CSXT reverses. It is time for “Plan B”

March 30th, 2014

June 6 2014 Update: CSXT right-of-way is still in play.

My call below to bring forward “Plan B” may turn out to have been premature. Gary Erenrich of MCDOT reports that MCDOT and MTA have recently had very promising discussions with CSXT on the issue, and CSXT now appears to be open to making a deal that would allow the trail to be built on or very near the baseline alignment. CSXT has become more friendly to the idea now that they have learned more about the plans. The deal is still not done, but MCDOT hopes to be able to announce an agreement soon.

March 30, 2014 post:

Plans for completing the CCT with the Purple Line have received a serious setback. CSXT has apparently reversed its position, and is now refusing to grant any right-of-way for the trail between Talbot Avenue and downtown Silver Spring.

I had reported last fall that MTA appeared to be well on its way to negotiating trail right-of-way with CSXT, at Purple Line nears agreement with CSXT on the Trail. MTA had received a letter from CSXT indicating that it would grant right-of-way if a 50′ standoff requirement could be met, and MTA was confident it could meet this requirement. Everything appeared on-track for completing the CCT into downtown Silver Spring as long planned.

CCT plans now appear to be up in the air again. Gary Erenrich, MCDOT’s Purple Line project coordinator, broke the news at the 20 March 2014 Planning Board Purple Line/CCT mandatory referral. Mr. Erenrich announced that CSXT was now refusing to grant right-of-way to MTA for the CCT, MCDOT was now responsible for any further negotiations with CSXT for trail right-of-way, and that as things stand now the CCT would end at Talbot Avenue as an off-road trail. I have since had an email exchange with Mr. Erenrich, and he has clarified that MTA received a letter from CSXT mid-January stating they would not grant any CSXT right-of-way for a trail alone, and that MCDOT was now evaluating the physical feasibility and the cost of alternative trail alignments. Mr. Erenrich expects their preliminary evaluation of the alternatives to be completed in a month or so.

At issue is an approximate 1300′ of the planned CCT alignment behind the Park Sutton Condominium Building. The CCT can still be extended with the Purple Line to Talbot Avenue, where the trail will cross the CSX tracks on a new Talbot Avenue Bridge. There is non-CSXT right-of-way
that can be used for the trail from the Talbot Avenue Bridge to Lyttonsville Road. County owned Third Avenue right-of-way will be used from 16th Street south to Colesville Road. But a significant bypass of CSXT property will be needed behind the Park Sutton building if CSXT refuses to grant trail right-of-way there.

It is time for “Plan B”!

The master plan trail alignment at Park Sutton (in green)
and an alternate “Plan B” alignment (in red).

Fortunately there is a good alternative trail alignment that can avoid CSXT property behind the Park Sutton building, shown above. This alternative would go around the front of Park Sutton by using Lyttonsville Road and 16th Street. Lyttonsville Road is overbuilt, and that extra wide road right-of-way can accomodate a full width trail with no need to ‘take’ private property. A trail along the west side of 16th Street will require either taking a strip of right-of-way from the Park Sutton Condominium Association, or putting 16th Street on a “road diet” and closing a southbound lane of the roadway for trail and sidewalk use.

Toole Design Group has done a preliminary assessment of these and other alignment alternatives that were developed by M-NCPPC, and they reported their conclusions at Assessment of Bicycle and Pedestrian Issues Along the Purple Line Corridor (pp. 27-29). Toole Design Group assesses the bypass route to be less desirable than the more direct alignment in the CSXT right-of-way, and urges trail planners to make every effort to continue working with CSXT to achieve this alignment. Toole cites the bypass route’s longer distance and a roadway and parking lot crossing as deficiencies that make the bypass less desirable. But missing from the evaluation is any consideration of elevation changes along the alternative routes, and that is a MAJOR omission which, in my view, invalidates the Toole rankings!

The terrain behind the Park Sutton building is challenging for building a trail. Even if CSXT reverses itself yet again and agrees to grant right-of-way, the trail will be required to maintain a 50′ standoff from the railroad tracks vs. the 25′ standoff that had been assumed in the earlier master plan alignment. That additional standoff will push the trail down the side of the railroad berm, to be at or near the very low elevation of the Park Sutton parking lot. Take a “walk about” in this area and you quickly realize that if the trail drops to the parking lot elevation, then the trail must rise 30-40′ in elevation in a short distance to rise out of the parking lot to the 16th Street Bridge at its south end. Extensive and expensive switchback or elevated structures will be needed to manage the trail elevation change along this alignment. In contrast, the total trail elevation change along the bypass option alignment would be much less because this alignment skirts around the low elevation of the parking lot. Most trail users would much prefer the much gentler grades along the bypass option alignment, even if there is an additional distance of 500′ and a crossing of a driving lot entrance and driveway. The bypass alignment also has the significant advantage of being less isolated, with more “eyes on the trail” and more escape opportunities, for better perceived and real safety.

Toole correctly recognizes in their alternatives assessment that the 1300′ section behind Park Sutton is not the only area where trail planners will need to work with CSXT. There are other small areas where CSXT right-of-way or construction easements will be wanted. (At Talbot Avenue, under the 16th Street Bridge, and at Colesville Road come to mind.) MTA and MCDOT should continue to make every effort to engage CSXT in discussion of trail issues. But in my view, opting for “Plan B” now at Park Sutton can take the major 1300′ long sticking point off the table in CSX negotiations. That can improve the chances of getting CSXT cooperation on the remaining much smaller pieces. Any remaining pieces could be portrayed as not significantly challenging the overall CSXT corporate policy of no right-of-way for trails.

Fence fight exposes “Save the Trail” conflict of interest.

March 5th, 2014

An upcoming appeal trial about a back yard fence exposes a severe conflict of interest of “Save the Trail”. In short, the president of “Save the Trail” has been found guilty in District Court of building his back yard fence and shed on the publicly owned Georgetown Branch right-of-way, and he is appealing the order to remove it.

The appeal is scheduled for trial on 04/23/2013. (Case #8929D, filed on 02/21/2014 with the Maryland Circuit Court for Montgomery County, for Violation of Montgomery County Code.) Mr. Ajay Bhatt of the 3300 block of Coquelin Terrace, Chevy Chase, is appealing the District Court of Montgomery County finding on 01/21/2014 that he was guilty of violating county code by installing a fence beyond his private property.

Back yard fence going up on 5/13/2013
as seen from the Georgetown Branch Trail

A brief background:

A few key dates put Mr. Bhatt’s fence into perspective:

  • 1988: The Montgomery County Council allocates $10.5M to purchase the abandoned B&O Railroad right-of-way, for potential shared use for both transit and a trail.
  • 1994: An interagency task force recommends an Interim Trail be installed on the r.o.w. between Bethesda and Stewart Avenue, to have a gravel surface built on the railbed with minimal improvements to convey the INTERIM nature of the trail pending a decision about the kind of transit to be build in the corridor. Two years later the Interim Trail opens.
  • 2006: Ajay Bhatt purchases his house adjacent to the publicly owned Georgetown Branch r.o.w. and Interim Trail, at the 3300 block of Coquilin Terrace. The County Council is on record in support of building the Purple Line in this r.o.w. and the MTA is holding public meetings evaluating alternative transit modes in this r.o.w. throughout this time period.
  • May 2012: MTA representives meet with the Coquelin Run Citizens Association (CRCA) and give a briefing on current Purple Line plans in the neighborhood. MTA presents a detailed map showing where lot lines are on Coquelin Terrace relative to future Purple Line construction.

    Partial MTA map presented to CRCA
    (click on image for full map as large .pdf)
  • May 2013: Mr. Bhatt constructs his fence at an approx. 27′ standoff from the centerline of the Georgetown Branch r.o.w. (a minimum 45′ standoff is needed here to stay out of the publicly owned r.o.w.). The fence stands directly in the path of a proposed Purple Line retaining wall.
  • October 2013: Montgomery County issues a citation for a Building Code violation – building a fence beyond private property. Mr. Bhatt challenges the citation and the issue goes to court.
  • Jan. 21, 2014: Mr. Bhatt is found guilty of the violation in District Court and is fined $500, suspended and is given 30 days to remove his fence and shed. Mr. Bhatt appeals, and the appeal is scheduled to be heard in the Maryland Circuit Court on 4/23/2014.

A fight Montgomery County must win for the public:

The Georgetown Branch Corridor right-of-way is lined along its length by many encroachments from adjacent property owners. The majority of the encroachments are old fences and sheds that were erected years ago when the B&O Railroad still ran trains, before the county had purchased the r.o.w. and declared its intention to use the corridor for joint transit/trail use.

Mr. Bhatt’s encroachment is very recent – done after specific plans for public use of the right-of-way had been published widely. Mr. Bhatt’s encroachment is very egregious – extending deep into the publicly owned r.o.w. so that his fence and back yard shed stand directly in the path of a planned Purple Line retaining wall. The County has little choice but to defend this right-of-way against Mr. Bhatt’s direct challenge.

This fence exposes a conflict of interest for “Save the Trail”:

No one questions Mr. Bhatt’s right to use the court system to assert his claim that he can legally build a fence in the Georgetown Branch right-of-way. But his fence does raise some questions about “Save the Trail” regardless of the outcome of the trial.

1) “Save the Trail” is hiding a serious conflict of interest.

Opponents of the Purple Line frequently assert that proponents have a conflict of interest – and in particular that they are mostly developers or paid by developers who will benefit financially from the Purple Line. And nearly all of us do have a conflict of interest of some kind. We expect advocates to disclose their major interests so we can better evaluate their positions. I have disclosed my affiliations and interests at About the author. The advocacy organization Purple Line NOW! lists its board member affiliations and its major fundraising event sponsors on its website.

Ajay Bhatt is the president of Save the Trail. Mr. Bhatt is attempting to enclose part of the publicly owned Georgetown Branch r.o.w. for his own private use. If he succeeds, the value of his home will increase substantually. He has a very strong and direct financial and personal interest in stopping the Purple Line that has nothing to do with the merits of the project. Mr. Bhatt has every right to speak out about the Purple Line, but “Save the Trail” should disclose that their president and chief spokesman has this unusually strong conflict of interest. There is nothing on the “Save the Trail” website or Facebook page to make this important disclosure.

2) “Save the Trail” is pursuing an agenda very different from “saving” trees, park or trail.

“Friends” of parks or trails typically give to their favored park or trail, not take. “Save the Trail” publicly asserts the Georgetown Branch corridor is a precious and unique park-like public space that should be cherished and shared by the public. Yet we have the president of this so-called friends of the trail group attempting to take a significant chunk of the Georgetown Branch rignt-of-way out of public use as a park or trail, and convert it into an extension of his own very private back yard.

This is no way to treat a park!

Regardless of the outcome of the upcoming trial, this case shows us a lot about “Save the Trail”.

WABA submits 400+ Purple Line FEIS comments

October 30th, 2013

MTA Purple Line team member Joy Hamilton informed the Purple Line NOW! board at their monthly meeting that MTA has received over 1000 comments on the FEIS. 400+ were from WABA!

WABA used its website to encourage its members to submit comments on the Purple Line FEIS. The WABA comment input form had this suggested text:

I write to express my support for the Purple Line project because I support the accompanying work to complete the Capital Crescent Trail between Bethesda and Silver Spring.

The CCT must be completed as part of this project as a paved, grade-separated, safe connection between downtown Bethesda and downtown Silver Spring. This should be done regardless the details of the alignment and the ownership of the necessary right-of-way, and the FEIS should more clearly state that MTA will work with MCDOT and necessary stakeholders to ensure that the trail is built as promised.

While I support the Purple Line as a means of providing alternatives to the use of single occupancy vehicles for east-west transportation in the region, the completion of the CCT as a viable bicycling connection is critical.

The CCCT has also submitted comments on the FEIS, available at FEIScomments.pdf . The CCCT continues to neither support nor oppose the Purple Line, and concluded in its comments:

“MCDOT and MTA must act well together as a CCT design team if we are going to realize the potential of the CCT. If the Purple Line proceeds to final design, the design team should include designers who have professional training and experience specific to multi-use trail design, and who have the responsibility to design the CCT to meet or exceed current trail design guidelines and best practices.”

Purple Line Project Manager Mike Madden has stated that the FEIS comments are not meant to be a “beauty contest”, meaning they were not counting “for” and “against” but were looking for new issues that had not already been dealt with in the many public meetings and hearings. But still, this large response does effectively counter some of the “Save the Trail” hype that a few local Chevy Chase residents have been pushing.

Purple Line nears agreement with CSXT on the Trail.

October 9th, 2013

Oct. 18 update: Proposed trail design at Talbot Avenue needs to be reworked.

M-NCPPC has recently released a “Peer Review” of the CCT design that Toole Design Group performed, available online at Peer Review of Trail Projects. Toole Design Group examined the drawing of the proposed trail alignment along Talbot Avenue more closely than I had, and found the effective trail width is only 6′ there. While the trail is a nominal 10′ wide, there is no buffer, fence or shy space between the trail and the Talbot Ave. curb, and there is no buffer or shy space between the trail and fence on the CSXT side. This fails to meet current design guidelines and best practices. Toole recommends the design be completely redone in this area.

I had found the design to be acceptible in my post below. My bad – I had not examined the drawings closely enough. The devil is in the details, and the details stink in the MCDOT design.

The release of the Purple Line FEIS for public comment last month brought attention to a serious problem that threatened the Capital Crescent Trail – the difficulty of reaching agreement with CSXT for right-of-way to complete the trail into downtown Silver Spring. As reported here at Giving up on the CCT too easily, language in the FEIS dealt with the issue badly by stating that if agreement is not reached the trail would be dumped onto local streets and would not be completed as an off-road trail. Early this month we received word from Purple Line project manager Mike Madden that a recent CSXT policy change on trails?! would allow the Purple Line to go forward with its plans to complete the CCT.

We are learning more about how the plans are moving forward. On Friday, Oct. 4 the MTA Purple Line design team and MCDOT engineers had a monthly design working group meeting, and MTA shared its most recent letter from CSXT. The CSXT letter was dated Sept. 3, 2013 and answered an MTA letter of Oct. 23, 2012 about CSXT’s concerns. The CSXT letter states:

“The main concern we have is the proposed construction of the Trail on CSX property and the distance shown to the CSX live track. The minimum distance accepted for any trail on CSX property is 50 feet from the centerline of the near track.”

MTA shared more recent design drawings and described how the Purple Line project hopes to meet this CSXT requirement at the design working group meeting. A summary follows.

At Talbot Avenue: change the bridge

MTA is realigning the Trail in the vicinity of Talbot Avenue and 4th Avenue to avoid using any CSXT r.o.w., since CSXT r.o.w. is not wide enough to maintain a 50 foot offset in that area. The trail will be routed onto a new bridge over the railroad tracks to do this. Drawings dated August 1, 2013 show the new bridge location to be about where the existing historic one-lane bridge is today.

The bridge proposed to replace the existing Talbot Ave. bridge.
(click on the image for a wider view)

The proposed new trail alignment on this new bridge would be about equal in quality to a trail alignment over a trail bridge near Lanier Drive as previously proposed. The trail will cross the CSX tracks on the new vehicle bridge alongside two lanes of traffic, instead of on a separate trail bridge. Because the trail is shifted from CSX property onto the 4th Ave. r.o.w. on the north/east side, the trail will have to cross the bridge traffic lanes at the end of the new bridge. But motor vehicle traffic will be light and can be calmed by a “all way” stop much as bridge traffic is today, so there need not be a heavy impact on trail safety or convenience. The long trail ramp that had been planned along Talbot Avenue to the trail bridge is gone, since the new alignment will allow the trail to follow the more gentle grade of Talbot Avenue to get the elevation needed for the cross-over on the new motor vehicle bridge. The new alignment will allow direct access from the trail to Lanier Drive. Overall the new proposed trail alignment compares well with the old in this area.

The historic Talbot Avenue Bridge

I gave a brief summary of the history and local importance of the Talbot Ave. Bridge at 90 years and counting. Local passions will likely be aroused by any proposal to remove this bridge. But MCDOT engineers have previously expressed concerns about the feasibility of modifying this bridge to accommodate the Purple Line. In particular, it is doubtful that state and federal funds can be used to rebuild the historic bridge since it so badly fails to meet current bridge design and safety standards. I doubt that the Trail is the primary driver forcing the replacement of this bridge – the trail could likely be accommodated by a new trail bridge that would avoid CXST r.o.w. if built adjacent to the historic bridge. Trail supporters should try to avoid taking sides if another bridge fight breaks out between neighborhoods.

At Park Sutton: increase the trail offset

The Trail can use 4th Ave. r.o.w. south from the Talbot Ave. Bridge to the Woodside Mews townhomes. MTA is proposing to move the trail a few feet at Woodside Mews to be entirely outside of CSXT r.o.w. until it reaches Lyttonsville Road. That will put the trail a little closer to the curb of the Woodside Mews parking lot and there may be calls for stronger measures to provide privacy and noise screening between the trail and the townhomes. But the impact of this move appears to be reasonable.

The Trail is planned to be inside CSXT r.o.w. for the 1300′ section between Lyttonsville Road and the 16th Street Bridge, behind the Park Sutton Condominiums. The CSXT r.o.w. is very wide there, and MTA has indicated it is revising plans to increase the planned trail offset in this section to meet the CSXT 50 foot offset requirement.

The planned trail alignment at Park Sutton (in green)
and an alternate “Plan B” alignment (in red).

Trail supporters need to watch how this alignment shift might impact the trail elevation in this area. The most recent elevation drawings for the trail show that the trail drops 36 feet from the high point at the Talbot Ave. Bridge to a low point adjacent to the Park Sutton parking lot, then rises 20 feet from the parking lot to the 16th Street highway bridge. The maximum grade is 4.5%, within recommended design allowable for a trail. That is a substantial elevation change. Shifting the alignment further from the CSXT active track should not be allowed to cause even more elevation change. MTA may need to use elevated trail structure in the vicinity of the Park Sutton parking to improve the trail elevation.

The alternate “Plan B” trail alignment shown above should be kept in mind by MTA and MCDOT Purple Line planners. While it now appears that an alternate alignment will not be needed, it is good to have an alternate in the event an unforseen issue blocks completing a trail r.o.w. agreement with CSXT.

The proposed trail alignment enters county owned 3rd Avenue r.o.w. after passing under the 16th Street Bridge, and remains within county owned r.o.w. until it reaches the Metro Plaza at Colesville Road. No changes in the proposed trail alignment are needed in this section to meet CSXT requirements.

At Metro Plaza: the Trail is supported by Purple Line structure

The Sept. 3, 2013 CSXT letter and attached responses to MTA plans did not raise any objections to the proposed trail alignment on elevated structure in the Metro Plaza and Silver Spring Transit Center area. CSXT did request more information on the placement of the Purple Line elevated structure support piers and the design of the train crash barriers that would protect the piers.

Proposed Trail alignment at Metro Plaza
(source: MTA Purple Line website)

I think that CSXT is not applying its 50′ offset requirement for trails at Metro Plaza and Colesville Road because the CCT is integrated into the Purple Line support structures and is not a “trail alone” in this area.

Seventeen years, and still waiting!

The off-road interim CCT was built on the Georgetown Branch r.o.w. in Bethesda/Chevy Chase neighborhoods in 1996. Downtown Silver Spring and Silver Spring neighborhoods are still waiting for any off-road CCT seventeen years later. The Purple Line design team has a clear path now to complete its plans to build the CCT into Silver Spring along the CSXT corridor as long promised. It is time to complete the plans, and to start building!

CSXT policy change on trails?!

October 3rd, 2013

CSXT has very recently informed MTA it will now sell r.o.w. for trails, so long as their offset requirements are satisfied. This is an apparent policy change for CSXT.

CSX corridor to Silver SpringPurple Line project manager Mike Madden says MTA is going forward with its plans to finish the CCT into Silver Spring as described in the Purple Line FEIS. The language in the FEIS that has raised so much concern, i.e. that the CCT would be routed onto local streets if CSXT r.o.w. is not obtained, will become moot if MTA does get the r.o.w.

It is too early to celebrate. The CSXT r.o.w. has not been negotiated and purchased yet. Even with this more favorable CSXT policy, negotiations on the price and conditions may be difficult. County and state leaders may still need to impress upon CSXT that this is a priority project. MCDOT should explore a fallback trail alignment until the CSXT r.o.w. is in-hand.

Council asks Leggett to save the CCT extension

September 13th, 2013

The Montgomery County Council T&E Committee has responded to the serious threat to the future CCT that I described here in my previous post, i.e. the Purple Line FEIS plan to dump the CCT extension onto streets in Silver Spring if CSXT refuses to grant r.o.w. for the trail.

The T&E Committee has sent a memorandum to County Executive Ike Leggett urging action. The memo says in part:

We believe we absolutely must do everything we can to work with CSXT toward completing this section of the trail: the FEIS makes it clear it is up to Montgomery County to do so. The current signed bike route through local streets crosses a significant number of intersections and would greatly reduce the trail’s value to pedestrians and bicyclists. On any kind of permanent basis, this is simply unacceptable.

In the meantime, at least one alternative to the route currently planned does exist, using available right of way on Fourth Avenue. Council staff is familiar with this alternative and agrees that it deserves serious exploration. We urge you to work with MTA to give this and any other possible alternatives serious consideration.

The memorandum is online at Alignment Memo, a pdf.

We owe a big Thank You! to T&E Chairman Roger Berliner, committee members Hans Riemer and Nancy Floreen, and District 5 Councilmember Valerie Ervin for reacting so quickly to try to set the county on the right course.

Sept. 14 Update: Councilmember Leventhal did not have the opportunity to sign the memo because he is not on the T&E Committee. He has emailed me, cc’d to MCDOT, expressing his strong support for the memo and for completing the CCT.

The ball is in the court of Ike Leggett and the MCDOT. The MTA Purple Line will follow the guidance MCDOT gives on the CCT design, but MCDOT must step up and take the ball now.

Giving up on the CCT too easily

September 8th, 2013

(A version of this is also posted on Greater greater Washington)

The Purple Line Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) is out.

The Maryland Transit Administration released the Purple Line FEIS on Sept. 6. Comments will be collected and provided to the FTA, which will then issue a Record of Decision on whether to move the project toward further design development and the right-of-way acquisition process. The 10 Chapter FEIS and information on how to comment is on the Purple Line website: FEIS Document.

Profile of Purple Line and CCT, by MTA as shown in the FEIS
(Source: FEIS Document)

Most of the material in the FEIS follows closely to the issues and concerns we have followed over the years of public meetings, hearings and open houses. But the FEIS raises a major issue about the completion of the CCT into Silver Spring that has not drawn much attention before.

The FEIS has finishing the CCT contingent on CSXT cooperation.

The FEIS describes the plan to complete the CCT into Silver Spring on the preferred trail alignment along the east side of the CSXT corridor.

Planned route of the extended CCT with the
Purple Line “Preferred Alternative”

(Source: FEIS Document)

The preferred alignment will require acquiring CSXT r.o.w. for the trail at several locations. CSXT has a general policy to not allow its r.o.w. to be used for trails, but MTA sent CSXT a letter last November requesting that they make an exception for this project. It is hoped that The State of Maryland can succeed in getting an exception for a Purple Line joint transit/trail project, where a local government seeking an exception for a trail alone would not. But CSXT has still not granted the exception to date.

MTA addresses the CSXT trail r.o.w. issue in the FEIS at Chapter 2 – Alternatives Considered, p. 2-24 (emphasis mine):

“…At the junction with the CSXT Metropolitan Subdivision, the County’s current plan calls for the permanent Capital Crescent Trail to continue on the north side of the CSXT corridor to the SSTC. The Preferred Alternative as shown in the FEIS includes completing the Capital Crescent Trail in CSXT right-of-way in accordance with the County’s plan. The completion of the trail along the CSXT corridor, however, is contingent on agreement between Montgomery County and CSXT on the use of their property on the north side of the CSXT tracks for the trail. If agreement is not reached by the time the Purple Line construction occurs, MTA would construct the trail from Bethesda to Talbot Avenue. From Talbot Avenue to Silver Spring an interim signed bike route on local streets would be used...”

As the FEIS is written, the MTA and State of Maryland appear ready to give up on working with Montgomery County to complete the CCT into downtown Silver Spring if it cannot get CSXT r.o.w. for the trail. This could be devastating to the trail and trail network. There would be no off-road trail connection to downtown Silver Spring, no continuous off-road trail between Silver Spring and Bethesda, no complete off-road MetBranch/CCT “bicycle beltway”. The off-road CCT extension that has been promised in every Georgetown Branch Trolley and Purple Line Light-Rail concept study and planning document for more than two decades would be no more than a broken promise.

The FEIS overlooks the possibility of a good off-road CCT on a “Plan B” alignment.

The FEIS presents a false choice: either get CSXT cooperation for the preferred trail alignment entirely in the corridor, or give up on building any off-road trail and dump the CCT onto local streets at Talbot Avenue. But it is possible to complete an all off-road CCT into downtown Silver Spring without CSXT cooperation. A “Plan B” trail would be as safe and nearly as direct as the trail would be on the preferred alignment, and could be less expensive to build.

The key to understanding “Plan B” is to know that the majority of the preferred trail alignment along the CSXT corridor is already within publicly owned r.o.w., or immediately adjacent to publicly owned r.o.w. This can be seen in the aerial map of the corridor that MTA has shown at its most recent open houses, and is online at CSX Corridor to Silver Spring Transit Center (a large pdf). The aerial map shows that at the north end of this CSXT corridor it is possible to bring the CCT down 4th Avenue and behind the Woodside Mews townhouses to Lyttonsville Road, entirely outside of CSXT r.o.w., if the trail alignment were shifted just a few feet east into the 4th Avenue r.o.w. from the CSXT r.o.w.

To the south of the corridor, the planned CCT alignment is already within the publicly owned 3rd Avenue r.o.w. continuous from 16th Street to Fenwick Place. There is other private and public r.o.w. that can be used for the trail from Fenwick Lane to the Metro Plaza Building at Colesville Road. The trail does appear to need to be in a small amount of CSXT r.o.w. at Metro Plaza, but the Purple Line will be crossing over the CSXT track to be directly above the CCT and the trail is planned to be supported on structure shared with the Purple Line at this location so it is unlikely CSXT would invoke its “no r.o.w. for a trail alone” policy here.

A “Plan B” off-road trail route can bypass the CSXT r.o.w. by using Lyttonsville Road and 16th Street.

A “Plan B” off-road CCT can bypass CSXT r.o.w.

A trail route along Lyttonsville Road and 16th Street would be only a few hundred feet longer than the preferred route in the CSXT r.o.w. It can be more inviting – more visible and accessible over most of its length. In contrast the preferred CCT route in the CSXT r.o.w. would be relatively isolated behind the Park Sutten building, and built between a high retaining wall and a CSXT crash wall. The cost to build the bypass route should be lower than the cost of the preferred trail route, because less retaining wall would be needed and the CSXT crash wall would be eliminated.

Looking down Lyttonsville Road from the Woodside Mews Townhomes toward 16th Street.

Lyttonsville Road is extra-wide, and can easily have a “road diet” width reduction to free the space needed for an off-road CCT while still leaving room for traffic lanes and on-street parking. The trail can go on the west-side shoulder of 16th Street to the CSXT corridor, as shown in the sketch above, then go under the 16th Street Bridge in the same manner as the preferred trail alignment. This would give us the much desired grade-separated crossing under 16th Street, but will require “taking” approx. 12′ of r.o.w. from the Park Sutton Condominiums to supplement the existing r.o.w. on the west side 16th Street shoulder. It might also require getting just a few feet of r.o.w. from CSXT on the west shoulder of the 16th Street Bridge, although the drawings are not clear on this. The 16th Street Bridge must be rebuilt for the Purple Line, so the state must engage CSXT in r.o.w. and construction issues at this location regardless of the trail.

If CSXT or Park Sutton r.o.w. difficulties were to block this trail route on the west side of 16th Street, then we can still make a bypass work. Another option is to cross 16th Street at a new light at Lyttonsville Road, then go down the east side of 16th Street to the CSXT. This would stay well clear of any CSXT r.o.w. at the 16th Street Bridge, and would require little or no additional r.o.w. along 16th Street. An at-grade trail crossing of 16th Street would be much safer at Lyttonsville Road than the existing on-road trail crossing at Second Avenue, because this crossing would be shorter, would have very little turning traffic, and could use the wide median for a “safety refuge”.

“Plan B” has already won community support.

I would love to take credit for discovering this CSXT bypass route, but it is so obvious that anyone can see it. And besides, it is a key part of the off-road “interim” trail planned years ago and described in the M-NCPPC report “Facility Plan for the Capital Cresent & Metropolitan Branch Trails”, approved by the Planning Board January 2001 and available online on the CCCT website at CCT Archives. It was developed and supported by a team of representatives from the nearby communities, trail user groups, planning staff at M-NCPPC, and the professional trail design group Lardner and Klein. This Interim CCT was recommended to be built at a time when the single-track Georgetown Branch trolley, proposed to run from Bethesda to Silver Spring, had fallen by the wayside and with no clear successor in sight. Investment in a “long term interim trail” made sense when transit appeared to be going nowhere soon. But shortly after this study was approved the movement for transit came to life again as the Purple Line. The “long term” part of “interim trail” went away, and with it the support for spending millions to build it.

M-NCPPC trail planner David Anspacher has recently begun to examine the “Plan B” bypass concept. He has circulated this and other alternative CCT route ideas among M-NCPPC staff for comments, and has asked trail design consultants Toole Design to include this in an evaluation of CCT alternatives they are doing for M-NCPPC. This work becomes ever more important as CSXT continues to withhold cooperation on trail r.o.w. issues.

We need to act to keep “Plan B” alive as a feasible option.

The FEIS presents a depressing false choice: We either complete the preferred alignment CCT into Silver Spring with CSXT cooperation for the trail r.o.w., or else we just give up and dump the CCT onto local roads. If we allow MTA to give up so easily on the CCT, then this could be self fulfilling. The “Plan B” version of the trail could be blocked from being built with the Purple Line if MTA proceeds to build the Purple Line with no consideration for compatibility with a possible “Plan B” trail.

What we can do:

1 – Submit comments on the Purple Line FEIS that respond to the “false choice” that is presented for completing the CCT. Point out there are options for an off-road CCT that bypasses the CSXT r.o.w. should CSXT refuse to cooperate on the trail. Ask MTA to commit to designing and building the best feasible off-road CCT extension into downtown Silver Spring, in coordination with Montgomery County, consistant with the promises it has made to the community for over two decades. Comments can be submitted online at FEIS Comment Form or by sending an email to FEIS@purplelinemd.com with “FEIS COMMENT” as the subject heading.

2 – Contact the Montgomery County Executive, Council, and Planning Board and let them know there are options for completing a good off-road CCT that do not require CSXT r.o.w. Ask them to accelerate study of “Plan B” options, to be ready in case the preferred CCT alignment is blocked by CSXT refusal to grant r.o.w. for the trail. Tell them that we expect them to keep the promises they have given to us for many years to complete the CCT, and this trail is much too important for them to give up so easily.

Wellness and the Purple Line/CCT

March 2nd, 2013

The Purple Line/CCT project is nearing completion of its Preliminary Design Phase. On March February 28 MTA Purple Line staff and M-NCPPC planners briefed the Montgomery County Planning Board on the current status of several remaining design issues. Much of the briefing presented issues already presented at the recent MTA Neighborhood Work Groups, but there were some new renderings of the Silver Spring station, and also a new (at least to me) discusion of the Silver Spring Green Trail. The briefing is available at M-NCPPC 02/28/2013 Purple Line Briefing (PDF). Uncertainty still hung over the future of the project at the briefing because of the continued failure of the state legislature to address adequate funding for the state Transportation Trust Fund.

Written testimony was submitted to the Planning Board from a Bethesda resident and “Friends of the Trail” advocate Mary Rivkin requesting a Health Impact Assessment (HIA) be conducted by MTA. From the testimony submitted:

Need for Health Impact Assessment (HIA). While the requirement for an EIS is well understood, the equally pertinent HIA is not yet equally considered. The CDC points out that a “major benefit—is that it brings public health issues to the attention of persons who make decisions about areas that fall outside traditional public health arenas, such as transportation land use.” When we consider that the de facto park offers many health benefits to residents, changing the park to train tracks with a little trail running alongside should entail a formal analysis of the health impacts of the project. …

The full public testimony is on the record here (PDF), see the second of the two letters submitted.

Ms. Rivkin requests a full assessment of the health impacts of the transportation project, but her comments address only the issues associated with the Georgetown Branch Trail in her immediate neighborhood and are biased against the Purple Line. If an HIA assessment is done it would follow CDC Health Impact Assessment Toolkit guidelines which support the CDC Transportation Recommendations. Those CDC recommendations strongly support using transportation design to improve public health, including expanding public transit, promoting “active transportation” with transit, and healthy community design with access to affordable transportation. Further, an HIA would measure health impacts of the Purple Line on neighborhoods over the entire 16-mile project length, not just the Bethesda neighborhood that is of focus of concern to Ms. Rivkin.

One does not need to be a health science professional to get a good sense of whether an HIA would support Ms. Rivkin’s opposition to the Purple Line. I take a brief look here at several of the major issues, grouped in catagories roughly similar to those suggested by CDC guidelines and Ms. Rivkin’s request:

  • The health benefit from trail use
  • The health benefit from transit “active transportation”
  • Trail safety and neighborhood connectivity
  • Tree cover, and public access to green space

I only look at the Bethesda-Silver Spring area, but that is enough to get the gist of what an HIA of the entire project would find.

1 – The health benefit from trail use:

The public health benefit of getting people more active to combat obesity and other disorders is well known, and I’ll not belabor the issue here. Trail users will enjoy Lenny Bernsteins’ observations on how the Capital Crescent Trail supports physical activities of walking, running and cycling, which appeared in the Wellness section of the Washington Post on this February 26: In praise of a reliable workout buddy. Mr. Bernstein withholds judgement about whether the changes to the CCT east of Bethesda (a.k.a. Georgetown Branch Trail) that the Purple Line will bring would be for good or bad.

More people will benefit from physical activity on the trail if the Purple Line/CCT is built as proposed than benefit from the trail as it exists today. This is often counter-intuitive to Bethesda residents like Ms. Rivkin, but strong evidence for this can be found in the 2006 CCCT Trail Traffic Survey:

Trail use at Elm Street Park is less than 1/2 the trail use at Bethesda Avenue only a few hundred feet to the west. And trail use near the eastern end of the trail, at the Grubb Road access, is barely more than 1/10 that at Bethesda Avenue. Clearly the Georgetown Branch Trail east of Bethesda is very underused compared to the CCT. This data led to this major conclusion in the trail traffic survey report (emphasis mine):
“Trail use at Grubb Road peaks at 80 uses/hr on weekends, and the projected weekly use is 2500+. This is a very respectable use compared to many local neighborhood trails, but falls far short of the potential the CCT has to be a regional trail connecting downtown Bethesda with downtown Silver Spring. The stark contrast between observed trail use at Grubb Road and elsewhere on the CCT invites a public discussion about what is needed to complete the CCT to better serve Silver Spring and its neighborhoods.”

The major reason that the Georgetown Branch Trail is underused is shown here:

East terminus of the off-road Georgetown Branch Trail,
in an industrial park at Lyttonsville

The off-road Georgetown Branch Trail ends ubruptly over 1-1/2 miles from downtown Silver Spring, in an obscure industrial park at Stewart Avenue. The trail continues from there into Silver Spring in traffic as an on-road bicycle route, with many turns, numerous stop signs and traffic signals, and with at-grade crossings of several busy highways including two six-lane state highways.

Another reason for the Geogetown Branch Trail being underused is pictured here:

Georgetown Branch Trail near Stewart Avenue

While some trail users, mostly joggers, like the crushed stone trail surface on the Georgetown Branch off-road section, many find that the uneven and often muddy conditions are not good for cycling. It is also not well suited for the mobility impaired who need walkers or wheelchairs, or for parents with baby strollers.

The length of the Georgetown Branch Trail east of Rock Creek, from Rock Creek to downtown Silver Spring, is equal to the length of the trail west of Rock Creek, from Rock Creek to downtown Bethesda. The population of Silver Spring and its neighborhoods is comparible to that of Bethesda. The business and employment activities of the two urban centers are about equal. Both have very active transit centers. If the CCT (a.k.a. Georgetown Branch Trail) were to be extended as a paved, good quality off-road trail into downtown Silver Spring, then the number of people with easy access to the off-road trail between Bethesda and Silver Spring would be approximately doubled from what it is today. The completed trail would have about twice the number of useful destinations for all users than does the existing incomplete trail. Important regional trail connections with the Metropolitan Branch Trail and the Silver Spring Green Trail would be completed.

The Purple Line will change the nature of the trail in Chevy Chase, to have less shade and less of the character of a park. But for every trail user who might stop using the trail as often because it feels less like a park in Chevy Chase, there would be several new trail users happy to use the trail because it is would be more accessible from their home in Silver Spring or would better reach a Silver Spring destination.

2 – The health benefit from rail transit “active transportation”:

It is easy to focus only on biking and walking on the trail when we look at getting people to be more physically active in their daily lives. But using transit instead of driving a car has been shown by numerous studies to bring very substantial health benefits from more physical activity. Here are just two:

  • Science Daily described a study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine by the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel University and the RAND Corporation. The study found that construction of a light-rail system (LRT) resulted in increased physical activity (walking) and subsequent weight loss by people served by the LRT.

    “Using two surveys, one collecting data prior to the completion of an LRT in Charlotte, North Carolina, the second after completion, investigators found that using light rail for commuting was associated with reductions in body mass index (BMI) over time. Specifically, LRT reduced BMI by an average of 1.18 kg/m2 compared to non-LRT users in the same area over a 12-18 month follow-up period. This is equivalent to a relative weight loss of 6.45 lbs for a person who is 5′5. LRT users were also 81% less likely to become obese over time.”

  • The CDC Health Impact Assessment Toolkit lists several studies of active transportation under “Resources”. The first study cited is from the American Journal of Preventive Medicine:
    Besser, L. M. and A. L. Dannenberg (2005). “Walking to public transit: steps to help meet physical activity recommendations.” Am J Prev Med 29(4): 273-280.

    This national study found that Americans obtain daily bouts of physical activity by walking to and from transit. The median amount of time spent in commuting to transit on foot is 19 minutes, but people of lower socio-economic status and minorities walked further to transit stops. Rail users walked further than bus commuters.

    The CDC clearly recognizes the important benefit that walking to transit can bring to public health, and highlights it in its HIA toolkit. Its CDC Transportation Fact Sheet (PDF) lists expanding public transportation among its major recommendations for improving public health through good transportation policy.

We can draw a point of comparison on the potential public health benefit from walking to transit with the benefit on the existing Georgetown Branch Trail from walking and biking. An early MTA estimate of the transit use at the Bethesda Purple Line platform is 11,500 boardings each day, from MTA Purple Line station ridership table (PDF). Since approx. 4/5 of future Purple Line riders are estimated to convert from riding buses, I’ll be conservative and not count that 4/5 even though the studies show users will walk further to rail transit stations than to bus stops. This still leaves us with 2,300 “new” transit riders boarding at the Bethesda Purple Line station each day, or approx. 16,100 each week. And this is only counting boardings, i.e. those who leave the station and travel east, and not those who are alighting, i.e. those who arrive on the Purple Line from stations to the east. Even under these extremely conservative assumptions, the estimated 16,000+ people getting a health benefit from walking to Purple Line transit at Bethesda will exceed the number of people who now use the Georgetown Branch Trail for walking or biking, 10,000+ weekly as counted at Elm Street Park. And this point of comparison is only for the Bethesda station. When you consider that the Purple Line is projected to have 69,500 daily boardings at 22 stations, it is clear the public health benefit of the 16 mile long Purple Line for active transportation will eclipse that realized today by walkers and cyclists on the 3 mile long off-road Georgetown Branch Trail.

An HIA will show that a Georgetown Branch Trail that will be completed into Silver Spring with the Purple Line would serve more walkers and cyclists than does today’s badly underused trail. It will also easily show that the number of transit users who will get a significant active transportation health benefit by using the Purple Line would eclipse the number of trail users. The public health implication is clear – to increase physical activity benefits for the largest number of people, building the Purple Line/CCT project is a far better choice than would be “no build”.

3 – Trail safety and neighborhood connectivity.

Ms. Rivkin’s request for a full HIA of the Purple Line asserts that building the Purple Line on top of the existing trail will make the trail less safe, and will destroy safe pedestrian connectivity between neighborhoods. But the request only mentions neighborhoods and street crossings in Chevy Chase. The request makes little mention of neighborhoods along 1/2 of the length of the Georgetown Branch Trail, the part that lies east of Jones Mill Road.

The existing Georgetown Branch Trail looks like this in Silver Spring neighborhoods:
Georgetown Branch Trail crossing of 16th Street

Georgetown Branch Trail crossing of 16th Street

The Georgetown Branch Trail is now only an on-road cycling route through the neighborhoods of Lyttonsville, Rosemary Hills, North Woodside, Woodside and the Silver Spring Urban District. These neighborhoods are separated from each other by the CSX railroad tracks, the 16th Street six-lane State Highway (pictured above), Spring Street, and Colesville Road which is yet another six-lane State Highway.

Neighborhoods are divided by six-lane highways and a railroad.
(The existing on-road Georgetown Branch “trail” is the green line.)
Source: www.cctrail.org

The Purple Line/CCT project proposes to build a completely off-road, 12′ wide shared use trail, with grade-separated bridges and underpasses of the railroad tracks and all major roadways, complete into the Silver Spring Transit Center. This is far from being the “little trail” Ms. Rivkin describes in her request.

The trail in the Chevy Chase neighborhoods would be rebuilt to maintain the connectivity between Chevy Chase neighborhoods similar to what they enjoy now. The loss of the grade-separated crossing of Wisconsin Avenue would be compensated for by new grade-separated crossings of Connecticut Avenue and Jones Mill Road. Trail users would be separated from transit tracks by a landscaped buffer and fence throughout the length of the trail. There is extensive experience nationwide with Rails-with-Trails, and they have been shown to be very safe.

A systematic survey of trail safety and neighborhood connectivity issues would conclude that building the Purple Line and extending the CCT into Silver Spring would improve trail safety and neighborhood connectivity.

4 – Tree cover, and public access to green space

Opponents of the Purple Line make the claim that Montgomery County has declared the lower county area to be deficient of parks and green space. To remedy that, they ask that the Georgetown Branch Corridor be declared a park, and that transit uses be excluded.

It may be true that parts of lower Montgomery County are deficient of parks for uses such as ballfields, dog parks and play lots. But lower Montgomery County has a higher percentage of tree cover now than does the rest of the county:

Existing tree cover density in Montgomery County
(click on the image for the full map with legend)
Source: A report on Montgomery County’s
existing and possible tree cover

The project that produced the map above applied the USDA Forest Service’s TC assessment protocols to Montgomery County. The analysis was conducted based on year 2009 data by the University of Vermont Spatial Analysis Laboratory.

The Chevy Chase Lake sector plan has a more detailed map of the tree cover at the central section of the off-road Georgetown Branch Trail:

Existing tree cover in the Chevy Chase Lake area
source: Chevy Chase Lake Sector Plan – Appendix 8, Environment (PDF)

The Chevy Chase Lake sector now has a tree cover of 52%. The source document for the sketch above states that the desired minimum tree cover is 30%. The source document notes that the majority of tree cover in this sector is from the Coquelin Run stream valley. As can be seen by the separation distance between Coquelin Run and the Georgetown Branch Corridor, the Coquelin Run tree cover would not be impacted by changes in the Georgetown Branch corridor. It is also evident that the residential areas throughout the sector contribute significant amounts to the total tree cover in this area.

The tree cover along the Georgetown Branch is evident in the Chevy Chase Lake Sector Plan map above, but a significant proportion of that is from adjacent private properties. A significant number of trees will also remain within the 100′ wide r.o.w. in the Chevy Chase Lake sector after Purple Line construction since the expected limit of construction is only 60′ wide. There will be some restoration of green space within that 60′ as small trees and large shrubs from the project’s landscaping become established.

The most important contribution of tree cover in this area is not from the Georgetown Branch corridor, nor from Coquelin Run. It is from Rock Creek Park. The Rock Creek Stream Valley Unit #2, the portion of Rock Creek Park between Connecticut Avenue and East-West Highway, has 277 acres, most of it in deep woodland. See the Rock Creek SVU2 map (PDF). This dwarfs the patchy, thin line of tree cover that is contributed by the approx. 17 acres along the Georgetown Branch corridor.

Public access to park land is an issue to be considered. It is argued that children in Chevy Chase will lose easy access to green space if the Purple Line were to displace the existing trail. But children who live in Rosemary Hills, Lyttonsville, and the Silver Spring urban district live in areas that need access to green space at least as much as those from Chevy Chase neighborhoods. For them, Rock Creek Park is now relatively inaccessible. Completion of the Capital Crescent Trail through their neighborhoods together with completion of the trail ramp between the CCT and the Rock Creek Trail will give them safe off-road access to a regional park.

Proposed CCT connection to Rock Creek Trail
Source: MTA Lyttonsville Area Map

The loss of any tree will be felt by trail users if it is a tree that provides shade. But a fair assessment of tree cover within the Purple Line/CCT service area will show that the loss of tree cover from Purple Line construction would have a very minimal impact on the total tree cover in lower Montgomery County. Access to Rock Creek Park will be greatly improved for neighborhoods east of the park.

Do we need yet another big study?

The strong contribution that good public transit and urban trails can bring to public health by increasing physical activity is well recognized by the CDC in its CDC Health Impact Assessment Toolkit and CDC Transportation Recommendations. Clearly any Purple Line/CCT HIA performed under CDC guidelines would return a report that favors the project. So why would “Save the Trail” advocates push for an HIA this late?

Opponents of a project will often ask for more study, regardless of how late it is in the project development or how many studies have come before. If refused, than the opponents will assert that the project is being rushed forward without “due process”. If the study is done and the result favors the project, then the opponents will ignore the results. They will have harmed the project’s chances to succeed by adding more cost and delay.

The Purple Line/CCT project has undergone a thorough design and review process. It must comply with a comprehensive and demanding study and reporting process set by the US DOT to compete for federal funding. The process includes a very comprehensive EIS, and a rigorous public review proceedure. An HIA is not required for this project.

We do not need this obstruction and delay – we do not need the HIA.

Is the Future CCT headed for gridlock?

January 18th, 2013

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.

Sidewalk through tunnel is likely

June 13th, 2012

WABA Board Member Jim Titus reports in a post at WashCycle that MTA has announced they are finding it possible and cost effective to build a 5 foot wide sidewalk through the Bethesda Tunnel alongside the Purple Line.

This is welcome news. This sidewalk could provide an alternative to crossing Wisconsin Avenue at-grade for pedestrians using the CCT. It also will provide easy access to the Purple Line platform and the new South Metro Station Entrance for many transit users. The sidewalk will be too narrow and too heavily used by pedestrians for safe use by cyclists.

Jim Titus reports that MTA expects the county to bear the cost of this sidewalk, as part of the county’s agreement to pay for the CCT. But the county is already commited to spending several million dollars to build a full width trail separated from motor vehicle lanes, down Bethesda Avenue and Willow Lane as an alternative CCT route to the Bethesda Tunnel.

It is unfair for MTA to consider this proposed 5 foot sidewalk as only a part of the trail, and not as an integral part of the Bethesda Purple Line station. There will be more people using the Purple Line platform every day than now use the trail in an entire week. We can expect the majority of users of this proposed 5 foot sidewalk to be transit users accessing the Purple Line platform and the new South Bethesda Metro Entrance from the many residences, schools and businesses on the east side of Wisconsin Avenue. Providing access to the Purple Line platform should be a responsibility of MTA, and MTA should not be demanding that scarce trail funds be used for this purpose.