Trees vs. trail at Rock Creek Park

This post continues the discussion of proposed design changes for the future CCT between Bethesda and Silver Spring. The last post The Rock Creek bridges presented information on the new trail alignment that would have the trail cross directly beneath the Purple Line transit bridge above Rock Creek. This post will discuss a proposal to eliminate the switchback trail that would connect between the future Capital Crescent Trail and the Rock Creek Trail (RCT). The approximate location of that switchback is shown in the plan view drawing in that previous post, and is also shown in an MTA aerial photograph at, under “maps-graphics/aerial-photographs”, map Lyttonsville 1. A Google Maps aerial view of the area is shown below for convenience, although it does not show the proposed switchback.

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Aerial view where the CCT and RCT cross at Rock Creek Park

A switchback ramp has long been proposed here on the south side of the old railroad berm, to provide an off-road trail connection between the CCT and the RCT. Even though the CCT passes directly over the top of the RCT, one must now use one of two indirect on-road routes to get from one trail to the other. See Access to a real park for a map of the two on-road connecting routes.

MTA Purple Line project manager Mike Madden announced at the Sept. 13 briefing to the CCCT that MTA was considering eliminating this switchback connection from the plans. MTA is considering, as an alternative, improving the existing on-road connectors with better way-finding and street improvements, or finding yet another route (although MTA could not yet share what other route would be possible). Madden stated that the MTA was concerned about the large number of trees that would have to be removed from the berm for a switchback ramp there. This prompted the cry “Now you are starting to think about the trees?” from among the guests. Madden assured that the decision is far from settled – there will be stakeholder meetings with the public and coordination meetings with Mont. Co. DOT and MNCPPC planners before a decision is reached.

The view of the railroad berm from the Rock Creek Trail at Ray’s Meadow.
The Interim CCT is in the trees, at the top of this berm.

A concept sketch for an earlier switchback ramp plan at this location can help us get a perspective on how trees would be cut from the side of the berm. The sketch below is from the Facility Plan for the trail with the single-track Georgetown Branch Trolley. The CCT is shown higher on this drawing than it would be with the two-track Purple Line where the trail will be lower on the side of the berm. But nonetheless, there will be some separation between the trail and each leg of the switchback ramp that can hold trees. The sketch is labeled to suggest planting more trees along the south side of the berm. There are already a significant number of trees extending out into the flood plan from the south edge of the berm, and there is room for many more to be planted without encroaching into the soccer field in Ray’s Meadow. I believe that we can build a switchback ramp here while leaving enough trees standing so that the view of the berm from Ray’s Meadow will be much as it is today – looking into a mass of trees with very little trail visible.

Concept drawing for the CCT/RCT connector alongside the single-track Georgetown Branch Trolley (source: MNCPPC Facility Plan for the
Capital Crescent/Metropolitan Branch Trail, 2001)

I am unsettled by the MTA suggestion that this trail connector should be cancelled to save trees. I recall the SHA making a similar assessment for crucial parts of the ICC bike trail late in the ICC decision process. SHA decided that after laying plans to slash trees in parks to build a four lane highway with a median and shoulders, they had to draw the line and delete the trail to save trees. Unfortunately planners at MNCPPC and many environmentalists bought into this, and SHA prevailed.

I continue to hold that for the CCT the differences between the Purple Line and the ICC are much greater than are the similarities, see Lessons from the ICC bike trail. But trail supporters will need to speak out to defend the CCT/RCT connector from this threat. We can reasonably consider deferring the construction of this connecting trail for a few years after construction of the main CCT and Purple Line transit. The CCT itself must be built with the Purple Line because they will share grading, retaining walls and other structural elements. But this CCT/RCT trail connector would share little structure with the main trail and transit, and can be built later with little increase in cost. If trail funding sources are stretched to their limit for the initial construction, then construction of this connector can follow when additional trail funding sources such as state transportation enhancements become available in a later budget cycle. I can accept a reasonable delay in building this connector if funding is not available at first, but we should oppose MTA’s suggestion that they remove it from the plans to save trees.

In the next post the discussion will turn to Bethesda, and a pleasant surprise in the proposed Tunnel design.

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4 Responses to “Trees vs. trail at Rock Creek Park”

  1. Lindemann says:

    Yeah, I don’t understand why they are worried about taking down trees there. There are a lot of trees. I run past there probably twice a month, and it would be really helpful for me to have a direct connector rather than having to go onto streets/sidewalks to make the connection.

  2. ed asher says:

    yea! up with people, down w/trees!

  3. Steve O says:

    I find these rationalizations to be ridiculous. The key objective should be to create a world-class trail system. Smart designers can figure out how to minimize the impact on the trees (or add more).

  4. Alex B says:

    While an off-road connection would certainly be convenient, it’s important to ask whether the clearing of even more trees is really worth it – just to save a few extra steps required to cross the street. If the switchback really can be built with minimal forest removal, then obviously it would be wonderful to have the connector. But otherwise, crossing a street isn’t the end of the world. The point of the construction project is to allow pedestrians to stay on the beautiful tree-lined trails, but we’d be cutting down the very trees that make the trails beautiful.