MCDOT orders a major CCT design change,
but where is the public outreach?

The Purple Line/CCT design has been publicly discussed for many years at more open houses, neighborhood work group meetings, M-NCPPC master plan and mandatory referral public hearings, and MoCo Council budget public hearings than I can remember. Public participation has been a major feature of the Purple Line/CCT planning process. For years it has been planned and agreed that the future CCT would have an underpass crossing at Jones Mill Road when it is rebuilt to be alongside the Purple Line. The Request for Proposals (RFP) has been released with this grade-separated crossing included as a requirement. But now Montgomery County DOT (MCDOT) is ordering MTA to change the trail design to eliminate this long promised grade-separated crossing – without any public participation.

Jones Mill Road crossing
Cyclists wait for the signal at Jones Mill Road.
MCDOT is now opposing the long planned trail underpass.

This issue is important for two reasons:

  1. This is a major regional trail crossing of a busy road and there are major tradeoffs that need to be fairly considered.
  2. The manner in which MCDOT is pushing this major change in plans calls into question whether the culture at MCDOT takes any public input seriously.

This post will explore both of these issues in turn. The discussion of the design tradeoffs is lengthy, skip to near the bottom of this post if you are more interested in the shorter but important discussion of MCDOT’s apparent lack of interest in public input.

1: The Trail Design Tradeoffs

(August 15 update: M-NCPPC planning staff have pointed me to the online engineering drawings for the Mandatory Referral for more exact information about the design. The tradeoff assessment below will be revised in a follow-on post soon – to show that the visual impact from the trail of the retaining walls for the cut is even less than I described below, and to show that the difference in the trail elevation between the Rock Creek bridge and the Jones Mill crossing for the two concepts is less than I described below. I do not change the overall assessment that MCDOT’s new plan is worse, however.)

Montgomery County DOT (MCDOT) representatives briefed the Purple Line Implementation Advisory Board (PLIAG) on their new plans for the Jones Mill Road crossing at the August 12 PLIAG meeting. The briefing was given on short notice at the request of PLIAG and no design drawings were shown. PLIAG had only learned a few days before the meeting that MCDOT was acting to significantly change the trail design. This analysis of the tradeoffs is based largely on the oral MCDOT presentation, and may therefore need to change as MCDOT brings forward more detailed information.

MCDOT claims three benefits of the MCDOT proposed at-grade crossing: keeping the trail safer from crime; cost; and having easier local trail access. There are two major drawbacks to the at-grade crossing: the risk and inconvenience of crossing a busy road, and having a hard climb up from the Rock Creek trail bridge.

Benefit – Keeping the Trail User Safe from Crime:

MCDOT representatives strongly asserted at the PLIAG meeting that the original plan for an underpass crossing would force the trail to be in a long, deep cut in the vicinity of Jones Mill Road, and this would severely raise both the perceived and real risk to trail users to crime. They argued that having the trail at the grade level through the area, as it is today, would keep “eyes on the trail” from adjacent homes to deter criminal activity. They also argued trail users would not like the aesthetics of feeling like they are in a deep trench vs. being up on the level with the neighborhood.

While this is a good point, MCDOT representatives greatly overstated the effective length and depth of the cut that would be needed. They insisted the cut must be at least 1500′ long and 20-25′ deep to get the trail and transit beneath Jones Mill Road in this area where (they claimed) the terrain is level. But MTA drawings clearly show the cut would be less than 900′ long for the transit. The trail, which could be 8+ feet higher than transit, would need to be in the cut even less than 900′.

MTA map from May 2012
(click on image for full map as large .pdf)

MTA presented a map with detail cross sections at a May 2012 meeting with the Coquelin Run Civic Association that clearly show MCDOT’s claim of a 1500′ long cut to be wrong, see MTA map (as a pdf). The pdf shows two cross sections below the aerial map, Section B-B at station 398+00, and Section D-D at station 407+00, that bracket the cut and are 900′ apart. Section D-D is only 100′+ east of Jones Mill, yet the cross section drawing shows the trail is not in a cut there. That is because the local terrain drops in elevation quickly immediately east of Jones Mill as the terrain begins to fall into the Rock Creek stream valley. At Section B-B only 900′ to the west the cross section drawing shows both the trail and transit have already climbed out of the cut. The trail can be 8+’ higher than the transit in the cut, so the trail can have climbed out of the cut hundreds of feet before the transit can. So why is MCDOT asserting the trail must be in a cut for at least 1500′ here??

The MTA map also gives us some perspective on how deep the trail must be in the cut, see Section C-C at station 404+00 in large scale at MTA map, and shown in small scale below.

Section C-C 100′+ west of Jones Mill Road

The MTA cross section above, just over 100′ west of Jones Mill Road, shows that because the trail can be 8+’ higher than the Purple Line it needs to be only a little more than 10′ below the top of the adjacent retaining wall near its deepest section. The average depth of the trail over the length of the cut will be much less. This is far from having the trail at the bottom of a 20-25′ cut as MCDOT described in their brief.

MCDOT went on at the PLIAG briefing to directly compare the safety of the trail in an underpass at Jones Mill Road with the safety of the pedestrian path under the Beltway at Georgia Avenue.

View Larger Map
The looking south on Georgia Avenue, the pedestrian path is on the right.
MCDOT says a Jones Mill Road underpass would be like this. Really?

I think it is telling of MCDOT’s lack of objectivity that they would choose this example as their only comparison for their briefing. They could have chosen to use, say, the underpass on the trail at East-West Highway, or either the Air Rights or Dalecarlia Tunnel, or any of the many secluded sections along the trail now where there are no “eyes” on the trail from neighbors. But instead MCDOT chose for direct comparision a beltway underpass that must go under eight main traffic lanes plus two exit ramp lanes plus two shoulders (the equivalent of 12 lanes) with very poor sight lines at either end. They directly compare this with the proposed Jones Mill underpass of two traffic lanes and two sidewalks (equivalent to three lanes) with excellent sight lines at either end.

Benefit – Reduction in Cost:

MCDOT asserted that the cost to the county for the CCT part of the Purple Line project could be reduced by “several” million $$ if the trail is not in the long cut. They mentioned the high cost of the three retaining walls that the cut requires, but did not give any specific estimates of the retaining wall costs.

I suspect that a several million $$ cost savings is largely overstated. Yes, there will be some savings by only needing to haul away enough dirt for a cut that is wide enough for the two transit tracks, but the Section C-C above shows that even in this deepest section the difference in how much dirt must be hauled is fairly small, in part because the trail will be higher than transit. There will be little difference in how much concrete must go into retaining walls, since removing the trail simply means the two shorter retaining walls on the trail side must be replaced by one wall of equal total height. The total length of the Jones Mill Road bridge span(s) will be reduced, and the need for a local trail access ramp will go away. But do these add up to several million $$ in savings? MCDOT needs to break these costs savings down for us.

Benefit – Easier Local Trail Access:

MCDOT pointed out that keeping the trail at-grade at Jones Mill would allow much better access to the trail from the local neighborhoods and from the road. There would be no need for a long local access ramp that would have a steep grade, and that would require some people to cross the road to reach. Direct access could be to the trail from the sidewalks on both sides of Jones Mill Road, much as now exists.

This is, in my view, the one benefit that MCDOT described fairly without overstating in their PLIAG briefing. But the importance of easy access for local users should be kept in perspective with the much larger number of trail users who want a safe and easy through passage.

Drawback – Risk and Inconvenience at a Crosswalk:

The major drawback of having a regional trail cross a busy road at-grade, near an intersection with traffic coming around a blind curve, was hardly mentioned by MCDOT in their presentation to PLIAG.

View Larger Map
Looking south from the Jones Bridge Road corner.

Trail traffic across Jones Mill Road will increase greatly over the traffic seen now after the trail is completed into Silver Spring. All through users of the trail would need to stop, press the call button for the pedestrian signal, and wait for the signal. I cross Jones Mill Road at the existing trail crossing frequently, and I see frequent J-walking from trail users here – much more frequent than at the existing Connecticut Avenue crossing. I believe this is because the Jones Mill Road J-walk crossing danger is mostly hidden whereas the danger is obvious at Connecticut Avenue. Jones Mill Road is only a two lane road, the crosswalk looks short, and the traffic coming from Jones Bridge Road is hidden around the blind corner. Trail users are tempted to take the chance of J-walking, and do. Eastbound traffic from Jones Bridge Road can come around the corner and be on top of anyone in the crosswalk before they have time to react.

One can argue that a J-walker has chosen to behave badly, and we should not make trail design decisions for bad behavior. But I don’t think that is a responsible position. If we do choose to have an at-grade trail crossing, then we must recognize that there will be a significant safety issue here unless we address the J-walking issue. Quite frankly, I don’t know a practical design solution to this problem. I doubt that MCDOT does either. Absent a credible solution, safety will continue to be a very serious drawback to an at-grade crossing.

Drawback – Having a Hard Climb from the Rock Creek Trail Bridge:

As a no-longer-young trail user, I find this drawback to be potentially the most serious. Yet because it is hard to visualize it can be overlooked easily. MCDOT made no mention of it in their PLIAG briefing.

To understand this problem, you need to understand that the future CCT will be much lower at the new trail bridge over Rock Creek than it is now on the restored railroad trestle.

Purple Line and CCT bridges over Rock Creek
Proposed Purple Line and CCT bridges over Rock Creek
(source: MTA at

The existing railway berm across the Rock Creek strean valley was built to carry only one track. It will have approx. 15′ removed from the top so that it will have a wider base that is wide enough to carry two transit tracks. The trail will be lowered even further, to be lower than the tracks and on the north side of the berm. The Purple Line RFP requires that the new trail bridge over Rock Creek be low enough so that trail users can get a clear view under the adjacent transit bridge, to be able to see some of the Rock Creek viewshed to the south. That means the trail bridge will be at least 15′ below the new transit bridge and at least 30′ lower than the trail that is there today.

The Rock Creek bridges will be approx. 800′ east of Jones Mill Road. Do the math for an at-grade crossing at Jones Mill – the trail will have less than 800′ to climb over 30′ from the Rock Creek bridge to the east side of Jones Mill Road. That would be a grade of about 4%. That is about the same grade as the ramps for the trail bridge over River Road, but would be for a longer distance. That will be a stiff climb for everyone passing through. Compare that with what the climb would be to a grade-separated underpass crossing at Jones Mill – a vertical climb to the underpass level will be only about half as much as to the at-grade crossing, or a grade of only about 2%. I would vastly prefer a mild 2% grade, even if it carries for a longer distance to get to-grade west of Jones Mill.

Benefit and Drawback Summary:

When I weigh the benefits and drawbacks that I can see for an at-grade crossing at Jones Mill Road, I find the drawbacks outweigh the benefits from my perspective. MCDOT has greatly exagerated the chief benefit that they claim from not having the trial in a cut, by grossly exagerating how long and deep the trail would be in a cut.

Other trail users and neighboring residents can very reasonably disagree based upon their own perspective. But I think we all can agree that we need to have a full discussion of these tradeoffs, and not just trust to MCDOT to make this decision without meaningful respect for our preferences.

2: The manner in which MCDOT is pushing this major change calls into question whether the culture at MCDOT takes public input seriously.

Any public discussion of the pros and cons of an at-grade trail crossing will be moot if MCDOT is only making a show of listening, and is allowed to press ahead regardless of public input. There are disturbing signs that MCDOT has little regard for public participation in this decision.

MCDOT has already given direction to MTA to begin redesigning the CCT for an at-grade crossing at Jones Mill Road. MCDOT gave its briefing to PLIAG only upon request from PLIAG coordinator Tom Street, after hearing concerns about the issue from me as the CCCT PLIAG reprentative and from the office of Councilmember Leventhal. There is no indication that MCDOT had any intention to present any of this information in any public forum before executing the change.

The presentation MCDOT gave to PLIAG was so one-sided that it appears that MCDOT management is already fully committed to the at-grade crossing. The benefits-drawbacks discussion above outlines how MCDOT grossly exagerated the unattractive attributes of a Jones Mill Road underpass. MCDOT hardly mentioned the significant benefits. It was hard to listen to the briefing without thinking “the fix is in”.

MCDOT is now promising to hold a public meeting to take input after being challenged about this process failure. But MCDOT has not made any promise to change course, or to ask MTA to put its directive for an at-grade crossing on hold pending public input. I doubt that they will do so, and until they do we can ask if any public meeting is just window dressing designed by MCDOT to repair its public relations image.

There are several things that can be done to repair the damage that this MCDOT behavior is doing to the integrity of the Purple Line/CCT public outreach process:

  1. MCDOT should agree to put this very signicant change on hold until there is real public participation.
  2. Planning staff at M-NCPPC should be brought into to process, they have trail design experience to offer.
  3. A mandatory referral with a public hearing should be held by the Planning Board for such a significant design change.
  4. The county council should be made aware of this proposed change and get involved as appropriate.
  5. Most importantly all stakeholders including trail user groups, the adjacent neighbors, and PLIAG representatives should have a meaningful public input process where we can share the impacts of this design change from our own perspective. MCDOT should listen, and not just talk at us.

A sure sign that MCDOT is serious about public participation will be if they will put their design change on hold until after the public can give meaningful input. If they fail to do so, then the public participation for the CCT design during the Purple Line design process has been little more than “window dressing”. We may know soon.


2 Responses to “MCDOT orders a major CCT design change,
but where is the public outreach?”

  1. Bethesda Resident says:

    Thanks a lot for bringing this issue up and providing a detailed explanation. MCDOT indicates that the at grade trail access is better than with the cut. This is questionable. Local trail users who access the trail from the west side of Jones Bridge road and head east would have reduced trail access with an at grade junction because the at grade junction would require them to cross Jones Bridge Road (hereafter JBR) in order to take the trail east, towards Silver Spring. However, when these same individuals are heading west-bound they would actually have better trail access in the underpass scenario than in the at grade junction since they could avoid crossing JBR entirely regardless of which way they go once they reach the trail. They currently must cross at grade to head west on the trail. Local trail users coming from east of JBR and heading west, towards Bethesda, would have to cross JBR in either the at grade or underpass scenarios so they are not harmed by the underpass (and access does not increase for them). Only Trail users from the east side of JBR who were headed eastbound on the trail would have worse access in the underpass option since they would now have to cross JBR to access the trail. So while it is true that access decreases for some if the underpass is built, the underpass actually improves trail access for others by allowing a direct connection to the east bound trail without crossing JBR at grade. So, MCDOT’s argument that local trail access is harmed by an underpass is questionable since only some people have less access while most users either see no change in their level of access or would see an improvement in their access.

  2. Silver spring transit guy says:

    This also leaves me scratching my head about mcdot. It is an outrageous insertion into the process at a time when many who were undoubtedly focused on this crossing are not paying as much attention. This is a hazardous at-grade crossing and the focus should be on working for the safest underpass possible. For mcdot to make a unilateral determination about these trade-offs after so many years of open discussion is outrageous.