Tunnel expectations

The local news media is reporting on the Montgomery County Council’s reaction to the recent assessment from MTA that keeping the CCT in the Bethesda tunnel will carry very high cost and risk. The Gazette has one of the best reports at Underground Capital Crescent Trail crossing would cost $51 million. The Gazette article gives these reactions from two of the Councilmembers on the T&E Committee:

“I think it is a very serious change from what all of us had expected when we conceived of the trail going through the tunnel,” said Montgomery County Council President Roger Berliner (D-Dist. 1). ….


Councilwoman Nancy Floreen (D-At large), a member of the transportation committee, said the county made a commitment to keeping the trail inside the tunnel, and she stands by that commitment.

“The crossing at Wisconsin Avenue is incredibly dangerous,” she said. “This conversation has been consistent over the years that the trail would be protected at all costs. There is a cost, that’s true, but one that the county will have to face.”

Contrary to what we have come to expect in recent years, there was no expectation promise at the start that the trail would remain in the tunnel. The first Master Plan showed uncertainty whether it was feasible to do so, at any cost. The 1990 Georgetown Branch Trolley Master Plan is available online at www.montgomeryplanning.org. This Master Plan does emphasize the goal of keeping the trail in the tunnel. It illustrates how this might be done by this sketch at page 52:

Sketch of double track trolley in the Bethesda Tunnel

Note the 1990 Master Plan shows the trolley as
double track through the Bethesda Tunnel

But the sketch above is given in the Master Plan as an aspiration, not as an expectation. From the text that comes with the sketch, .p. 51-53 (emphasis mine) :

“In order for hikers, bikers and trolley patrons to safely and conveniently use both the trolley platform and the hiker/biker trail within the Bethesda Station, the Plan recommends that the station design should include an extension of a concourse through the platform area in order to provide adequate trail width and safety. An illustration of this concept is shown in Figure 21. Further study of both the physical and operational elements is necessary during the design phase of the trolley/trail to determine the feasibility of the recommendation.

It is interesting to read the 1990 Master Plan, because the trolley described in the Master Plan is very different from the way the Georgetown Branch Trolley concept is usually described today. Purple Line opponents often assert that the Georgetown Branch Trolley was promised to be an entirely single-track trolley that would have a minimal impact on neighborhoods and the trail. But the 1990 Master Plan shows a trolley with characteristices that are very different from that nostalgic vision, including:

  • Very significant double track sections, including at all five stations. Nearly 30% of the “single-track” trolley was planned to be double-track from the start, including at some of the most constrained areas along the corridor such as through the length of the Bethesda tunnel.
  • Projected headways of 6 minutes, the same as for the Purple Line.
  • Travel times between Silver Spring and Bethesda of 9-10 minutes, compared to 8 1/2 minutes for the Purple Line.
  • Track/trail typical profiles that show trail separation distances from the near track that are very similar to that of the Purple Line.
  • Preservation of right-of-way for possible future conversion of all single-track sections to double-track, if required by future growth in ridership.

Assertions that the Georgetown Branch Trolley had been promised to be a slow, occasional neighborhood trolley running quietly through this corridor are bogus.

I can recall going to Purple Line meetings years ago and hearing the MTA present the concept for keeping the trail in the tunnel. MTA would regularly warn that although the concept might be feasible, we would not know for certain until more detailed measurements had been taken in the tunnel and the design studies had advanced beyond the early concept stage. Keeping the trail in the tunnel was usually presented as an aspiration, not as a clear and certain promise.

But as time passed, there was a shift in the way the tunnel design concept was presented. I first took note of it when MTA briefed the concept of the trail in the tunnel to the County Council on October 21, 2008. The MTA appeared to me to be less tentative about the feasibility of the concept than it had been in the past. See the concept sketch from that briefing below:

Source: MTA briefing to County Council, Oct. 21, 2008

On Sept. 13, 2010 the MTA briefed the CCCT and guests on the CCT with the Purple Line. Maybe I only heard what I wanted to hear, but again I do not recall that the MTA was tentative about keeping the trail in the tunnel at that meeting. The MTA presented details on a switchback ramp concept to elevate the trail over the Purple Line, and I posted my view that this ramp would be very unattractive to trail users at Bethesda tunnel west. But I hardly questioned whether the underlying concept of stacking the trail over the Purple Line in the tunnel was feasible.

New images of the Bethesda Tunnel began to appear that showed an attractive trail over the Purple Line. I posted one of the images at Bethesda tunnel, revisited:

A conceptual drawing of the Bethesda Purple Line platforms.
(the future CCT deck is shown overhead, at the upper right)
Source: Transitway Planning Update of 10/14/10 (pdf)

The MTA began to distribute the brochure Fast Facts about the Purple Line & the Capital Crescent Trail” which makes this unqualified statement:

The trail will continue through the Bethesda tunnel

The trail will continue through the existing Bethesda tunnel as well as having a surface route on Elm Street (which is to be constructed by Montgomery County).

There was a strong aspiration at the start, over 20 years ago, that the CCT would remain in the tunnel with the Purple Line. But it was not an expectation. We all knew there were many uncertainties. But that aspiration has evolved over time to became an expectation. MTA must take much of the responsibility for that – its presentations and materials should have continued to prominently reflect the uncertaintly associated with digging under the APEX building, until their measurements and analysis could more clearly show what was realistic.

We all can share the disappointment and frustration of learning so late that the cost and risk of keeping the trail in the tunnel is so high, regardless of whether we support or oppose the Purple Line. In hindsight, I think we all got caught up in wishful thinking. I do not believe there was any intent at MTA to mislead, but they have handled the expectations badly.

Now we must take a deep breath, calm down, and make some hard decisions.

Tags: ,

Comments are closed.