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Notes from July 2 PLIAG

Friday, 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”?

Fence trial delayed yet again.

Wednesday, 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.

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

Wednesday, 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

Wednesday, 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.

MTA shows latest plans for Silver Spring

Wednesday, May 30th, 2012

MTA held a Silver Spring Station area meeting this evening at the Silver Spring Civic Center, and showed several concept drawings of the most recent design plans for the Purple Line and CCT at the Silver Spring transit station. A snapshot of one of the drawings has just been posted by Chris Gillis, of Councilmember George Leventhal’s staff, as a PLN twitter pic. As Chris indicated in the twitter comment, there is a lot going on there, but it looks like it will all work.

(5/31/2012 update: The MTA has posted its drawings and presentation at www.purplelinemd.com.)

The major change from past MTA renderings is that the Purple Line and the Trail are both higher than previously shown. MTA has raised the proposed Purple Line platform and tracks to be at a fourth level. The CCT would be on an areal structure passing through the station at the third level, while the MARC and Metro Red Line platforms would remain on the second level as they are now. Having the Purple Line at a higher elevation makes it possible to use vertical separation to manage potential conflicts between the trail users and the pedestrian traffic to the MARC and Purple Line platforms. The new arrangement puts the trail on a different level than the train platforms.

The trail would will hold straight and to a 12+ foot width through the station, but there would be a sharp turn at the south end of the station where the CCT would meet the MetBranch Trail. MTA and M-NCPPC planners are aware this is a problem and are trying to work out a more gradual curve alignment, but space is very constrained in that area as the MetBranch Trail and the new “Ripifant” Street Road must both pass under the Purple Line tracks there where the tracks turn to the east.

I will post more on this design in a few days, after the MTA has posted better images of their concept drawings on their website.

Help keep the MetBranch alive in Silver Spring!

Saturday, February 4th, 2012

Update – The Council T&E Committee will take the MetBranch Trail funding issue up at its February 27 meeting, not February 13. This gives us more time to contact the Council.

My last two posts focused on the impass between MCDOT and Montgomery Preservation Inc. (MPI) over the proposed alignment of the Metropolitan Branch Trail through the historic B&O Train Station property. I’ve been in contact with MPI and MCDOT to try to sort out what has gone wrong. There are very conflicting versions about what the problem is. It is complicated. But there does appear to be a path toward an agreement that is still available, that will work for the benefit of both the station owners and for the trail. That will take some time, I’ll report more on that soon.

We have an immediate problem that we must address now – restoring funding for the Metropolitan Branch Trail. The County Executive has proposed that the next CIP budget have NO funds to continue any work on the Metropolitan Branch Trail in Montgomery County, for fiscal reasons. But this part of this regional trail has already suffered from several episodes of foot dragging and attempts to cut its budget over the years that has significantly delayed it. Montgomery County should get on with building the trail instead of trying to delay it yet again.

Bruce Johnston, Head of MCDOT Division of Transportation Engineering, has indicated to me that the ongoing disagreement with the owners of the station museum does not prevent MCDOT from designing and building the MetBranch from the new Sarbanes Silver Spring Transit Station south through the Ripley District to the station museum. A temporary at-grade crossing of Georgia Avenue could be provided there while the historic station issues are being worked out with MPI. MPI is on record in support of continued funding on its website:

We recommend at least the restoration of funds for planning and consultation with stakeholders to the budget so it can move forward during this period.

Now is the time for trail supporters to urge the County Council to restore MetBranch funding to the CIP budget. The Council T&E Committee is scheduled to take this up in one week, at its February 13 meeting at its February 27 meeting. All Councilmembers will receive an email sent to county.council@montgomerycountymd.gov. The T&E Committee Members are Council President Roger Berliner, Councilmember Hans Riemer, and Councilmember Nancy Floreen. Contact information for individual Councilmembers is at www.montgomerycountymd.gov.

a nature trail

Tuesday, July 19th, 2011

The Washingtong Post has an article on community development around future Purple Line stations, at Lack of money doesn’t stop Purple Line station development plans. The article only discusses the impact of the Purple Line on the trail very briefly, with this quote from Purple Line opponents:

“It would change the trail from what it is today — a nature trail through a quiet community — into a strip of asphalt through an urbanized area,” said Bill Schulz, a board member of Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail.

The Post article does not quote any trail users who support the Purple Line. But the Post print version of the article has a good photo that would have helped Purple Line supporters make their point if they had been asked, available online at: a stretch along Connecticut Ave.

The photo shows trail users at Chevy Chase Lake looking toward the pedestrian barrier at Connecticut Avenue, and watching the many automobiles stream by. This is the “nature trail” to be saved at Chevy Chase Lake? And when did asphalt become a bad thing to have for the Capital Crescent Trail?? Many trail users would agree that a trail bridge and asphalt paving would be welcome here.

Bikes on light rail

Sunday, July 10th, 2011

The Washington Post has a feature article Phoenix offers lessons for Purple Line that is well worth reading. A photo album and video are with the article that provide a good look at what a modern light rail looks like.

Check out the video to see how well the Phoenix light rail accommodates bicyclists – you can see cyclists boarding about 45 seconds into the video. Smooth!

A Minneapolis rail-with-trail

Thursday, May 19th, 2011

Those who follow this blog know I have some interest in rail-with-trail. I had to check out the Hiawatha while in Minneapolis.

Hiawatha light rail and trail.
(Photo taken from the trail bridge over Highway 55,
near the Hiawatha Trail/Midtown Greenway Trail junction.)

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

Pedestrian crossings of the light-rail tracks are simple,
typically at-grade crossings with warning signals.

I’m revealing no secrets to report on the compatibility of the Hiawatha light-rail and trail. The blog rails-With-trails has photos and video at railswithtrails/hiawathatrail.

The Hiawatha Trail is safe, attractive and well used even though it has only a simple fence for separation from the light-rail. Consider what is planned for the Capital Crescent Trail alongside the Purple Line, a rendering is at www.purplelinemd.com.

The CCT will have more horizontal and vertical separation, more landscaping in the buffer, possibly green treatment for the tracks, more attractive fencing. The Hiawatha clearly demonstrates that claims the Purple Line will destroy the trail are hyperbolic.

Another hazard at Connecticut Ave.

Thursday, May 12th, 2011

Waiting for the light, then crossing six highway lanes while watching out for motorists making turns is enough nuisance and hazard for one place on the Interim CCT. But now crossing Connecticut Avenue safely has become more difficult for cyclists.

New curb and curb cut on west side of Connecticut Ave.

A new curb cut has been installed at the Interim CCT crossing of Connecticut Ave. The new configuration may be an improvement for pedestrians and especially for those in wheelchairs, since it better separates the sidewalk from the driveway to the Parkway Custom Drycleaning parking lot. But cyclists will find it hard to use the new curb cut because of the hard turn one must make to avoid hitting the new curb that is right behind the curb cut. The alternative, using the ramp into the Parkway Custom Drycleaning driveway a few feet to the south, will put cyclists into direct conflict with any motorists trying to use the driveway.

We need a trail bridge over Connecticut Avenue! Until then, use extra caution in this area.