Learning to like the Bethesda surface route

The Montgomery County Planning Board is considering whether to recommend to the County Council that we go forward with keeping the CCT in the Bethesda Tunnel, now that the cost estimate has risen to approx. $40M, or to recommend using an alternative route along Bethesda streets instead. On November 3 the Board and staff took a tour of the tunnel to look at the options. On November 17 the Planning Board will have a worksession on this and other issues including lighting, landscaping, and connecting to the Rock Creek Trail. The Planning Board will hear staff recommendations and take public input. Information on how to give testimony is on the M-NCPPC website agenda page. Also now available on the website is the M-NCCPC staff report with the recommendations that will be presented to the Planning Board on November 17.

The staff recommendations come with a very good analysis of the cost and benefits of the tunnel route, and also a thorough analysis of the alternative surface routes. Regarding the tunnel route, the staff recommends:

It appears that more design work is needed before a recommendation can be made with confidence on whether to construct the Capital Crescent Trail in the tunnel.
a. Should further engineering investigation reveal a much lower cost or risk differential or should a mechanism present itself to provide the funds to reduce the public outlay and/or risk to the Apex Building, constructing the trail may yet be found to be feasible.
b. We recommend that MTA brief the County Council in six months time with updated cost estimates and risk comparisons so that this decision can be made with greater assurance.
c. If the cost differential remains, the County Council should determine the tunnel route to be financially infeasible and concentrate more effort on building the planned surface trail to accommodate the volume and variety of user groups.

There may be something uncovered in the tunnel structures during a six-month engineering investigation that will overturn the huge cost differential we are looking at now. But I doubt it. The CCCT is suggesting a short single-track Purple Line section could be used at the tunnel, to make it easy to keep the trail in the tunnel. But if that single-track concept is found to be not practical, then we are likely looking at a decision to reroute the CCT on Bethesda streets.

The M-NCPPC staff report gives a good description of three alternative routes, and recommends the route along Bethesda Avenue (the dashed yellow route below).

Alternate CCT surface routes in Bethesda
Source: M-NCCPC staff report

The Bethesda Avenue Route has long been proposed as an alternative route to be built in addition to the trail in the tunnel, for local trail access. The M-NCCPC staff recommend that, in the event this becomes THE route of the CCT, this route be developed much more extensively than has been planned. Their report lists specific recommendations for shared use off-road trail sections down Bethesda Avenue, Willow Street and 47th Street and to realign the Wisconsin Avenue crosswalk. But most impressive are the recommendations to change the traffic lights:

Intersection of Wisconsin Ave and Bethesda Ave: Crossing Wisconsin Ave is the greatest impediment to creating a viable surface alignment. Therefore, it is critical to prioritize pedestrians crossing Wisconsin Ave. We recommend eliminating the conflicts for pedestrians crossing Wisconsin Ave by either:
  • Prohibiting left turns from Bethesda Ave to northbound Wisconsin Ave and prohibiting right turns on red in the southbound direction to eliminate all conflicts between trail users and motor vehicles
  • Providing a pedestrian only phase.

Both of these modifications would likely require signal retiming along Wisconsin Ave.

If all of these changes were in place, then I would find this route to be almost as good as the route through the tunnel. This surface route is about 400′ longer than the tunnel route and has a wait for a signal at Wisconsin Avenue. But it would be in the open and partially in a local park rather than being in a long tunnel. IF the signals at Wisconsin Avenue can be changed to eliminate the interferences with motor vehicle turning traffic, then crossing Wisconsin Avenue would be safer than is crossing Bethesda Avenue and Woodmont Avenue at the CCT Bethesda Trailhead today.

The tunnel route remains the most direct and safest CCT route. We may find a way to save it if the cost differential changes on further study, or if we find that single-track can work at the Bethesda Purple Line station. But losing the tunnel route is not an existential threat to the future CCT. I can learn to like the alternative Bethesda Avenue route if it is done right.

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2 Responses to “Learning to like the Bethesda surface route”

  1. Crickey7 says:

    Indeed, signalization is critical. By prohibiting left turns onto Wisconsin Ave. from Bethesda, the Planning Commission undoubtedly seeks to avoid degrading the functionality of Northbound Wisconsin Ave. during peak hours. We might expect to see that prohibition, accordingly, apply only to peak hours, which will help to alleviate some of the impact on evening and weekend traffic patterns in the area.

  2. “Prohibiting left turns” ? — the best thing to do would be to make the street exclusively for bicyclists and pedestrians. That would dis the farmers market but maybe an alternative exists for that event.

    I would make this as a signature ped/bikeway, super super great.