State of the MetBranch Trail

The Montgomery County DOT briefed the Council T&E Committee on the state of the Metropolitan Branch Trail project on July 20. This briefing was in response to the request from Councilmember Valerie Ervin for an update, see “Where is the MetBranch?”

Looking across Georgia Avenue where the future
Metropolitan Branch Trail bridge will stand.

The briefing addressed issues that are delaying completion of the section of the Metropolitan Branch Trail in Silver Spring. The take away lesson from the briefing: There are no obstructions to building this trail that cannot be addressed. It is time to fund the detailed design and construction.

The first question of this briefing, as posed by Committee Chair Nancy Floreen, was “What’s wrong with CSX?” The question was posed only partially in jest. The last time the T&E Committee was briefed on the MetBranch by DOT was in February 2008. As reported at silverspringtrails.org :

In February 2008 DPWT recommended to the Council T&E Committee that the MetBranch Trail design project be removed from the next Capital Budget. DPWT gave two reasons for their recommendation: 1) Concurrence is needed from several agencies before the project can proceed, most notably CSX, and 2) The cost of the project construction, estimated at about 23M$, is too high for a construction start in tight budget years. The T&E Committee accepted the recommendation, with the understanding that the project could be considered for construction funding as an ammendment to the Capital Budget after all of the needed concurrences were obtained. This project is now on indefinite hold.

Since that February 2008 decision the perception has persisted that getting concurrence from CSX remained the major problem that was blocking progress on the project.

Project Manager Wayne Christiansen briefed the project for MCDOT (formerly DPWT). MCDOT reported that they had approached CSX and asked CSX for concurrence in the form of a “Memorandum of Understanding” based upon the concept plans MCDOT had completed at this stage of their project. But apparently CSX does not “do” a Memorandum of Understanding. What they do is issue a permit for a project that is adjacent to their operations based upon detailed design drawings, which MCDOT has not completed yet. CSX indicated they have no objection to the MetBranch Project plans as shown in the concept plans. CSX has given MCDOT construction guidelines showing what parameters they want to see met in the detailed design to grant a CSX permit. MCDOT sees no problem in those CSX guidelines that the MetBranch detailed design cannot satisfy. So, it appears we do not have a serious “CSX problem”. WMATA’s concurrence is also needed, since WMATA owns the rail corridor in this area with CSX having operating rights. WMATA’s position is the same as CSX. CSX and WMATA are prepared to cooperate going forward, but MCDOT needs to prepare the detailed design before we can go any further in receiving CSX and WMATA permits.

This news is frustrating. It has been 17 months since the T&E Committee agreed to suspend further design work on the project until MCDOT could get CSX concurrence. Given the budget cycle schedule, it will be another 12 months before funding for detailed design can be appropriated and available to MCDOT. So we have basically suspended detailed design development for two years, only to learn that the one thing we most need for CSX and WMATA concurrence is the detailed design. Ugh!

Other issues for the MetBranch project that were briefed are:

1) The Purple Line: The alternate alignments being considered for the Purple Line at the Silver Spring Station must be accommodated by the MetBranch designs, to share the corridor through the area. This issue should be resolved within a few weeks, as Governor O’Malley is widely expected to announce light rail on the Bonifant Drive/Wayne Avenue alignment as the “Locally Preferred Alternative”. This alternative takes the Purple Line east from the CSX rail corridor immediately south of the Silver Spring station, to not require the MetBranch to share the corridor beyond the station.
2) Progress Place: Progress Place delivers services to the homeless and is housed in a one story building that extends to against the CSX corridor, obstructing the MetBranch route. That end of the building cannot be “chopped off” because it contains the heating system and other vital building systems. All councilmembers present (Floreen, Leventhal, Berliner and Ervin) were agreed that there is no way they would tell the public that services to the homeless in Silver Spring would have to be suspended to build a recreational trail. But County Staff present informed the Council that the building was considered inadequate to support its existing mission, the building was a single story building owned by the County in a rapidly developing area that is zoned for 20 story buildings, and the opposite (east) end of the building is obstructing long term plans to extend Dixon Avenue. The County therefore will seek an alternate location for Progress Place in Silver Spring regardless of the MetBranch Trail. MCDOT Deputy Director Edgar Gonzalez volunteered that MetBranch planning could include planning a short temporary on-road detour around Progress Place, if Progress Place cannot be relocated before the MetBranch construction.
3) Silver Spring B&O Station: MCDOT reported it has held discussions with the owners of this historic property regarding the alignment of the trail, and they have a tentative agreement the trail can pass under the portico on the rail corridor side of the station.
4) SHA: MCDOT has discussed the Georgia Avenue trail bridge design and the Burlington Avenue (East-West Highway) trail tunnel design with the Maryland State Highway Administration. SHA has granted permission to build the trail bridge over Georgia Avenue according to the concept design. SHA has agreed to permit a clearance between the roadway and the underside of the bridge of only 16′, although the normal standard is over 17′. The fact that the adjacent CSX railroad bridge has only a 14′ clearance made that an easier decision. SHA is suggesting that if the Burlington Ave. tunnel is installed before the highway bridge is rebuilt, then it may be less obstructive to traffic overall to just close the bridge and install the tunnel in one step, rather than to extend the project over a much longer period to keep some lanes open while the tunnel is installed piecemeal.

What now?

I am frustrated at seeing the MetBranch project go for two years with no progress on the detailed design because of misperceptions about what CSX would require for concurrence. But that frustration is tempered by the knowledge that during some of this time we have received clarification on what the design will need, especially regarding the Purple Line alignment.

But now is the time to get this project back on track. MCDOT is preparing documents to request funds for this project in the next budget cycle. MCDOT, the County Executive, and the County Council must approve funding in the next CIP budget to complete the detailed design and begin construction. It will compete with other capital projects for funding. Advocating our elected officials for funding design and construction of the MetBranch must be a priority for us all during the winter and spring budget hearing period.

One Response to “State of the MetBranch Trail”

  1. Casey A says:

    Wayne — thanks for attending the briefing and writing up this summary. I think getting the Maryland end of the Met Branch done is the single most important bike/ped project in Montgomery County (especially) now that the ICC trail decision has been made, although that will require continued follow-up as well).