New Lyttonsville West plans for the CCT bear watching

March 20th, 2012

The MTA briefed its new plans for the Purple Line in the Lyttonsville area at a March 14 neighborhood meeting. The Gazette summarized the plans at Residents pleased with revised Lyttonsville Purple Line plans. I think trail users can be pleased with the plans, but with one important issue that bears watching closely as the design is refined – that is the proposed trail underpass near the Grubb Road/Terrace Drive access path.

The MTA has made the March 14 presentation materials available on its website at work sessions – Lyttonsville Area. The presentation includes this map of the new CCT alignment:

The CCT is on the neighborhood (south) side of the Purple Line
(click on the map for a larger view)
(source: MTA work sessions – Lyttonsville Area)

A larger areal map of the proposed new arrangement is at Map of Refined Lyttonsville Alignment. It shows details much better than the map above.

Overall I like the new proposed trail alignment better than the previous one that I had reported on here last fall. This new plan returns the trail to the neighborhood (south) side of the Purple Line project, for easier access to the trail from the neighborhood. This trail access is most improved in the area of Kansas Avenue and of Talbot Avenue at the east end of the Lyttonsville neighborhood, where the prior plan had the trail cut off from the neighborhood by the Purple Line tracks.

The new plan does have some drawbacks, however. One is that it will have the trail cross Stewart Avenue at-grade. While traffic there will be light and safety can be managed, it is nonetheless a loss from the previous plan that would have realigned Stewart Avenue there and would have given a grade-separated trail crossing.

Proposed location of CCT underpass near Grubb Road
(source: MTA Map of Refined Lyttonsville Alignment)

But the biggest concern I have with the new plan is at the western end of this area study – near the Grubb Road/Terrace Drive access path. The new plan proposes to keep the trail on the north side of the Purple Line from the west, then cross under the Purple Line tracks to the south side in an underpass just to the west of the Grubb Road/Terrace Road access path. MTA asserted at the March 14 meeting that their studies were showing the previous plan, to bring the trail under the Purple Line at the Rock Creek bridges, was proving to be creating too much difficulty and expense for the bridge designs. MTA has decided it will be easier to keep the trail on the north side of the Purple Line across Rock Creek and Rock Creek Park and to make the crossing with an underpass at this new point farther to the east.

I think MTA will be forced to reconsider this new plan for a trail underpass, because the existing terrain in this area will not support an underpass. The Purple Line will need to stay low as it climbs up from its Rock Creek bridge. The old B&O railbed (and the existing Interim Trail) are in a cut at the Grubb Road access for this reason. The Purple Line will not likely be elevated much higher than the existing old railbed is here, because that would force the Purple Line to climb too steeply from the Rock Creek crossing. But the trail cannot easily stay at an elevation that is even lower than the Purple Line, to cross in an underpass here, without being in a very deep cut, or in a long tunnel. Either will be very undesirable.

We need to watch this proposed trail crossing very closely as it evolves. I think as MTA gets into the design process, MTA will find that it needs another location, likely to the west, where the trail crossing will not have to go to war with the existing terrain.

T&E Committee picks plan “B” (or “E”)

March 8th, 2012

The Montgomery County Council T&E Committee took up the difficult issue of rebuilding and completing the Capital Crescent Trail with with Purple Line for the second time at its worksession on the CIP budget today. The Committee voted by 3-0 to accept the recommendation from MTA and the Council staff that the cost and risk of keeping the trail in the Bethesda Tunnel by stacking the trail over the top of the Purple Line was too high. The T&E Committee members appeared to be at least as concerned with the high construction risk as with the $50.1M estimated cost. Representatives from MCDOT testified that they had reviewed the MTA report, and concluded that MTA was not overstating the high risk that the Apex building would be destabilized by the digging needed to place the trail over the top of the Purple Line in the tunnel.

The T&E Committee accepted the staff recommendation to program trail construction at the funding level that is shown in the meeting packet. The total estimated baseline cost of rebuilding the CCT along the alternative surface route across Wisconsin Avenue and completing the CCT into Silver Spring is $48.1M. Of that, staff recommended that only $27.6M be programmed into the FY13-18 CIP. This is the amount needed to rebuild the CCT in the Georgetown Branch Corridor alongside the Purple LIne from Bethesda to Lyttonsville, with construction to begin in 2016 to coincide with the estimated Purple Line schedule. The remainder, to build the CCT down the CSX corridor from Lyttonsville into downtown Silver Spring, would be deferred until FY19-20, to complete the trail by 2020. The section of trail along the CSX corridor will be on the opposite side of the CSX tracks as the Purple Line, and its construction can begin later because it does not need to be as closely coordinated with Purple Line construction as in the Georgetown Branch corridor.

Council Staff Director Glen Orlin pointed out that although this level of funding assumes the trail would be built following the MTA “Alternative B” plan using the surface route along Bethesda Avenue/Willow Lane/Elm Street Park, this level of funding would also support building the trail through the tunnel following the several alternative plans that would leave the trail in the tunnel, either if the width of the Purple Line is restricted in the tunnel by single-tracking or if the Purple Line does not enter the tunnel. In particular the “Alternative E” that would have the Purple Line platform under the Apex Building but use a single track or gauntlet track in the tunnel has not been entirely ruled out.

Bruce Johnston, MCDOT Division of Transportation Engineering, testified that MCDOT had not yet fully accepted the MTA conclusion that singe-tracking the Purple Line in the tunnel would have an unacceptible impact on the ability to maintain the six-minute headways the system needed. In particular, MCDOT wants a more complete showing from MTA of why they believe a 5 minute “dwell time” will be required at the Bethesda platform to make train schedule adjustments.

Summing up, the T&E budget recommendation means that keeping the trail in the tunnel by “Alternative A”, over the top of the Purple Line, is being ruled out as too risky. “Alternative B”, taking the trail across Wisconsin Ave. on an at-grade alternative route, is being budgeted. However several other options that would build the trail through the tunnel, especially “Alternative E” that would use a single-track, are not precluded by today’s budget recommendation.

Other lesser recommendations from the T&E Committee today:

  • No to having lighting along the entire trail. Yes to “spot lighting” where needed such as at trail access points.
  • No to emergency call boxes along the trail. Many trail users carry cell phones that serve that purpose.
  • Yes to enhanced landscaping between the trail and the neighborhoods. Landscaping between the trail and the Purple Line tracks is being budgeted elsewhere, as a Purple Line expense.

The T&E Committee budget recommendations will now go to the full Council for final reconciliation this spring. The Council usually gives much weight to committee recommendations, but the budget may change before final adoption by the full Council.

Tunnel expectations

March 4th, 2012

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

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

and:

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

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

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

Sketch of double track trolley in the Bethesda Tunnel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The trail will continue through the Bethesda tunnel

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

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

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

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

No escaping a hard decision

February 26th, 2012

(Another version has been cross posted at Greater Greater Washington.)

February 27 update: MTA has released its single-track operational analysis study and report to the County Council and other interested parties today. Unless experts can find major flaws in the study, I think we can put this issue to rest.

This blog has followed the evolving plans for the CCT and the Purple Line at the Bethesda Air-Rights Tunnel with numerous posts in the Bethesda Tunnel blog thread. Planners have been struggling with the rising cost estimates for keeping the CCT in the Bethesda Tunnel on an overhead structure above the Purple Line, and have requested the MTA look at alternative approaches including: 1) moving the Bethesda station platform east of the tunnel; 2) moving the platform to be under a new, redeveloped Air-Rights Building; and 3) using variations of platform locations that use reduced width track profile in the tunnel, i.e. single track or gauntlet track. The MTA has just submitted a draft of its study findings to the County Council, CCT Tech Report_20120224, and the Council T&E Committee is scheduled to take the issue up in a March 1, 2012 worksession.

The report findings are a disappointment to those of us who had hoped we could escape making a very hard decision. All of the new alternatives would seriously degrade the level of service and operational capabilities of the Purple Line or would have unreasonable cost.

I can quibble with some parts of the MTA draft report – for example MTA’s analysis of the three reduced transitway width alternatives :

…All three of the reduced transitway width alternatives yielded very similar performance results in operational simulations. None of the three will enable the Purple Line to operate at the six-minute headway required to carry the peak period passenger demand. With substantial portions of the Purple Line operating in street-running conditions subject to traffic interference especially at intersections, the train operations need to be able to have a schedule recovery time at terminal stations, including the Bethesda Station. The operational limitations imposed by these reduced transitway width concepts at the Bethesda Station would not allow for this recovery time, which would severely reduce the reliability of the service for the entire Purple Line. Therefore, due to these fatal operational deficiencies, this family of alternatives was eliminated from further study.

This analysis would apply to the CCCT single-track proposal as well. But the MTA draft report gives no information on the method and assumptions used for the operational simulations. While I may not be qualified to judge the technical merits of the simulation, there are interested parties in M-NCPPC, MCDOT, and in the trails community who can. I will feel more comfortable accepting the MTA conclusion if they make the operation simulation available for review. In fairness, this is an early draft report and perhaps the final report will show more. In any case I reluctantly think they are probably right on this. I can find no examples of successful single-track operations for a terminal station with a short headway requirement.

As much as I wish it were otherwise, we are back to the hard choice: either spend a now estimated $50.9M and take considerable construction risk to keep the trail in the tunnel in an overhead structure, or develop the alternative surface route across Wisconsin Avenue.

For me the right choice is to develop the alternative surface route to the fullest extent possible. $50.9M is simply too much money to spend to avoid one at-grade crossing for the trail. That cost will double the total cost of rebuilding the CCT, putting the whole trail project at much higher risk of being abandoned in these very difficult budget times. As I observed at Taking a hard look at the tunnel I don’t think the switchback and cage on the tunnel route will be attractive to most of us, certainly not inviting enough to justify spending $50.9M. There is also too much risk that digging under the APEX building will destabilize the entire building. I’m still in shock at seeing our long transit center nightmare in Silver Spring because engineers underestimated the risk of a construction method. I don’t want another mess like that along the future CCT in Bethesda.

I think it is likely the Council will decide against accepting the cost and risk that comes with keeping the CCT in the Bethesda Tunnel. The political blowback from this decision will be intense, you can already see some of that in the comments to the Washington Post story Planners reject proposal…. “Save the Trail” advocate Pam Browning and others are advocating for a third option, i.e. kill the Purple Line. But they have the Tunnel Vision that comes with thinking that CCT means “Chevy Chase’s Trail”. They care little about whether the CCT is ever completed into downtown Silver Spring, and would have us obsess about one trail crossing at Wisconsin Avenue while overlooking the many other at-grade crossings and the on-road trail route we continue to deal with east of Bethesda.

Help keep the MetBranch alive in Silver Spring!

February 4th, 2012

Update – The Council T&E Committee will take the MetBranch Trail funding issue up at its February 27 meeting, not February 13. This gives us more time to contact the Council.

My last two posts focused on the impass between MCDOT and Montgomery Preservation Inc. (MPI) over the proposed alignment of the Metropolitan Branch Trail through the historic B&O Train Station property. I’ve been in contact with MPI and MCDOT to try to sort out what has gone wrong. There are very conflicting versions about what the problem is. It is complicated. But there does appear to be a path toward an agreement that is still available, that will work for the benefit of both the station owners and for the trail. That will take some time, I’ll report more on that soon.

We have an immediate problem that we must address now – restoring funding for the Metropolitan Branch Trail. The County Executive has proposed that the next CIP budget have NO funds to continue any work on the Metropolitan Branch Trail in Montgomery County, for fiscal reasons. But this part of this regional trail has already suffered from several episodes of foot dragging and attempts to cut its budget over the years that has significantly delayed it. Montgomery County should get on with building the trail instead of trying to delay it yet again.

Bruce Johnston, Head of MCDOT Division of Transportation Engineering, has indicated to me that the ongoing disagreement with the owners of the station museum does not prevent MCDOT from designing and building the MetBranch from the new Sarbanes Silver Spring Transit Station south through the Ripley District to the station museum. A temporary at-grade crossing of Georgia Avenue could be provided there while the historic station issues are being worked out with MPI. MPI is on record in support of continued funding on its website:

We recommend at least the restoration of funds for planning and consultation with stakeholders to the budget so it can move forward during this period.

Now is the time for trail supporters to urge the County Council to restore MetBranch funding to the CIP budget. The Council T&E Committee is scheduled to take this up in one week, at its February 13 meeting at its February 27 meeting. All Councilmembers will receive an email sent to county.council@montgomerycountymd.gov. The T&E Committee Members are Council President Roger Berliner, Councilmember Hans Riemer, and Councilmember Nancy Floreen. Contact information for individual Councilmembers is at www.montgomerycountymd.gov.

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.