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Tunnel vision threatens the Capital Crescent Trail in Bethesda

While fighting hard for the full, timely build-out of the Purple Line, advocates of greater and greener mobility in our region also must work to save the tunnel alignment of the Capital Crescent Trail (CCT) through downtown Bethesda, which is key to making bicycling there safe and attractive for the long term.

The CCT underneath Wisconsin Ave. in downtown Bethesda. Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

The Montgomery County Planning Board is seriously considering recommending removing the trail from the Bethesda Tunnel as the Purple Line is built to avoid the cost of widening the tunnel to accommodate both rail and trail (see the WashCycle for good analysis).

Board members took a walking tour of the trail to gather background information yesterday. The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission's Capital Crescent Tour document (PDF) describes the walking tour agenda, and presents the detailed cost analysis report.

The public will have a chance to weigh in at the the Planning Board's Nov. 17 work session. Trail and cycling advocates need to sort through the cost issues and be ready to present thoughtful and convincing arguments by Nov. 17.

"Save the Trail" advocates' immediate reaction to the report is that the CCT will be destroyed if trail users are forced to use the alternative alignment that crosses Wisconsin Avenue at-grade:

Two alternatives for the CCT in Bethesda. Image from the Planning Board.

This at-grade crossing of a busy highway takes away the safety and convenience that make the trail so attractive. I made the case for keeping the trail in the tunnel when the estimated cost of doing so was $60 million (December 2010). With the cost now approaching $100 million, the case becomes harder to make and the tunnel route is at risk.

Maintaining the trail parallel to the light-rail tracks through Bethesda Tunnel must be our paramount issue. The trail is an important element of the Purple Line plan. But making the Bethesda tunnel the paramount issue misses the point. Opposing the Purple Line in order to save the trail would be counterproductive: the definition of "tunnel vision". It is worth referring to this map:

The completed CCT will link two large urban centers and will connect to the Metropolitan Branch Trail to complete a major regional trail system.

If our goal is to have a regional trail, then we must remember that there is an approximately 1.5-mile section at Silver Spring that is incomplete, and remains on-road. There are seven at-grade crossings of streets at traffic lights on the existing Georgetown Branch Trail east of the Bethesda Tunnel, including three crossings of multi-lane state highways (Connecticut Avenue, 16th Street, and Colesville Road).

The rebuilt trail alongside the Purple Line would replace all 1.5 miles of on-road route with a completely off-road trail into downtown Silver Spring. All seven at-grade crossings at lights would be replaced by the rail line and trail tunneling under, or bridging over, these busy roadways. Prospects for ever completing the trail and removing these seven at-grade crossings east of Bethesda are very poor unless the Purple Line is built as planned.

Losing the Bethesda Tunnel would be a significant loss for the Capital Crescent Trail. We need to fight to save it. But the trail will be more continuous and safer when rebuilt alongside the Purple Line than it is today, even if we lose the Bethesda Tunnel. Killing the Purple Line would do more harm than good to the CCT's future viability.

Editor's note: One paragraph in this post was inadvertently changed during the editing process. The offending sentence has been struck through, and a new sentence added to clarify the meaning. We regret the error.


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I'm sorry, but reading about this in the Post this morning, I couldn't help but think how crazy white people are getting. We're talking about a clear glass tube above the tracks. Workers would have to increase the size of the tunnel by excavating around the foundations of buildings while people are inside them. And remember that this represents 43 percent of the $103 million cost of rebuilding the trail.

All because people think they should be immune from doing what thousands of people have to do every day: cross a six-lane arterial at grade.

I feel like I'm taking crazy pills.

by Tim on Nov 4, 2011 9:23 am • linkreport


Putting an at-grade arterial crossing of Wisconsin for the CCT is similar to putting a crossing at Wisconsin for the beltway. The CCT is the equivalent of a highway for bikers.

by Falls Church on Nov 4, 2011 9:30 am • linkreport

I could have done without the race baiting.

by andrew on Nov 4, 2011 9:35 am • linkreport


I was on the tour Katherine Shaver writes about in the Post, and I never heard any Purple Line engineers call for a "clear glass tube". They did mention maybe using glass or other clear material for fencing the trail on the sides where it is elevated, instead of less attractive chain link fence. I believe Katherine Shaver created the clear glass tube from that and took off.
Pedestrians have been co-existing safely below, above, and along trolley and street car power lines since before the car was invented. Light-rail has the same overhead wire power system. All that is needed for safety is some separation, and occasionally a simple fence.
You are right - some people are getting crazy. They need to think a little.

by Wayne Phyillaier on Nov 4, 2011 9:36 am • linkreport

I bike 12 miles a day to and from work. It's all on roads and most of that in the 14th St. bike lane. I'm not really into trails and would like to see more of an emphasis on bike lanes. Bike lanes promote active transit (ie people going to work and living life). I feel like trails are mostly for recreation (ie middle aged guys in spandex and bike shoes).

Also, where are my morning links?????

by Nick on Nov 4, 2011 9:37 am • linkreport

$100 million dollars and you are still advocating it?

I'm sorry but one has to be realistic here. The Purple line benefits are incomparable to the benefits the Capital Crescent Trail gives today.

The Purple line will spur economic development through employment, increased property values etc etc...

I'm not even sure the trail brings anything at the moment other than enabling a few commuters to cycle to work.

If you want things to get done you have to make sacrifices. By protecting the interest of a minority of people, the whole project may be at risk. That's not being progressive anymore, that is pure nimbyism!

by Vincent on Nov 4, 2011 9:39 am • linkreport

Great! ! ! Now the transit advocates and bicycling advocates are beating on each other because there isn't enough money to do both easily in the existing tunnel envelop. I think I will side with the green mode of transportation that will move the most people -- light rail.

by Some Ideas on Nov 4, 2011 9:42 am • linkreport

Nick, don't hate on us middle age guys in spandex and bikes shoes. Some of us actualy use trails for commuting in addition to recreation.

by Sean on Nov 4, 2011 9:44 am • linkreport

How is asking CCT users to cross Wisconsin much different than asking Georgetown Branch trail users to cross Connecticut?

Given the ballooning costs (now 40% of $100 million) of building the trail underground in conjunction with the Purple Line, I think it's reasonable to ask trail users to cross Wisconsin.

by Fitz on Nov 4, 2011 9:45 am • linkreport

@Falls Church: [citation needed] How many people use the tunnel compared with the Beltway? How big are their vehicles? How many of them would use the Wisconsin Ave grade crossing if the tunnel weren't available? How many people cross Wisconsin Ave now at, say, East-West Highway?

And, most importantly, does all of that mean the $44 million tunnel expansion is worth it? And how many of the trail users would no longer use the tunnel if it's squeezed by the Purple Line?

by Tim on Nov 4, 2011 9:51 am • linkreport

Can proper bike lanes be added to the on road section? Or perhaps we could make it a bike only road crossing? Looking at the map could cars cross at Leland instead leaving Willow for Bikes?

Its a crazy option, but it could work.

by Matt R on Nov 4, 2011 10:06 am • linkreport

@Nick, there's certainly room to have an emphasis on bike lanes and bike trails, rather than just the one that you prefer. (Talk about tunnel vision!) All types are part of a balanced system of bike facilities. Just like we have sharrows, on street lanes, separated lanes (15th Street) and wholly separated facilities like the Met Branch or Capitol Crescent. There's no need to make an either/or choice here. We can and should do both.

As an aside, if people tend to dress differently on the Capitol Crescent to bike to work, it might be because some of them may be biking long distances that are impractical to do in the suit they're going to have to put on when they get to work. Don't hate!

by Steve D on Nov 4, 2011 10:12 am • linkreport

~44 million bucks for a 2 block long (500 ft long) bike trail?


It is official. We've jumped the shark. Our alien overlords are laughing their arses off.

This is the equivalent of 377 million bucks per mile of trail, which by the way is what...8', 10' wide or the equivalent of one vehicle lane?

Heck, even cost hemmoraging Silver Line is only costing 300 million a mile.

If this trail ends up being built, I don't ever want to hear one more critique of ANY local road project ever again.

by freely on Nov 4, 2011 10:12 am • linkreport

how much would it cost to build a bike bridge OVER wisconsin? We have a couple of bike ped bridges over the beltway done in the HOT lanes project and theres one over 395 at Shirlington. If they cost well north of $50 million to build Ive never heard of it. Is there some other design constrain in downtown bethesda that prevents that solution?

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 4, 2011 10:26 am • linkreport

This opinion piece is confusingly written. Some parts read that keeping the trail in the tunnel must be saved: "Maintaining the trail parallel to the light-rail tracks through Bethesda Tunnel must be our paramount issue."

But the author's true point seems to be that the entire Purple Line project and the improvements to the rest of the trail should not be lost over fighting to keep the trail in the tunnel. Or am I missing something?

In my opinion, I love the CCT, but spending $100 million to sandwich the both the trail and the rail in the tunnel doesn't make sense. Bethesda is a dense community, and so it's understandable to me that we'll have to encounter some congestion and traffic to traverse it.

by A-lo on Nov 4, 2011 10:30 am • linkreport

I don't know much about the details but something to draw on to support keeping the trail in the tunnel instead of an at-grade crossing is the movement in the early 1900's to eliminate at-grade railroad crossings because they were so dangerous. I don't remember where I read about this - maybe in Caro's book on Moses?

The issues are the same and the solutions are the same. Putting that trail at-grade crossing will seem like a great idea until trail-users start getting killed by cars at the crossing.

by Historical Crossing on Nov 4, 2011 10:37 am • linkreport

Ok, so I'll agree that $43M is too much for a bike bridge but I don't see why it costs so much. The W&OD bike bridge over Rt. 7 cost about $500K in the 1990s. I'm sure there are different engineering challenges for the CCT over 355 but I wonder if some more alternatives analysis couldn't bring about a better solution.

by Falls Church on Nov 4, 2011 10:40 am • linkreport


Yes, the piece is confusing at this statement:

"Maintaining the trail parallel to the light-rail tracks through Bethesda Tunnel must be our paramount issue."

The text in the original post at was written:

"But making the Bethesda Tunnel our paramount issue and declaring ourselves to be opposed to the Purple Line to “Save the Trail” would be to have severe “tunnel vision”."

I am sorry the meaning got distorted when cross-posted.

by Wayne Phyillaier on Nov 4, 2011 10:47 am • linkreport

Every expensive freeway--including this bike freeway--should be evaluated for its system-wide costs and benefits. In this case, a bike tunnel is a loser.

3 blocks through Bethesda is just part of a whole bike commuting network. Extensions and optimizations should be made *elsewhere* to offset the tunnel loss. Take $20m and extend feeder trails, bike sharing, and bike-shelters to employment centers and call it a huge net-win for non-car mobility.

by Kevin C on Nov 4, 2011 10:48 am • linkreport

A bike bridge is a nice idea, but I can't think of anywhere to put it. Downtown Bethesda is highly developed and densely packed.

by Fitz on Nov 4, 2011 10:52 am • linkreport

I thought the state's plan was for the trail to run above the rails in the tunnel, and then there be some sort of rampway down toward the CCT where it picks up again at the corner of Woodmont and Bethesda Ave. Is that no longer the case? The reason I ask is because at previous presentations the state has said that they want the trail to run above the rails so that they will not need to widen the tunnel.

by Cassidy on Nov 4, 2011 10:54 am • linkreport

@Wayne Phyillaier:
I apologize for the editing error. I've modified the paragraph to better reflect your meaning.

by Matt Johnson on Nov 4, 2011 10:56 am • linkreport

Yeah. I was curious about Cassidy's comment too. Widening the tunnel does seem incredibly difficult and wasteful. However, is there a good technical reason why we can't sink the base of the tunnel a bit lower so that we can stack the trains and trail on top of each other?

by andrew on Nov 4, 2011 11:23 am • linkreport

An at-grade crossing may happen and if it did, it would not be the end of the world. To pretend that it has no trade-offs for everyone, though, is dishonest. First, any real substitute surface route would take up part of a local park, eliminate dozens of metered parking spaces and negatively impact auto traffic on Wisconsin because light cycles would need to be adjusted (Bethesda Ave ends at Wisconsin and most of the traffic turns left, immediately intersecting the trail route). All while usership drops from the inconvenience and safety issues involved in a MUT crossing of a 6-lane arterial.

by Crickey7 on Nov 4, 2011 11:28 am • linkreport

@Andrew and @Cassidy: Digging out the base of the tunnel to make it taller has actually been proposed, but it'll be complicated and expensive, due to the fact that they'd have to cut into the footers of the adjacent buildings while they are occupied and reinforce them to make the tunnel taller. It was in the last Post story about this issue.

by Steve D on Nov 4, 2011 11:40 am • linkreport

Complaining about an at-grade crossing of Wisconsin also ignores the fact that if you're coming off the CCT you have to cross TWO streets just to get into the tunnel in the first place. There's no bike signal, you have to use crosswalks/sidewalks, it's in my opinion more annoying than many of the crossings on the Interim CCT (especially CT Ave where you have to go South and then wait for what seems like an eternity to cross).

This analysis is right - Light Rail is more important than the trail through the tunnel, period.

If you want to do the trail right without going through the tunnel, reconfigure 1.5 blocks of Bethesda Ave with some paint to create a safe bicycling space (MORE than a bike lane, separate it with a curb, paint it green, etc), put a bikes-only signal at the intersection with WI Ave (so people on bikes have their own safe crossing period), and put some more paint down in that intersection to direct bikes to Willow Ln and the trail connection. If people are so scared that someone on a bike is going to killed by traffic, then create a situation that gives bikes their own protected space.

But this will never happen because it's clearly a nefarious plot in the War on Drivers™.

by MLD on Nov 4, 2011 11:50 am • linkreport

How about building a separate, short tunnel under Wisconsin just for bikes somewhere else nearby? Surely that would cost bunches less than $100 million. Like at the intersection of Bethesda Ave and Wisconsin.

by orulz on Nov 4, 2011 11:59 am • linkreport


Question for you (or anyone who can answer it)-- let's say that the tunnel idea is scrapped, and the trail stays on-surface and cuts through what is now Elm Street Park. The trail is suppose to be on the north side of the tracks, while Elm Street Park is on the south side. How would trail users cross the tracks to stay on the trail? Under, over, at-grade? Was that issue raised during the walk-through?

by BS_Dawg on Nov 4, 2011 12:43 pm • linkreport

@ BS_Dawg:"The trail is suppose to be on the north side of the tracks, while Elm Street Park is on the south side. How would trail users cross the tracks to stay on the trail? Under, over, at-grade?"

I didn't see the route discussed at the walk-through. But I think there is one route that looks obvious.
1) Enter the chamber under the building at the same place the access trail from Elm Street Park does now, except have the path ramp up slightly instead of down as it does now. There is a small steel horizontal structural brace in the way that may have to be moved because it is at a blocking elevation, but that is an easy change.
2) Immediately inside the chamber there are two rows of columns. There is a rock/gravel garden between the first and second row, that looks to be at least 14' wide. The wider main tunnel and current Interim Trail is past the second row of columns. The path should turn right/east immediately at the first row of columns, then climb slowly on an aerial structure as it continues east over the top of where the rock/gravel garden is now. Only a modest slope is needed to raise the path to be just 8' below the ceiling when it exits from the building at the east end.
3) After emerging from the east end of the building (and still on the south side of the light-rail), continue straight and climbing until you have enough height to cross over the light-rail to the north side on an aerial structure. The relative elevations should allow the cross over to happen well before Pearl Street, close to where the trail would cross to the north side if it came through the tunnel over the top of the Purple Line.
4) The trail ramp down to grade and the switchback access ramp to Pearl Street on the north side would be the same as in the concept plan now.

This route should avoid any more disturbance to Elm Street Park or the houses immediately to the east.

by Wayne Phyillaier on Nov 4, 2011 1:21 pm • linkreport

MLD, I do agree with you that a bicycle and pedestrianized Bethesda Ave. is probably the best course, and having lots of walkers and bicyclists crossing at grade, on signals of course, will be a much better advertisement and marketing strategy for active transportation on a car sewer of an arterial than tucking us under the earth out of the way.

It'd suck though for the farmers market, which would have to move, but so what.

This would be a key and highly visible move.

by Richard Layman on Nov 4, 2011 1:31 pm • linkreport

It's too bad that "Save the Trail" people spend so much energy bashing the Purple Line and smart growth in general that when there are issues that actually involve creating the best trail possible they have no legitimacy or weight.

by jag on Nov 4, 2011 1:42 pm • linkreport

Wayne: thanks for the visual. That sounds feasible

by BS_Dawg on Nov 4, 2011 1:44 pm • linkreport

This kerfuffle is but a little blip in the generally positive dialogue between Purple Line planners and actual trail users, as opposed to the NIMBY crowd.

The final product will be a safe, pleasant way to get back and forth between Silver Spring, Chevy Chase and Bethesda. Replacing the horrific Connecticut Avenue crossing has to be counted as a major plus.

by Crickey7 on Nov 4, 2011 2:09 pm • linkreport

I think it's a bit unfair to refer to the Wisconsin Avenue crossing as a "six-lane highway." At that part of the road, it's very pedestrian-friendly, and I cross it all the time on foot. Wisconsin Avenue (355) becomes more highway-like (and widens) as it gets closer to NIH.

by Justin on Nov 4, 2011 5:19 pm • linkreport

The characterization of 355 as some sort of highway is over the top. Even during rush hour when the lights are synchronized, it's hardly highway-like and, yes, I'm in that area quite often. the non-tunnel alternatives sound very reasonable. Ultimately, the Purple Line will have a much greater impact on the area than the CCT (which I have used, btw) and this shouldn't be used to keep stalling or over-costing a needed rapid transit link.

by Rich on Nov 4, 2011 6:06 pm • linkreport

The lack of context in the whole discussion is alarming.

The tunnel exists only because it was railroad-right-of-way since the beginning of time. And decades ago it made sense to have Wisconsin avenue grade separated from the rail.

Doesn't the National Trails System Act actually require the ROW be kept in a condition to allow easy reversion back to rails? It was a cold war era law about not losing critical railway infrastructure, but finding a good way for preserving it for the future. Maybe I'm one of the few readers to remember articles saying how Peacekeeper nuclear missiles on railcars would be stationed in their residential neighborhoods :-)

by B.O. on Nov 5, 2011 7:55 am • linkreport

You all assume the purple line will be built in our lifetime. Keep enjoying the CCT and shut up.

by scooter on Nov 5, 2011 9:25 am • linkreport

It's a shame to see public works projects consistently get pared down because of fretting over the cost of putting things underground. People need to think for the long term.

by Omar on Nov 6, 2011 8:46 am • linkreport

The CCT "Save the Trail" nutjob group is just another example of a fanatical, un-compromising, far-left advocacy organization. As much as I dislike wingnuts on the right for their general ignorance and shortsightedness, their counterparts on the left (which includes a number of posters on this blog) are almost as bad since COMPROMISE means nothing to them.

The MTA/Montgomery County could make every single effort to accommodate users of the trail, and in my opinion already have done far more than they needed to on that front, but the trail users would still never be happy until the Purple Line is cancelled or rerouted. Thanks to their stubbornness, they have already cost the state tens of millions of dollars through design changes and accommodations for the trail.

No wonder mainstream America often thinks of liberals as tree huggers and eco-terrorists. I wonder if the "Save the Trail" group realizes that if Maryland were some conservative state in the South or West politicians wouldn't even think twice about ripping up the entire trail to build some highway and blatantly laughing in the face of a group like the SST.

by King Terrapin on Nov 7, 2011 12:51 pm • linkreport

@King Terrapin

There is one "trail users" group (Friends of the CCT) that is really just anti-transit people abusing the trail to try to get the Purple Line cancelled. Their website is full of the usual anti-transit BS and obfuscation that implies that the trail is simply going to disappear. There are probably some misguided environmentalists in there but really the group is made up of your usual anti-transit/anti-development "it will destroy our neighborhood" people.

The vast majority of people get that the trail and the light rail will coexist fine together.

All you have to do is look at the conflicting stuff on the Friends of the CCT website. "The Purple Line isn't environmentally friendly because it runs on electricity generated from coal!" and in the next breath, "BRT is a better alternative." Right.

by MLD on Nov 7, 2011 1:12 pm • linkreport

@King Terrapin, I don't think "Friends of the CCT" are a liberal group - and they aren't a "trail users" group. They're a bunch of adjacent landowners who fear the train. The Coalition for the CCT is the trail users group and they have taken a position between support and neutral. They want what's best for the trail - not just keeping the Purple line off the western end of the ROW. WABA supports the trail.

by David C on Nov 7, 2011 2:01 pm • linkreport

I meant WABA supports the Purple Line.

by David C on Nov 7, 2011 2:01 pm • linkreport

@King Terrapin, David C is right that the "Friends of the CCT" is heavy with adjacent landowners who fear the train. Their President lives immediately adjacent to the trail, and his back yard lawn is encroaching well into the publicly owned Georgetown Branch Trail right-of-way. If the Purple Line is built, his back yard will get smaller. He may love the trail, but still this is a strong conflict of interest that has to skew the way he sees the Purple Line.
The Coalition for the CCT has always been neutral, they have a good statement about their position on the Purple Line at
Being neutral does not mean being indifferent. The Purple Line will change the
character of the trail so it will lose much of its park character east of Bethesda, but it also will complete the trail into Silver Spring to serve more neighborhoods and to be a much stronger part of a regional trail system than would otherwise be possible. Many trail users are naturally conflicted by that choice.

by Wayne Phyillaier on Nov 7, 2011 2:17 pm • linkreport

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