Is the Future CCT headed for gridlock?

Preliminary Engineering by the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) for the Purple Line and Future CCT is nearing completion. MTA has begun its second round of neighborhood work group meetings to present the next level of design to the public. Purple Line/CCT design features were presented for the Bethesda Station area on December 18, 2012 and for the Lyttonsville and Woodside Station areas on January 16, 2013. The most recent powerpoint presentations, sketches and maps for those areas are available now at the MTA website.

A sample of the information available at the MTA website for neighborhood work groups Bethesda, Lyttonsville and Woodside:

Purple Line and CCT bridges over Rock Creek
Proposed Purple Line and CCT bridges over Rock Creek
(source: MTA at www.purplelinemd.com)

Partial map of Future CCT at Rock Creek
The future Purple Line and CCT alignment at Rock Creek
(see MTA Lyttonsville Map for a more complete view)

The new MTA drawings show some changes from prior CCT plans, including:
1) The new 5-7′ wide sidewalk alignment through the Bethesda Tunnel, with the main trail shunted to the surface route (surface route not shown – that is under design by MCDOT),
2) The north-side location for the switchback connection to the Rock Creek Trail,
3) A new underpass alignment under the Purple Line tracks that is closer to the Rock Creek bridges,
4) A trail bridge over the CSX tracks that is further north from the Rosemary Hills Elementary School, and
5) A new, grade separated crossing under the east end of a proposed new Talbot Avenue Bridge.
These changes reflect some difficult trade-offs, but by-and-large can result in a high quality off-road trail from the center of Bethesda into the center of Silver Spring. While the decision to take the trail out of the Bethesda Tunnel and across Wisconsin Avenue at-grade has been a disappointment, the trail would have only one other at-grade crossing between Bethesda to downtown Silver Spring (at relatively quiet Stewart Avenue in Lyttonsville). At-grade crossings at three state highways (Connecticut Ave., 16th Street, and Colesville Road) on today’s Georgetown Branch Trail would be eliminated.

All of this planning is in serious danger of going onto the shelf, with no progress for building either the Purple Line or for completing the CCT for many years to come!. The facts:

  • All funding for Purple Line planning ends in 2014, and there is no funding available for construction to begin.
  • To avoid a shut-down of work, the state must submit an application for a “Record of Decision” to the FTA this summer to get federal construction funding. The application must include a credible financial plan to show how the state will meet its proposed 50% share of the construction costs.
  • The state transportation trust fund has been depleted and the state has no money to start any new highway, bridge or transit projects. The state cannot submit a credible financial plan for its share of the Purple Line unless a serious transportation funding package is approved by the state legislature now that will restore the Transportation Trust Fund in the immediate future.

The impact of the uncertainty in state funding for Purple Line upon completion of the CCT is already showing – with the recent accouncement that funding to build the CCT is being delayed: See Montgomery County projects tied to Purple Line delayed

If the governor and state assembly do not act in this legislative session, it will likely be many years before the transportation funding issue is addressed again in any substantial way. Next year is an election year and little will get done that involves political courage. The Purple Line will lose its place in line for federal construction funding. It could be many years before the project can be revived, and much of the design work will then need to be updated.

If the Purple Line project stalls, progress on completing and paving the Future CCT between Bethesda and Georgetown will also stop. We will not get the right-of-way in the CSX corridor that is crucial to completing the trail.

There is no alternative trail alignment for an off-road trail into downtown Silver Spring that does not require using CSX right-of-way in several places. But CSX has a strong general policy of not allowing any trail uses within its right-of-way. Purple Line project manager Mike Madden confirmed in an email exchange with me on November 26, 2012 that MTA had sent Purple Line plans to CSX for comment last fall, and CSX had responded in a letter to MTA to indicate it would not grant right-of-way for any trail use. MTA responded in turn with a letter to CSX to request that an exception be made for the state Purple Line/CCT project. Mike Madden told me at the 16 January Lyttonsville/Woodside neighborhood work group meeting that CSX has not yet responded to this request.

CSX right-of-way needed at 16th Street Bridge
The grade-separated trail crossing under the 16th Street Bridge
is one of several places where CSX right-of-way is critical
(source: MTA at www.purplelinemd.com)

The state has considerable leverage it can use to bring CSX to the negotiating table regarding right-of-way for the Purple Line and CCT. CSX has many business interests statewide that are before the state for consideration, including requests for increasing its freight infrastructure capacity along its Brunswick Line. CSX cannot easily brush the state request for CCT right-of-way aside so long as the state makes the CCT an integral part of its high priority Purple Line project. But if the Purple Line project stalls, CSX right-of-way negotiations with the state will stop. Montgomery County has no leverage to bring CSX to the negotiating table for a trail-only project.

Paving the existing Georgetown Branch Trail between Bethesda and Lyttonsville will also likely remain gridlocked without the Purple Line, for several reasons:
1) The county council will be extremely reluctant to approve funding to pave the existing trail so long as there is any hope that the trail will be torn up and rebuilt for shared use of the corridor with transit in the not-to-distant future. Transit use has always been proposed for this corridor since the county bought it in 1988 – in fact the corridor would never have been purchased by the county if not for this future shared transit/trail use. Even if the Purple Line stalls, the need for better rapid transit between Silver Spring and Bethesda will only continue to grow. Neither East-West Highway nor Jones Bridge Road can be expanded to have the dedicated transit lanes that are essential for “rapid” transit on these congested roads, at any reasonable cost and impact. This Georgetown Branch transportation corridor will continue to be the only, and obvious, choice for better east-west rapid transit, whether as light-rail or as Bus Rapid Transit. Trail supporters cannot reasonably expect that this corridor will be surrendered to them for exclusive trail use if the Purple Line stalls.
2) Transit supporters will vigorously oppose placing anything in the Georgetown Branch corridor that may make it politically more difficult to advance transit in the future. I believe some limited trail development is worthwhile and should proceed in this corridor – I was in the lead in advocating for opening the Rock Creek Trestle in 2003. But I cannot dispute that “Save the Trail” advocates have used “we got here first” to build opposition to transit in the corridor, with no regard to the fact that the trail would not exist today if not for the promise of future shared transit and trail use.
3) There will be significant oppositon to paving the trail from local neighorhoods and other users. Pam Browning, past president of “Save the Trail”, was on record in opposition to paving the trail unless it is done without replacing the existing gravel path and without cutting any trees. Those conditions are, of course, impossible to meet. There are many other local residents, joggers, and recreational cyclists who would like to see the Interim CCT stay as it is – uncrowded and natural. They fear paving will open the CCT to speeding cyclists.

Trail users should be very concerned that the Purple Line is in danger of stalling because the state Transportation Trust Fund is running on empty. If the project stalls then completing and paving the future CCT will stall along with it. If that prospect bothers you and you live in Maryland, then now is the time to contact your Maryland State Representatives and urge them to fix the Transportation Trust Fund.

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