So who is dragging their feet on the MetBranch Trail??

January 31st, 2012

I have heard from several sources other than Councilmember Hans Riemer that the root problem with advancing the MetBranch Trail is now the issue of getting permission from Montgomery Preservation, Inc. for the Trail to cross their Silver Spring Historic B&O Station property.

But now I have received this comment to my prior post from Judy Christensen, Executive Director, MPI:

We were as shocked and surprised as anyone when we heard that the CIP funds for this project were cut from the budget. We were told that it was an interim solution for fiscal reasons and that eventually, the trail would be built. As for us announcing that we did not want the trail through our property, that is simply not true. We did not want the canopy fenced off from the station since we use it in our programs and hold a legal easement from CSX for its use and maintenance. We also did not want a bridge structure on the property. Below you will find our standard reply to inquiries, which I am going to post on our website and on the trail websites. There will be more information in the future. MPI is actively pursuing a route through the front of our land, but we need to recapture parking and hammer out liabiilty and other issues.

Here is our real announcement. Let me know if there are more questions.

MPI has NOT denied passage of the Metropolitan Branch trail through our property. This is simply not true. MPI welcomed the Metropolitan Trail as a way to showcase the historic B&O Station to trail users. Last spring DOT presented MPI with a trail alignment through our property that far better accommodates our programs, and MPI thought we were all going forth with this design. MPI asked several times to meet and address implementation issues such as the loss of parking, liability and compensation but DOT did not meet with us again.

A Maryland Historical Trust (MHT) historical easement prohibits MPI from altering or changing the B&O Station property or structures without approval from MHT. DOT knew of this in 2005, and knew the MHT had problems with the design and wanted alternatives, yet did not pursue MHT approval We were as startled as everyone else that the County Executive recommended an interim at-grade crossing and removed CIP funding from the project. MPI was assured that this was a fiscal decision and eventually the problem would have to be resolved and the trail completed. However, this does give MPI and DOT the time it needs to deal with the implementation and approval issues with the Maryland Historical Trust. We recommend the restoration of funds for planning and consultation with stakeholders to the budget so it can move forward during this period.

Judy Christensen
Executive Director, MPI
director@montgomerypreservation.org

I’m not sure what to make of all this. Is MCDOT and the County Executive using the ongoing negotiations with MPI as an excuse to continue their foot dragging on the MetBranch Trail??

Councilmember Valorie Ervin has sent a letter request to Council President and T&E Committee Chair Roger Berliner requesting a report on the status of the MetBranch Trail. That is more necessary now than ever. We all have a right to know who is the real problem here.

Off track at the historic train station.

January 22nd, 2012

The restored Silver Spring B&O Station

The future Metropolitan Branch Trail is at an impass at the historic Silver Spring B&O Station.

I recently asked Is Montgomery County abandoning the Metropolitan Branch Trail? after the County Executive submitted a FY13-18 CIP Budget that would remove all construction funding for the trail. I suggested in that post that the underlying problem was foot dragging at MCDOT. But Councilmember Hans Riemer says the main problem is that the owners of the historic B&O Station, Montgomery Preservation Inc., is now refusing to grant trail access across the station property.

If the MetBranch cannot cross the station property, then the trail is left without the ability to cross Georgia Avenue on either the 5′ wide sidewalk now on the existing CSX railroad bridge, or on the proposed new trail bridge. The trail would be forced onto a new route – crossing Georgia Avenue at-grade at the Sligo Avenue crosswalk, then following along Philadelphia Avenue and Fenton Street to yet another at-grade crossing of a busy roadway at East-West Highway. This would be a huge loss to the attractiveness and safety of the Metropolitan Branch Trail.


View Larger Map
Looking west from Sligo Avenue toward
the historic Silver Spring B&O Station.

The recent decision by Montgomery Preservation Inc. to refuse trail access runs against the widespread national experience with trail-museum partnerships and against their past promises when seeking public support for their station restoration.

Rail-Trails and historic stations are natural allies!

Rail-Trails and historic stations enjoy close working relationships throughout the country. The trails bring thousands of visitors to the stations, while the stations provide historic points of interest and rest facilities for the trail users. Examples of successful trail-station partnerships in this region:
- The Purceville historic train station on the W&OD Trail.
- The Monkton Train Station on the Torrey C. Brown Northern Central Rail-Trail, and the Hanover Junction Train Station on the Heritage Rail-Trail, which continues from the Northern Centrail Trail into York County, PA.
- The Meyersdale Station and the Cumberland Visitor Center on the Allegheny Passage Trail.

A quick Google search turns up dozens more throughout the country, including:
- Five restored stations/depots along the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Katy Trail. The Katy Trail is an outstanding example of how a rail-trail can be used to educate about the history of the railroad.
- The Xenia Station that serves as a hub for five Miami Valley trails in Ohio. The Yellow Springs Station is in this trail network on the Little Miami Scenic Trail.
- The Susanville Railroad Depot on the Bizz Johnson Rail-Trail in Susanville, CA.
- The Green Cove Station and Museum on the Virginia Creeper Trail.
- The North Pemberton Railroad Station Museum and Rail-Trail in Pemberton, New Jersey.
- The Venice Train Depot on the Legacy Trail in Sarasota County, Florida.
- The Racoon Valley Trail and Depot at Redfield, Iowa.

The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy understands the benefit that trails and historic stations give to each other, and has been a leader in advocating to protect funding sources for preservation of historic stations, see Restoring Historical Rail Stations, Restoring Lost Service.

The Silver Spring Station restoration was funded with the promise that it would enhance the Trail.

The historic station restoration was funded by many private donors and public grants.

The Montgomery County Historic Preservation Commission “the Preservationsist” Spring 2008:

The Silver Spring train station was preserved and restored by the non-profit group Montgomery Preservation Inc. Following an outpouring of community support to restore the station, MPI took over the title from CSX in 1998 for $1. It eventually took $500,000, raised from private donations, a state bond bill, and grants to complete renovations. A Historic Preservation grant was used to help sponsor the renovation design.

Montgomery Preservation Inc. “sold” the public on the restoration in part by promising that the station would be a historic point of interest and a rest stop for the future Metropolitan Branch Trail. I had several discussions with Nancy Urban, then the MPI Community Coordinator, after MPI acquired the property from CSX in 1998, on how the restored station could best attract and serve trail users. Ms. Urban suggested amenities such as a water fountain and a historic display case that could entice trail users to stop and come inside to visit the station museum. MPI appeared to fully understand the value of the trail for bringing hundreds of visitors into the station. It was clearly understood that the alignment for the trail would be alongside the CSX tracks and under the station canopy.

MPI was continuing to advertise the Silver Spring Station’s contribution to the community as an amenity for the MetBranch Trail at the grand reopening of the restored station in 2002. From the MPI Station Flier prepared for the reopening:

“…The former passenger waiting room is available for community meetings and will serve as a visitor center and museum on the planned Metropolitan Branch Hiker and Biker Trail.”

MPI was still holding out the welcome mat for the future Metbranch Trail in 2003, welcoming the Metropolitan Branch Trail Coalition to use the station passenger waiting room to start its Nov. 1, 2003 MBT ride to promote the future trail.

MBT Coalition co-chair Paul Meijer addresses MetBranch supporters
at the start of the Nov. 1, 2003 MetBranch Trail ride .

MCDOT believed as recently as 2009 that they still had an agreement with MPI that the trail can pass under the canopy on the rail corridor side of the station. See the report of the MCDOT briefing of the Council T&E Committee on July 20, 2009 at State of the MetBranch Trail.

Is MPI now placing meeting space rental ahead of drawing visitors?

A principal objection from Montgomery Preservation Inc. to giving access to the Metropolitan Branch Trail is that the trail would diminish the rental value of the station as a meeting space. The MPI advertises the station waiting room and canopy space for $475 for a five hour period, see their station rental description. MPI claims that if they grant the trail the access it needs under the station canopy, then they would have a loss of rental value because exclusive use of the canopy space cannot be included in the rental package.

The canopy area on the track side of the station.

The trail must follow an alignment on the west side under the canopy so it can cross to the proposed trail bridge over Georgia Avenue without removing many of the parking spaces on the other side of the station. Parking is already limited at the station, and the station location between the CSX tracks and Georgia Avenue makes pedestrian access difficult. It is important to protect the existing parking spaces.

MPI is overlooking the value that a safe and attractive Metropolitan Branch Trail can bring to the station:

  • The trail can bring many hundreds of trail users to stop and visit the station – many who would never otherwise visit. This alone can contribute more to the central MPI mission of educating the public on the history of the railroad and the station than can any other promotional opportunity available to MPI.
  • The trail can provide badly needed pedestrian access to the station. The station is sandwiched between the CSX tracks and Georgia Avenue, cut off from easy pedestrian access from several sides. The station parking lot is small and there is little parking available on-street or in public lots nearby on the west side of Georgia Avenue. The station badly needs easier access for pedestrians, and easier access to available parking across Georgia Avenue. Having a safe and attractive pedestrian crossing of Georgia Avenue available on the MetBranch Trail bridge at the station would make the station much more accessable and inviting to the general public.
  • Renting the station for special events, such as birthday parties as advertised in the station rental description, could INCREASE if an attractive and safe MetBranch Trail is immediately adjacent. Birthday party rentals of the station would be more attractive if a safe, all off-road trail is there for a party activity. Many more families would discover the rental opportunity at the station from visits during family recreational rides on the Trail. Special events at the station could include using the station for the start or finish for organized bike rides or community walks on the Trail.

MPI is being “penny wise and pound foolish” to refuse the trail in the belief that it is protecting the station.

We will all lose if we cannot come together at the station.

If MPI holds to its rejection of the MetBranch Trail, the general public will lose this unique opportunity to have a safe, attractive and direct hiker-biker trail connecting downtown Silver Spring to Takoma Park and beyond. The proposed walking and cycling network that is so important to the revitalization of the Ripley District and Fenton Village will be gutted.

But the historic B&O station will be the biggest loser. The station owners will lose this unique opportunity to increase the number of visitors to the station museum that is central to their mission. They will also lose this opportunity to increase the attractiveness and ease of access to the station that would increase their station rental value.

Community leaders, public officials, trail advocates, and especially the donors and supporters of the B&O Station need to come together and find an agreement to get the trail-station partnership back on track.

Jan. 29 update:

Several people have requested information on who to cantact at MPI to give comments about the museum and the trail.
The names of the MPI Officers and Directors is on their website at http://www.montgomerypreservation.org/aboutMPI.html.
Their email addresses are not given, but you can email their Executive Director at:
Judy Christensen, Executive Director,
director@montgomerypreservation.org.

Is MoCo abandoning the MetBranch?

January 19th, 2012

Cycle MoCo reports that Montgomery County is requesting state funding to establish BikeShare, including at Silver Spring and Takoma Park. But at the same time the Montgomery County Executive is moving to kill the only planned trail connection between Silver Spring and Takoma Park – the Metropolitan Branch Trail.

County Executive Ike Leggett has released his proposed FY13-18 CIP budget, and his budget proposes two changes for the county’s section of the Metropolitan Branch Trail:

  • All funding for r.o.w. acquisition and construction is deleted from the CIP budget.
  • The proposed route, if it is ever built, has been thrown out of the CSX corridor and across state highways.

The previous approved FY13-16 CIP budget contained over 12M$ for trail design and for r.o.w. acquisition and construction of the section of the MetBranch from the Silver Spring Transit Center to Georgia Avenue. This section of the MetBranch was to have been completed by FY16. Under this new proposed budget there is no funding for any r.o.w. acquisition or construction through FY18.

To add insult to injury, the new proposed budget also shows that MCDOT plans to change the route of the MetBranch Trail, if it is ever built. The MCDOT plan would eliminate the grade-separated trail crossings planned for Georgia Avenue and E-W Highway and instead force the trail across both of these busy state highways at-grade.

The MCDOT proposed MetBranch route down Philadelphia Avenue.
Source: Proposed FY13-18 MetBranch CIP budget

The County Executive and MCDOT want to take the trail down Philadelphia Avenue across business driveways of the many small auto repair shops along the way, and across both Georgia Avenue and E-W Highway at-grade. This proposed trail route is not new. It has been proposed by MCDOT and rejected several times at public workshops, Planning Board hearings, and County Council proceedings over the past 10 years in favor of a route along the CSX corridor with a trail bridge over Georgia Avenue and a trail tunnel under Burlington Avenue (E-W Highway).

MCDOT proposes that the MetBranch cross Georgia Avenue
at the light at Sligo Avenue.

I’ve posted here about the foot dragging by MCDOT throughout the MetBranch project history. But this new threat to the project is breathtaking in its inconsistency with the hype we are hearing from the county. Just as Montgomery County tauts BikeShare as proof of its commitment to increase cycling in Silver Spring and Takoma Park, it proposes cutting the most important cycling and walking infrastructure in this area.

The MetBranch Trail is not quite dead in Montgomery County yet. The Montgomery County Council has overridden efforts from the County Executive and MCDOT to gut the project in the past, and will have the opportunity to do so again during the upcoming budget deliberations. But this proposed budget is the most serious threat to the MetBranch Trail that I have ever seen.

Bridges and tunnels

December 9th, 2011

Cross posted at Greater Greater Washington with edits.

The one thing I remembered from my high school Latin class is this phrase that I thought was from Caesar in one of his letters during his Gallic War Campaign:
“One of the tragedies of life is the murder of a beautiful theory by a brutal gang of facts.”
But now I learn that even that is wrong. It is most commonly attributed to either Benjamin Franklin, or to La Rochefoucauld, François duc de, 1613-1680.

That phrase comes to mind when I consider finding an alternate to the tunnel under the Air-Rights Building for a grade-separated crossing of Wisconsin Avenue for the Capital Crescent Trail. The “beautiful theory” part is the belief held by some that if only we make a strong commitment, bring creative imagination and bring professional expertise to the problem, then we can find an attractive alternate way. Maybe something that looks like this:

Rock Creek Trail bridge at Viers Mill Rd.

The Rock Creek Trail Bridge over Viers Mill Road
Source: National Transportation Enhancements Clearinghouse / www.enhancements.org

But the “brutal gang of facts” part is the array of constraints presented by the urban and crowded design space in Bethesda at Wisconsin Avenue.

Don’t block the driveway unless you are willing to buy the building.

A trail bridge with long ramps on either end will not fit into the space available along Bethesda Avenue and Willow Street, without blocking critical business and parking structure driveway entrances.

map of bridge over Wisconsin Ave.

Conceptual location of bridge and bridge ramps
over Wisconsin Avenue at Bethesda Avenue
(click on image for a larger image)

The aerial map above shows the approximate length of the ramps for a trail bridge over Wisconsin Avenue that would be needed to meet ADA requirements. A ramp up Bethesda Avenue must elevate the trail by approx. 18 feet above Wisconsin Avenue to allow clearance for traffic below and space for bridge deck supporting structure (16′ plus 2′ assumed). Bethesda Avenue rises from Woodmont Avenue to Wisconsin Avenue and the bridge ramp must “chase the grade”, adding another approx. 10′ to the total elevation gain needed on the ramp. If we assume a 5% ramp grade, then we will need a ramp that is 560 feet long on Bethesda Avenue. We can shorten the ramp a little and still be ADA compliant by going up to a 7% grade that has flats at regular intervals. But even so the ramp will still be too long to avoid blocking major driveways on either side of Bethesda Avenue.


View Larger Map

This driveway on Bethesda Ave. must not be blocked by a trail ramp.

Any ramp over several hundred feet long on Bethesda Avenue will block important driveway entrances, whether on the north or south side of the street. The problem is much the same for a ramp on the other side of Wisconsin Avenue at Willow Street. A ramp on Willow Street could be shorter, maybe a little less than 400′, since it would not be “chasing the grade”. But it would still be much too long to avoid blocking critical driveway entrances on either side of Willow Street.

Switchback ramps or spiral ramps are shorter than linear ramps, but their footprints are at least twice as wide – there is no place that can accommodate the wide footprint of either a switchback or spiral in this area. And the question arises: “How many trail users will want to use such long, steep ramps if they can cross at-grade at a light?”

Can we find another location for the bridge and ramps?

If we explore other locations for a Wisconsin Ave. bridge crossing where long ramps would not create unacceptible blockages of driveways and business entrances, we will get the same result. Crossing at Elm Street, Miller Avenue or Leland Street will also create unacceptible blockages by the ramps on both sides of Wisconsin Avenue, and the routing of the trail on the east side of Wisconsin Avenue becomes very problematic for these alternate crossing locations. The “chasing the grade” problem is even more severe on Elm Street than it is on Bethesda Avenue.

An alternate approach is to consider “going aerial” for a longer distance than just on a bridge, so the ramps can be some distance away from the constraints near Wisconsin Ave. One obvious areal route would be to have a ramp at the Bethesda Trailhead adjacent to Ourisman Honda, go on aerial structure across the Bethesda Ave./Woodmont Ave. intersection, up Bethesda Ave., across Wisconsin Ave., and up Willow Street and then come down another ramp at Elm Street Park. But the ramp at the Bethesda Trailhead would have to begin south of the rest plaza about 400′ south of Bethesda Avenue and very near the trail rest plaza to gain the elevation needed to clear Bethesda Avenue. The width of the ramp, at least 14′, would likely preclude also having a full width surface trail alongside the ramp. The local trail access to the rest stop and to Bethesda Row along the trail right-of-way would be greatly compromised.

A long aerial structure would be very visually intrusive to the rest stop, Bethesda Row, the future Woodmont Plaze, all of Bethesda Avenue and Willow Street, and to Elm Street Park. Access to the Bethesda street grid and downtown destinations would be limited. If the only goal is to separate trail users from the Bethesda street grid, it might be better to reroute the CCT to completely bypass downtown Bethesda. But these approaches will not serve the many trail users who want good access to downtown Bethesda destinations. See Dan Reed’s alternative view of the CCT in Bethesda at On-street crescent trail may be better for bikes and peds.

Would a trail tunnel under Wisconsin Avenue fit any better?

Yes, a new trail tunnel would have much less impact on the Bethesda streetscape than would any trail bridge.

map of tunnel under Wisconsin Ave.

Conceptual location of tunnel and tunnel down ramps
at Bethesda Avenue and Willow Street.
(click on image for a larger image)

The conceptual sketch above shows the approximate location of portals (shown as red markers) into a new tunnel under Wisconsin Avenue. The aproximate lengths of the down ramps, or cuts, needed to take the trail elevation down to enter the tunnel at the portals is also shown. Note that the down ramp, or cut, needed on Bethesda Avenue is less than half the length that would be needed for an up ramp to a bridge. There are two reasons why this is so: 1) the existing elevation change along Bethesda Avenue helps for a down ramp, instead of forcing us to “chase the grade” for an up ramp, and 2) we don’t need as much elevation difference between the street grade and the top of the tunnel as we needed for clearance for the bridge (only maybe 12′ vs. 16′). I estimate a down ramp as little as 200′ long might work on the Bethesda Avenue end of the tunnel. That could just fit on the north side of Bethesda Avenue without blocking any driveways.

The down ramp on the Willow Avenue end of the tunnel would be a little longer, since there is no help from an existing grade on that side, and it would be too long to fit along Willow Avenue without blocking a driveway. The most feasible location for that down ramp would be as shown in the sketch, along the east side of 47th Street at Elm Street Park. A ramp should ideally continue east along the north side of Willow Street at the Park to avoid the trail turn at the tunnel portal, but I estimate that block of Willow Street is too short for the down ramp to fit.

The tunnel path shown in the drawing is only notional and can shift slightly to better suite construction conditions, but I think any “cut and cover” tunnel will need at least one bend in it to avoid buildings. A deep bore tunnel could be straighter if it goes under buildings, but it would be prohibitively expensive.

A tunnel can fit. Does that make it good?

This tunnel will fit into the Bethesda streetscape much better than will any elevated structure. The obstructive ramps would be much shorter, and the visual intrusion would also be minimal. But the tunnel will not be attractive to many trail users, and the cost will be high.

This is a long tunnel, and will not resemble an underpass which has a much more open feeling. The tunnel will not be as wide or high as is the existing trail tunnel under the Air-Rights Building. It will have curves and turns that will limit the sight lines to be much shorter than in the existing trail tunnel. Trail users will not be able to see what is ahead of them in the tunnel when they enter. The perception and the reality of safety will be much lower than we have experienced in the tunnel under the Air-Rights Building. Many trail users (including me) will prefer to stay on an enhanced surface route.

The existance of this tunnel will preclude having a full width trail on the surface route. The tunnel down ramp on Bethesda Avenue will need at least a 14′ width, and that will take most of the width available so that only a minimal width sidewalk (6-8′) can remain alongside for the surface route. Similarly a 14′ wide down ramp adjacent to Elm Street Park will take the “easy” space between 47th Street and Elm Steet Park. Taking another 14′+ to also have a full width surface trail will have an unacceptible impact on the park. Trail users wanting to take the surface route instead of using the tunnel will be severely impacted by the existance of the tunnel.

Construction of the cut-and-cover tunnel will require moving all utilities along its path – and there will be many of them along these streets. The disruption to traffic on Wisconsin Avenue during construction will be considerable, and construction incentives to minimize the time of this disruption will impact cost. I do not have the experience needed to estimate the tunnel cost, but it is a safe bet it will be high.

I believe a new trail tunnel under Bethesda Avenue will compare very poorly with the tunnel design that has been proposed for the trail with the Purple Line under the Air-Rights Building. It is a bad idea, largely because it will obstruct a full width, off-road trail on the surface route that many of us would choose to use instead of the tunnel.

What is the best way forward?

WABA has stated its position on the way forward in its Quick Release Blog at CCT Update.

“…as advocates for the best possible trail and crossing, WABA asks that the county take steps to evaluate the importance of a grade-separated crossing, account for the importance of grade-separation to trail usage and safety by including an alternative grade-separated option, and clearly define the proposed enhancements that would be included in the on-street option that would make it more than a fallback cost-savings at the expense of trail users and to the detriment of the project.”

My opinion about the best way forward differs from WABA in part. I think there is little value in exploring an alternative grade-separated option much further. The “brutal gang of facts” of the Bethesda urban design space will make a new trail bridge not realistically feasible. The best likely new trail tunnel will be too unattractive to many trail users and will physically obstruct our best surface trail route. Continuing to pursue an alternative grade-separated crossing will only take us to more dead ends. We should focus on getting the strongest possible commitment from the County that IF a decision is taken to not keep the CCT in the tunnel under the Air-Rights Building, then the features recommended for the enhanced surface route in the Planning Board letter will be implemented. The most important of these enhancements is to provide a protected Wisconsin Avenue crosswalk by restricting motor vehicle turning movements.

Air Rights Building off the table

December 2nd, 2011

The CCCT and other stakeholders met with Councilmember Berliner on Dec. 1 to advocate for keeping the Trail in the Bethesda tunnel, reported at the CCT News and Events. The Planning Board sent its recommendations to the Council in a Nov. 30 letter. There have been some changes since the issues were reported in earlier blog posts here.

The Council T&E Committee is now expected to take the issue up in a January 30, 2012 meeting and not on Dec. 5. This is to give MTA enough time to evaluate the options and give the Council a report.

Tearing down the Air Rights Building is apparently no longer being considered. Discussions between Council and the Planning Board have “clarified” this to mean that they will evaluate building the Purple Line station under the parking structure at the east side of the Air Rights Building, where the tunnel is a little wider. This is clearly a change from the discussion at the Planning Board on Nov. 17, when the Commisioners were talking about tearing down the building itself.

The Bethesda tunnel at the east end

CCCT succeeded in getting Councilmember Berliner to request that a more substantive response to their single-track proposal be prepared by MTA. The Councilmember noted that MTA resistance to single-track is very strong and MTA will not likely yield on this issue, but a response that quantifies the impacts of single-track impacts on the transit operations is needed to put the issue to rest.

The Planning Board is recommending in its letter that $40M is an unacceptible price to pay to keep the Trail in the tunnel. The Town of Chevy Chase is already expressing concern that the options that would place the station platforms at the east end of the tunnel or at Pearl Street might be unacceptible to the Town because of the impacts of having platform operations adjacent to residences. I believe the MTA will report substantial reductions in predicted ridership and cost effectiveness of the Purple Line system if long walking distances are created for transit riders by moving the station platform east. I believe it is most likely a surface route for the Trail is the option that will survive the selection process at the County Council next month.

The Planning Board Nov. 30 letter recommends setting up a panel of agencies and the Town of Chevy Chase to evaluate design options for the Trail surface route, and lists design treatments that can be considered to make the route safer and more attractive. CCCT asked Councilmember Berliner to put the CCCT, WABA and other trail stakeholder groups on the panel. WABA and CCCT also advocated at the meeting with Councilmember Berliner that planners should give a trail bridge or tunnel serious consideration to avoid the at-grade Trail crossing at the Bethesda Avenue/Wisconsin Avenue intersection if the Trail is removed from the Bethesda tunnel.

The engineer in me is very doubtful that a successful trail bridge or tunnel across Wisconsin Avenue can fit into this area. The constraints imposed by the streets, existing major buildings, and elevation change from Woodmont Avenue to Wisconsin Avenue will force designs that are very unattractive to trail users, even if cost is no issue. But I’d be happy to be proven wrong on this – just show us the design concept that works. In the mean time, we should not buy into “Save the Trail” and other Purple Line opponents’ efforts to hype the danger of crossing Wisconsin Avenue to hysterical levels. Yes, any at-grade crossing of a busy highway should be avoided wherever an attractive trail bridge or underpass is possible for a regional trail like the CCT. But no, the trail network will not be destroyed if we must cross in a protected crosswalk at a well redesigned intersection.

Bikesharing is coming – but where is the infrastructure?

November 30th, 2011

I was unable to attend the Nov. 29 Bike Share planning workshop hosted by MC DOT, but the WABA blog post Bikesharing Growing to Montgomery County gives a good account.

A major concern I had about whether Bike Share can work in Silver Spring was whether bikeshare stations clustered around Silver Spring might be too isolated from the system in D.C. The WABA post reports that planners are addressing this:

…A side note, in planning talks DDOT has agreed to expand bikeshare stations north between the system core and the new clusters in Bethesda, Silver Spring & Takoma Park to help connect the entire system.

The public is invited to submit ideas for locations of future bikeshare stations at the Capital Bikeshare crowdsourcing map.

One important item is still missing from the plan – a serious commitment to beef up the bicycling infrastructure to make the street network more bike friendly. Much can be done with signs and paint. Bike lanes, bike sharrows, and signs marking routes and reminding all to share the road can make a difference. Yet little has been done to mark streets in the Silver Spring CBD that have long been identified in the Master Plans as on-road bike routes. Two examples:
1) Spring Street was recently restriped to narrow the traffic lanes by creating approx. 6′ wide “dead zones” adjacent to the center median in a several block long section centered at Second Avenue. MCDOT could as easily have narrowed the traffic lanes by placing them adjacent to the center median, and placing full width bike lanes on the outside.
2) When Cameron Street was restriped there was room for bike lanes, yet MCDOT instead chose to install a center turn lane that was not needed.

I am excited that MCDOT appears to be serious about bringing bikesharing to Montgomery County. Now if we can only get MCDOT to read the approved Master Plans when it restripes streets, and use stripes and sharrows to show that bikes have their place on the road.

Fenwick Station moving forward

November 23rd, 2011

The future Fenwick Station at Spring Street and Second Avenue
Space is being set aside for a bike share station.
(Click on image for a larger scale image.)

Representatives for the future Fenwick Station briefed community members on the project at a November 22 meeting. The building will have 350+/- residential units and no retail. The plans call for a section of the Green Trail to be built in front of the building along Second Avenue, and an access trail to the future CCT to be built along Spring Street, see Green Trail at Fenwick Station. They will reserve space for a future bike share station at a small public plaza at the Spring Street/Second Avenue corner.

They plan to submit their site plan for approval in December and hope for Planning Board approval in April. Their contract with the Post Office requires them to give 150 days notice before the Post Office has to leave.

Taking a hard look at the tunnel

November 19th, 2011

A $40M price tag on keeping the trail in the Bethesda Tunnel should prompt us to take a hard look at what the $40M would buy. I’m taking a second look, and the trail that we would have in the tunnel over the Purple Line looks too much like damaged goods to pay such a premium price to save.

Last year I wrote about Bethesda tunnel west. Cyclists need to reconsider the narrow switchback ramp at the west end of the tunnel that will require dismounting. Is this what we want? Is it worth fighting hard for?

MTA concept for the CCT in the Bethesda tunnel
(click on the image for a large image)
Source: MTA Plan and Profile – Trail, September 2010

Dan Reed wrote a thought provoking post for Greater Greater Washington, On-street Crescent Trail may be better for bikes and peds. Among the comments to the post is my response to a comment from Jack Cochrane of CycleMoco:

@Jack:

I like the tunnel, and this may sound like sour grapes now that it is becoming ever more apparent keeping the trail in the tunnel is not practical, but -

The plan for rebuilding the trail to be overhead the Purple Line in the tunnel will not give us the direct connection you would like. If going east from Woodmont Avenue, cyclists would have to pass through the conflicts in a very pedestrian active Woodmont Plaza to get to the tunnel entrance. Then they would be required to dismount, and walk up a tortuous switchback ramp built into the back side of a new JBG building to get to the overhead. The trail in the overhead will be at least as wide as the trail is in the tunnel today, but will have a vertical clearance as little as 8′. This will make it feel much more confining than it does today.

The proposed surface route will be less than 400′ longer than the tunnel route. You will only need to stop riding if you have to wait for the light at Wisconsin Avenue. A 10-12′ wide shared use trail on the north side of Bethesda Avenue and a shared use trail or cycletracks on Willow can separate cyclists from traffic.

Quite frankly, if I were to cycle through Bethesda and have that choice, I’ll take the surface route rather than deal with the dismount and walk up the narrow switchback ramp into the tunnel at the west end. Pedestrians and families with small children on bikes might still prefer the tunnel route, but few adult cyclists will use it under those conditions. You know better than most how adverse cyclists are to dismount zones. The tunnel route is not worth $40M for cyclists.

Maybe I am suffering from a sour grapes syndrome now, but the tunnel route does not look so hot when we take our rose colored glasses off and look straight at that switchback ramp.

Planning Board to JBG – “Think again.”

November 18th, 2011

The Planning Board took up the Bethesda Tunnel issue at its Nov. 17 meeting and decided that all options should be considered to keep the trail in the tunnel. As reported in the Washington Post and WashCycle, the Planning Board asked that placing the Purple Line Bethesda Station on the east side of Wisconsin Avenue or taking down a building over the tunnel be evaluated.

The Planning Board heard the Coalition for the Capital Crescent Trail argue that single-track in the tunnel should also be considered, see the CCCT single-track position. MTA argued that single-track in the tunnel would make the Purple Line slow and too unreliable. the Planning Board accepted the MTA opinion and did not recommend the single-track for further evaluation. In my view, that was a mistake.

Source: CCCT single-track position

It may turn out that the MTA opinion that single-track will interfere with Purple Line operations too much is true. But MTA failed to present anything to substantiate that opinion at the hearing. MTA Project Manager Mike Madden attempted to point to an earlier single-track study as proof that single-track in the tunnel would not support the needed headways. That study was for a much longer section along the line between tunnels, stations, and one of Madden’s own engineers consulting engineer Harriet Levine admitted that study was not relevant for this case. MTA argued that they would have to make the north platform much larger if the south platform was removed, but did not explain why this is so. Under the current plan, all passengers getting off a train on the north track would exit to the north platform to go to the elevators and stairs on that side. No one would have any reason to exit a train to the south side, so the north side platform must be wide enough to handle all traffic regardless of whether a south side platform is present. And, in any case, there is room to expand the north side platform while still preserving a trail if the south side platform and track are removed. The MTA said they could not give up the ability to keep another train at Bethesda on the south track, but they did not explain why the tail track presented in the CCCT statement would not serve to do this. In short, the MTA staff were pulling ideas off the top of their heads.

If the Planning Board can ask the MTA to evaluate tearing down large buildings or moving the transit station hundreds of feet away from the connection to Metro, then the Planning Board can also ask MTA to substantiate their assertions that single-track will not work. If single-track can work, it would be by far the easiest and cheapest to build.

The Planning Board did send a very clear message that it will make the alternate trail surface route a priority, especially if the trail is removed from the tunnel. Representatives from JBG Associates gave testimony that a shared use trail along the north side of Bethesda Avenue would conflict with their plans, and therefore the trail should be bike lanes on Bethesda Avenue instead. JBG had earlier planned to build an office and retail building at the northeast corner of Woodmont and Bethesda Avenues, see the CCCT news report. But JBG now intends to come to the Planning Board soon with a request to instead build a large hotel there, with a hotel driveway entrance. The JBG representatives felt that a busy shared use trail would not be consistent with their proposed driveway.

Planning Board Chair Francoise Carrier agreed that a busy trail on the north side of Bethesda Avenue and a hotel driveway entrance would conflict, but she pointed out the trail has been in the Master Plans since the 1994 Bethesda Sector Plan.

Capital Crescent Trail Street Level Route
Source, 1994 Bethesda Sector Plan

The Planning Board Chair told the JBG representatives they should reconsider their plans and not bring a plan to the Board that is not compatible with the Master Plan. The signal was clear – if a hotel and the trail cannot both work here, a hotel will not be approved. If the Planning Board and County Council can show this priority consistently along the surface route, then it can become even better than the trail Dan Reed envisions at On street CCT may be better for bikes and peds

Learning to like the Bethesda surface route

November 10th, 2011

The Montgomery County Planning Board is considering whether to recommend to the County Council that we go forward with keeping the CCT in the Bethesda Tunnel, now that the cost estimate has risen to approx. $40M, or to recommend using an alternative route along Bethesda streets instead. On November 3 the Board and staff took a tour of the tunnel to look at the options. On November 17 the Planning Board will have a worksession on this and other issues including lighting, landscaping, and connecting to the Rock Creek Trail. The Planning Board will hear staff recommendations and take public input. Information on how to give testimony is on the M-NCPPC website agenda page. Also now available on the website is the M-NCCPC staff report with the recommendations that will be presented to the Planning Board on November 17.

The staff recommendations come with a very good analysis of the cost and benefits of the tunnel route, and also a thorough analysis of the alternative surface routes. Regarding the tunnel route, the staff recommends:

It appears that more design work is needed before a recommendation can be made with confidence on whether to construct the Capital Crescent Trail in the tunnel.
a. Should further engineering investigation reveal a much lower cost or risk differential or should a mechanism present itself to provide the funds to reduce the public outlay and/or risk to the Apex Building, constructing the trail may yet be found to be feasible.
b. We recommend that MTA brief the County Council in six months time with updated cost estimates and risk comparisons so that this decision can be made with greater assurance.
c. If the cost differential remains, the County Council should determine the tunnel route to be financially infeasible and concentrate more effort on building the planned surface trail to accommodate the volume and variety of user groups.

There may be something uncovered in the tunnel structures during a six-month engineering investigation that will overturn the huge cost differential we are looking at now. But I doubt it. The CCCT is suggesting a short single-track Purple Line section could be used at the tunnel, to make it easy to keep the trail in the tunnel. But if that single-track concept is found to be not practical, then we are likely looking at a decision to reroute the CCT on Bethesda streets.

The M-NCPPC staff report gives a good description of three alternative routes, and recommends the route along Bethesda Avenue (the dashed yellow route below).

Alternate CCT surface routes in Bethesda
Source: M-NCCPC staff report

The Bethesda Avenue Route has long been proposed as an alternative route to be built in addition to the trail in the tunnel, for local trail access. The M-NCCPC staff recommend that, in the event this becomes THE route of the CCT, this route be developed much more extensively than has been planned. Their report lists specific recommendations for shared use off-road trail sections down Bethesda Avenue, Willow Street and 47th Street and to realign the Wisconsin Avenue crosswalk. But most impressive are the recommendations to change the traffic lights:

Intersection of Wisconsin Ave and Bethesda Ave: Crossing Wisconsin Ave is the greatest impediment to creating a viable surface alignment. Therefore, it is critical to prioritize pedestrians crossing Wisconsin Ave. We recommend eliminating the conflicts for pedestrians crossing Wisconsin Ave by either:
  • Prohibiting left turns from Bethesda Ave to northbound Wisconsin Ave and prohibiting right turns on red in the southbound direction to eliminate all conflicts between trail users and motor vehicles
  • Providing a pedestrian only phase.

Both of these modifications would likely require signal retiming along Wisconsin Ave.

If all of these changes were in place, then I would find this route to be almost as good as the route through the tunnel. This surface route is about 400′ longer than the tunnel route and has a wait for a signal at Wisconsin Avenue. But it would be in the open and partially in a local park rather than being in a long tunnel. IF the signals at Wisconsin Avenue can be changed to eliminate the interferences with motor vehicle turning traffic, then crossing Wisconsin Avenue would be safer than is crossing Bethesda Avenue and Woodmont Avenue at the CCT Bethesda Trailhead today.

The tunnel route remains the most direct and safest CCT route. We may find a way to save it if the cost differential changes on further study, or if we find that single-track can work at the Bethesda Purple Line station. But losing the tunnel route is not an existential threat to the future CCT. I can learn to like the alternative Bethesda Avenue route if it is done right.