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”?