cannot get CSXT r.o.w. for the trail. This could be devastating to the trail and trail network. There would be no off-road trail connection to downtown Silver Spring, no continuous off-road trail between Silver Spring and Bethesda, no complete off-road MetBranch/CCT “bicycle beltway”. The off-road CCT extension that has been promised in every Georgetown Branch Trolley and Purple Line Light-Rail concept study and planning document for more than two decades would be no more than a broken promise.

The FEIS overlooks the possibility of a good off-road CCT on a “Plan B” alignment.

The FEIS presents a false choice: either get CSXT cooperation for the preferred trail alignment entirely in the corridor, or give up on building any off-road trail and dump the CCT onto local streets at Talbot Avenue. But it is possible to complete an all off-road CCT into downtown Silver Spring without CSXT cooperation. A “Plan B” trail would be as safe and nearly as direct as the trail would be on the preferred alignment, and could be less expensive to build.

The key to understanding “Plan B” is to know that the majority of the preferred trail alignment along the CSXT corridor is already within publicly owned r.o.w., or immediately adjacent to publicly owned r.o.w. This can be seen in the aerial map of the corridor that MTA has shown at its most recent open houses, and is online at CSX Corridor to Silver Spring Transit Center (a large pdf). The aerial map shows that at the north end of this CSXT corridor it is possible to bring the CCT down 4th Avenue and behind the Woodside Mews townhouses to Lyttonsville Road, entirely outside of CSXT r.o.w., if the trail alignment were shifted just a few feet east into the 4th Avenue r.o.w. from the CSXT r.o.w.

To the south of the corridor, the planned CCT alignment is already within the publicly owned 3rd Avenue r.o.w. continuous from 16th Street to Fenwick Place. There is other private and public r.o.w. that can be used for the trail from Fenwick Lane to the Metro Plaza Building at Colesville Road. The trail does appear to need to be in a small amount of CSXT r.o.w. at Metro Plaza, but the Purple Line will be crossing over the CSXT track to be directly above the CCT and the trail is planned to be supported on structure shared with the Purple Line at this location so it is unlikely CSXT would invoke its “no r.o.w. for a trail alone” policy here.

A “Plan B” off-road trail route can bypass the CSXT r.o.w. by using Lyttonsville Road and 16th Street.

A “Plan B” off-road CCT can bypass CSXT r.o.w.

A trail route along Lyttonsville Road and 16th Street would be only a few hundred feet longer than the preferred route in the CSXT r.o.w. It can be more inviting – more visible and accessible over most of its length. In contrast the preferred CCT route in the CSXT r.o.w. would be relatively isolated behind the Park Sutten building, and built between a high retaining wall and a CSXT crash wall. The cost to build the bypass route should be lower than the cost of the preferred trail route, because less retaining wall would be needed and the CSXT crash wall would be eliminated.

Looking down Lyttonsville Road from the Woodside Mews Townhomes toward 16th Street.

Lyttonsville Road is extra-wide, and can easily have a “road diet” width reduction to free the space needed for an off-road CCT while still leaving room for traffic lanes and on-street parking. The trail can go on the west-side shoulder of 16th Street to the CSXT corridor, as shown in the sketch above, then go under the 16th Street Bridge in the same manner as the preferred trail alignment. This would give us the much desired grade-separated crossing under 16th Street, but will require “taking” approx. 12′ of r.o.w. from the Park Sutton Condominiums to supplement the existing r.o.w. on the west side 16th Street shoulder. It might also require getting just a few feet of r.o.w. from CSXT on the west shoulder of the 16th Street Bridge, although the drawings are not clear on this. The 16th Street Bridge must be rebuilt for the Purple Line, so the state must engage CSXT in r.o.w. and construction issues at this location regardless of the trail.

If CSXT or Park Sutton r.o.w. difficulties were to block this trail route on the west side of 16th Street, then we can still make a bypass work. Another option is to cross 16th Street at a new light at Lyttonsville Road, then go down the east side of 16th Street to the CSXT. This would stay well clear of any CSXT r.o.w. at the 16th Street Bridge, and would require little or no additional r.o.w. along 16th Street. An at-grade trail crossing of 16th Street would be much safer at Lyttonsville Road than the existing on-road trail crossing at Second Avenue, because this crossing would be shorter, would have very little turning traffic, and could use the wide median for a “safety refuge”.

“Plan B” has already won community support.

I would love to take credit for discovering this CSXT bypass route, but it is so obvious that anyone can see it. And besides, it is a key part of the off-road “interim” trail planned years ago and described in the M-NCPPC report “Facility Plan for the Capital Cresent & Metropolitan Branch Trails”, approved by the Planning Board January 2001 and available online on the CCCT website at CCT Archives. It was developed and supported by a team of representatives from the nearby communities, trail user groups, planning staff at M-NCPPC, and the professional trail design group Lardner and Klein. This Interim CCT was recommended to be built at a time when the single-track Georgetown Branch trolley, proposed to run from Bethesda to Silver Spring, had fallen by the wayside and with no clear successor in sight. Investment in a “long term interim trail” made sense when transit appeared to be going nowhere soon. But shortly after this study was approved the movement for transit came to life again as the Purple Line. The “long term” part of “interim trail” went away, and with it the support for spending millions to build it.

M-NCPPC trail planner David Anspacher has recently begun to examine the “Plan B” bypass concept. He has circulated this and other alternative CCT route ideas among M-NCPPC staff for comments, and has asked trail design consultants Toole Design to include this in an evaluation of CCT alternatives they are doing for M-NCPPC. This work becomes ever more important as CSXT continues to withhold cooperation on trail r.o.w. issues.

We need to act to keep “Plan B” alive as a feasible option.

The FEIS presents a depressing false choice: We either complete the preferred alignment CCT into Silver Spring with CSXT cooperation for the trail r.o.w., or else we just give up and dump the CCT onto local roads. If we allow MTA to give up so easily on the CCT, then this could be self fulfilling. The “Plan B” version of the trail could be blocked from being built with the Purple Line if MTA proceeds to build the Purple Line with no consideration for compatibility with a possible “Plan B” trail.

What we can do:

1 – Submit comments on the Purple Line FEIS that respond to the “false choice” that is presented for completing the CCT. Point out there are options for an off-road CCT that bypasses the CSXT r.o.w. should CSXT refuse to cooperate on the trail. Ask MTA to commit to designing and building the best feasible off-road CCT extension into downtown Silver Spring, in coordination with Montgomery County, consistant with the promises it has made to the community for over two decades. Comments can be submitted online at FEIS Comment Form or by sending an email to with “FEIS COMMENT” as the subject heading.

2 – Contact the Montgomery County Executive, Council, and Planning Board and let them know there are options for completing a good off-road CCT that do not require CSXT r.o.w. Ask them to accelerate study of “Plan B” options, to be ready in case the preferred CCT alignment is blocked by CSXT refusal to grant r.o.w. for the trail. Tell them that we expect them to keep the promises they have given to us for many years to complete the CCT, and this trail is much too important for them to give up so easily.