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On-street Crescent Trail may be better for bikes and peds

Rising costs may force parts of the Capital Crescent Trail onto local streets, but it could actually give pedestrians and bicyclists a better experience.

Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

Ever since the Purple Line was first envisioned as a trolley between Bethesda and Silver Spring in 1986, plans have included a bike and pedestrian trail next to the tracks, giving people an alternative to busy streets. Today, the Capital Crescent Trail is a popular amenity. A survey done in 2006 counted 23,000 people using the trail at one point in downtown Bethesda.

Meanwhile, the Maryland Transit Administration says rebuilding the Capital Crescent Trail next to the Purple Line could cost as much as $103 million, $40 million of which would go to building a raised platform for the trail in a tunnel beneath Wisconsin Avenue in Bethesda. That's why Montgomery County planners are looking at placing the trail above ground, as Matt Johnson wrote about yesterday. Not only is this option cheaper, but it'll actually be better for users and for neighborhoods.

Capital Crescent Trail Alternatives in downtown Bethesda
Alternatives for an on-street route through downtown Bethesda. Image from the Montgomery County Planning Department

Supporters of separated tunnels and bridges over busy streets say it makes pedestrians (and occasionally bicyclists) safer by keeping them away from heavy car traffic. But they can also isolate users from their surroundings, encouraging criminal activity. Both the Forest Glen pedestrian bridge and the Metropolitan Branch Trail, which sit above the street level, have had problems with attacks and muggings.

At the same time, taking pedestrians and bicyclists from the street only reinforces the thinking that they don't belong there. "I think [Montgomery] County doesn't seriously take biking as a form of transportation," said Peter Wolf of the Coalition for the Capital Crescent Trail when I interviewed himin 2007. "For me to be seen biking to work or biking in my neighborhood, it's seen as a little... odd."

Putting more pedestrians and bicyclists on the street in Bethesda shows that they have a right to use that space and makes those activities seem "normal." Building wider sidewalks or a parallel path like the Silver Spring Green Trail provides ample room for pedestrians walking for transportation or recreation.

The 15th Street cycle track. Photo by the author.
Cycle tracks, like the one that currently exists along 15th Street in the District, give bicyclists a protected route away from car traffic similar to what they'd have on the Capital Crescent Trail. This would give users the protection the Capital Crescent Trail currently provides while allowing them to see their surroundings and be seen, making them feel safer.

Not only that, but an on-street trail would provide direct access to homes, shops, and places of work in downtown Bethesda. The existing tunnel only has entrances at Woodmont Avenue and Elm Street, meaning that anyone going to places in between already has to use surface streets.

These changes may require taking out car lanes or removing on-street parking, as county planners recommend, which might increase congestion. But it will also help to slow car traffic in Bethesda, an area where drivers shouldn't be allowed to speed through anyway, while providing safe, attractive alternatives to driving for short-distance trips. That could help reduce car traffic, in turn making it even safer for people to walk and bike around downtown Bethesda.

Bethesda Avenue Bike Lane
What a trail network might look like at the intersection of Bethesda and Woodmont avenues. Image by the author.

Wisconsin Avenue Bike Lane
What a trail network might look like on Wisconsin Avenue. Image by the author.

Placing the Capital Crescent Trail on local streets in downtown Bethesda to accommodate the Purple Line doesn't have to be an inconvenience for trail users. In fact, it could make Bethesda a better and safer place to live and visit. It also helps conserve money for other portions of the trail, which currently dead-ends 1.5 miles short of its intended terminus in downtown Silver Spring. As trail advocate and contributor Wayne Phyillaier points out, eliminating the Bethesda tunnel may be the only way to finish the trail.

Developing a network of off-street trails is a great way to tie our region together, and finishing the Capital Crescent Trail is an important part of it. But it's also important to provide links to neighborhood and activity centers, and the best way to do that is on surface streets. Running the trail through downtown Bethesda instead of under it lets us build that regional network while also giving local communities the option to bike or walk.

Dan Reed is an urban planner at Nelson\Nygaard. He writes his own blog, Just Up the Pike, and serves as the Land Use Chair for the Action Committee for Transit. He lives in downtown Silver Spring. All opinions are his own. 


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My only comment would be rather than a cycletrack mixed with traffic, make Willow Lane an exclusive pedestrianized and bicycle street--on street CCT--and make it the best "street" in the region for walkers and bikers. And make the crossing at Wisconsin totally awesome for walkers/bikers too.

In other words, make it premiere sustainable transportation infrastructure, along the lines of best practice not just in NYC or SF (these cities have surpassed DC so far in terms of streetscape best practice) but Europe.

Actually, Bethesda already has a decent example of what could be done, on the pass through road/sidewalk within the Bethesda Row expansion towards Arlington Blvd.


(Sorry this isn't a great photo.)

by Richard Layman on Nov 17, 2011 1:01 pm • linkreport

The values expressed by the author are correct. Bicyclists do need to be integrated into the neighborhood and onto neighborhood streets so that they can go to and from their daily destinations. Trails should not be isolating, and on-street facilities have their value.

That said: Mixing with motor vehicle traffic is a major deterrent to the adoption of cycling by new riders. While the escalating costs of the Wisconsin Ave. underpass give cause to consider alternatives to the tunnel alignment, we must invest in facilities that will appeal not just to the cyclists of today, but to the much larger group of people who are "interested but concerned" and will depend on both physical separation from motor vehicles and dedicated space for bicyclists.

Certainly, that can happen on-street and have the community-building benefits referenced in the article. But we need to think a bit more creatively than the green paint approach of the renderings. While that may be an excellent approach for a less exceptional street, it is simply insufficient for what will become one of the region's most significant trail crossings.

by Shane (WABA) on Nov 17, 2011 1:18 pm • linkreport

There are seperated cycle tracks all over busy areas of Copenhagen with lots of auto traffic. I think its a good idea for Bethesda too.

by Tina on Nov 17, 2011 1:31 pm • linkreport

Personally I enjoy tunnels to cross busy streets on a bicycle for one reason: it's faster. You don't have to wait for the light to turn green. Don't have to waste momentum. Just keep on pedalin'.

by orulz on Nov 17, 2011 1:40 pm • linkreport

..yeah. The lights in at least one busy part of Copenhagen are times for bikes, not cars, so you can ride without stopping.

by Tina on Nov 17, 2011 1:42 pm • linkreport

I'd rather see the Purple Line cross Wisconsin Ave. at street level rather than the trail. It's great not to have to wait for traffic when I'm riding my bike. What about a footbridge like the one over River Rd.?

Really, I'm not happy about the Purple Line in general. It was as if someone said "hey, there's this old rail line we could run a trolly down." They never bothered to look at the bigger picture.

If anything there should be Metrorail line encircling the entire city, not just connecting New Carrollton and Bethesda. Maybe it could have local and express trains too.

I think one day something like that will be built. What would be the purpose of the Purple Line once that happens?

by Ted on Nov 17, 2011 1:54 pm • linkreport

@Shane, I agree in theory, but to encroach on motor vehicle traffic is a good thing. Yes, the CCT is a great resource for cyclists. I am a cyclist myself, but I would HATE to see the purple line project derailed because we couldn't see the bigger picture here. I'm shocked that the cycling activists (specifically the Friends of the CCT) are not finding a way to work in a non-confrontational way to find a suitable compromise. There is money to extend the CCT/GBT in this project and mass transit can go a long way towards accommodating a growing population who would never get on a bike with or without a tunnel.

by AEB on Nov 17, 2011 2:24 pm • linkreport


I agree that green-striped bike lanes aren't enough of a solution, but I thought they worked for the diagrams I made. I just wanted to quickly show that there's enough space on local streets to provide for bikes. If I have a little more time, I'll try to make a rendering with actual cycle tracks, wider sidewalks, etc.


The "big picture" is that it doesn't have to be rail vs. trail. The real issue is how much room are we going to give to biking, walking and transit (which carry a lot of people in less space) versus driving (which carries a few people in a lot of space).

by dan reed! on Nov 17, 2011 2:36 pm • linkreport

Shane is dead-on here. A surface alignment could create a great space for the trail and bring users to the trail, but green paint and signs aren't going to cut it. You have to build something that is truly separated and protected from traffic and is basically the equivalent of the trail but on the street.

But God forbid we take parking places away!

by MLD on Nov 17, 2011 2:47 pm • linkreport

I'm shocked that the cycling activists (specifically the Friends of the CCT) are not finding a way to work in a non-confrontational way to find a suitable compromise.

I'm not shocked, because the "Friends of the CCT" group aren't friends of the trail, they're anti-transit and anti-Purple Line people masquerading as stewards of the trail and the environment. They aren't cycling activists, or trail proponents. All you have to do is look at their website to see that their real goal is killing transit.

by MLD on Nov 17, 2011 2:58 pm • linkreport

I guess the reason that I'm shocked is because they are risking losing money to extend and widen the trail (something they want) just to save one tunnel. It seems foolish to me.

by AEB on Nov 17, 2011 3:02 pm • linkreport

Friends of the CCT want to freeze the status quo. They are raising the issue of keeping the trail in the tunnel at any cost as a way of derailing the Purple Line. Can't blame people for wanting to keep the trail all to themselves, but we can call it out as incredibly selfish.

by Crickey7 on Nov 17, 2011 3:10 pm • linkreport

Pretty sad how this has worked out...

1. You have a great trail!
2. You can have a Purple Line AND keep the great trail!
3. This is all very expensive. You can have a purple line, but you'll lose the trail, but don't worry, we'll make lots of cycle tracks and take away vehicle lanes to make it a pleasant on-street riding experience.
4. You can have a Purple Line. Bye-bye trail. Sorry, we couldn't get any consensus on street-level improvements so ride at your own peril.

by renegade09 on Nov 17, 2011 3:51 pm • linkreport

@renegade09 Also just read they would remove the Rock Creek Trestle.

by Ted on Nov 17, 2011 3:57 pm • linkreport

renegade09--this doesn't end the trail, just doesn't preserve an underground alignment for 1000 feet, and paves a trail for what 7 miles, including almost 2 miles of trail extension.

And by going to the surface alignment within Bethesda, and making it pedestrian and bicycle exclusive, you have a surface "greenway-bikeway-walkway" that is a great branding and marketing initiative for sustainable transportation.

As someone said in one of the other posts, people cross the street at grade at Woodmont Ave. & Betheda Ave. already.

by Richard Layman on Nov 17, 2011 4:00 pm • linkreport

All this destruction for a slow-ass trolly.

It will use streets from New Carrolton to Silver Spring, why not just keep it on streets from Silver Spring to Bethesda?

People have pointed out that it would be quicker to drive from New Carrolton to Bethesda than take to the Purple Line. Why are we building this?

by Ted on Nov 17, 2011 4:07 pm • linkreport

Why the Purple Line? 8.5 minutes from Silver Spring to Bethesda, even in rush hour. You might be able to do that at 2 a.m. in a car. And no looking for parking once you get there. Less pollution.

And a better, safer trail experience that also goes all the way, unlike the truncated trail of today.

by Crickey7 on Nov 17, 2011 4:20 pm • linkreport


We could run the Purple Line on streets between Silver Spring and Bethesda, but would you give up two lanes of East-West Highway to do it?

by dan reed! on Nov 17, 2011 4:24 pm • linkreport

Why not bury it below East-West Hwy.? Cut and cover like in NY? Didn't someone write an article on GGW saying cut and cover doesn't cost as much as you'd think?

by Ted on Nov 17, 2011 4:29 pm • linkreport


Any kind of tunneling costs a hell of a lot more than using the already existing, grade-separated right of way that's practically begging to be used.

by Alex B. on Nov 17, 2011 4:30 pm • linkreport

You're right, that's the only reason why they want to use the trail, because the right-of-way is already there. It's not necessarily the best route for the Purple Line. There's nothing but single family homes lining it. Why not take the Purple Line down a major thoroughfare that's has at least a few apartment buildings along it?

And that leads me to another point, if we're going to spend billions of dollars on a new rail line why not do it right? Why not connect the entire Greater Washington area, not just Bethesda to New Carrollton?

The Purple Line should be a circle line around the entire city. It should have local and express trains. Maybe it should follow the beltway.

by Ted on Nov 17, 2011 4:48 pm • linkreport

EW Highway does not work for light rail. You need a pretty gentle grade.

by Crickey7 on Nov 17, 2011 5:00 pm • linkreport

Why are we looking at other routes? The one we have works pretty well, far better than any of the alternatives. Not to mention it will increase usership of the trail.

by Crickey7 on Nov 17, 2011 5:03 pm • linkreport

Ted, they are removing the Rock Creek Trestle, but the trail will cross rock creek on a new bridge. So, it's only loss of the existing structure, not the utility. Also, all of your questions are answered in the reams of paper written on this subject. They've studied and dismissed all of the alternatives you've suggested.

How close to the trail do you live btw? Are you right up against it, or only within earshot?

by David C on Nov 17, 2011 5:06 pm • linkreport

@Ted, Do you want it to be near homes and apartments or follow the Beltway? You can't do both. The population density is greater near EW Hwy than the Beltway and there are quite a few apartments near the trail. In fact, there are apartments in easy walking distance of the proposed Silver Spring, 16th St, Lyttonsville, & Bethesda stops and there are plans to put some near the Connecticut Ave stop.

Also, the end-to-end running time for the Purple line is estimated at 50min during peak hours. How often do you get from New Carrolton to Bethesda in 50min at rush hour?

As for running it under East West Hwy, in addition to having a lot of hills, there are many visible or buried streams under the road (aka any location with the word "Chase": Falkland Chase, Fox Chase, Chevy Chase...) The CTT is nicely running at the top of a ridge rather than in a streambed valley. Tunneling a train through run-off streams and through flood zones is, at best, really expensive and, at worst, a disaster waiting to happen.

by Dan H on Nov 17, 2011 5:16 pm • linkreport

I want the existing rail bridge to stay... they restored it only a few years ago. It's a beautiful bridge and I can't think of another like it in the area.

I live about a half-mile from the trail and use it often. I'm also pro-mass transit, but I think the route chosen is only the cheapest solution, not the best.

But my real problem with the Purple Line is that it's a bandaid fix for DC's transit problems. Really, why are we spending billions of dollars connecting New Carrollton to Bethesda. We need to think of the bigger picture.

by Ted on Nov 17, 2011 5:22 pm • linkreport

I have lived in either Montgomery County or NW Washington 28 out of my 33 years. So I remember the debate when Montgomery County created the Capital Crescent Trail when CSX abandoned the rail line that goes from Silver Spring to Georgetown. From what I recall the intent was to eventually use the corridor for some sort of light rail or subway. The intent was always there to create that transportation link.

I understand why some of the people who live near the line may not want it, but the county has needed that east/west light-rail subway connection for decades. It's totally unreasonable to have to ride the subway all through downtown to get from Silver Spring to Bethesda. And those J2 buses are always filled with people. The demand is there for such a line.

And I think ultimately it should be built, but it wouldn't surprise me if those few landowners in Bethesda and Chevy Chase ultimately derail the project (no pun intended). What I've learned is that it only takes a few very loud people to scream and rant to defeat a project. Even if a project like the Purple Line would benefit the area at large, if a few people just scream loudly enough, they can stop a project.

That's why it's increasingly difficult to do anything to improve our infrastructure or build any transportation projects. It's not possible in America to build anything big or innovative any more. I don't disagree that people should have their voices heard. I just think it has gone too far in the other direction over the last 30 years.

by Rain17 on Nov 17, 2011 5:30 pm • linkreport

Well, there are plenty of high-density areas along the beltway, and where there isn't, a future rail line could could diverge form the beltway to places like downtown Silver Spring and Bethesda. And I don't think I'm the only one who envisions a Metrorail line along the beltway. Planners left space on the new Wilson Bridge for rail.

by Ted on Nov 17, 2011 5:35 pm • linkreport

If the bicycling community decides that an on street route is a decent alternative the connection to should be made with as much separation as possible between users. Painted medians and plastic bollards are ok for 15th, but this connection is one of the most important in the regional trail network and needs to be done right. Cycle tracks with real curbs, painted crossings, bike traffic lights, the whole 9.

I would also argue that in agreeing to a less than ideal solution, the bicycle community would be helping to dramatically reduce the cost of the trail project. A portion of that saving should be used to widen the section of the trail south of Bethesda and improve trails/add bike lanes elsewhere in the area.

by Eric on Nov 17, 2011 5:53 pm • linkreport

Ted--Let's be realistic. The political realities in both MD and VA will ensure that a Beltway Metro is likely years, if not, decades away. The political will just isn't there; and, in this era of "austerity", very few, if any, of the local governments in the area would be willing to undertake a project that massive and likely to cost well into the billions of dollars.

On some level I am amazed that the Silver Line is actually going to at least make it to Reston. Given how averse VA is to funding any transportation project and raising any taxes to support transportation, that they were able to get the funding is a miracle. Also, given how complicated the review process is, I am surprised they actually broke ground because, even with Dulles Rail, despite having a lot of public support, a shrill minority was determined to stop it.

Again it is a shame that, in America, we can't undertake any major projects any more.

by Rain17 on Nov 17, 2011 5:53 pm • linkreport

@Rain17 The Georgetown Branch was purchased by Montgomery in 1988 with the intention of turning it into a trail. Under a provision incorporated into the National Trails System Act, an unused rail corridor could be "railbanked" if a state or local government or a private organization agreed to take it over and develop it as an interim rail-trail. The right-of-way could, in the event of a national emergency, revert to rail use.

by Ted on Nov 17, 2011 5:59 pm • linkreport

Ted, the county always intended to make this rail transit. And the right-of-way can revert to rail use simply by having someone want to put rail on it. It does not require a national emergency.

by David C on Nov 17, 2011 6:10 pm • linkreport

Ted, not only did the county always intend to make this rail transit, but the County Council did not have enough support to buy this r.o.w. if only for trail use. It was the potential of this r.o.w. to be used for transit that convinced enough Council Members to approve the purchase.
So, the CCT would not exist in Montgomery County today if not for the promise that the trail would eventually share the r.o.w. with a transit line.

by Wayne Phyillaier on Nov 17, 2011 7:02 pm • linkreport

I used the trail before the tunnel was opened. I was glad when the tunnel opened, but I see no problem reverting to the above ground crossing at Wisconsin avenue.

by Joseph Davidson on Nov 17, 2011 7:30 pm • linkreport

@Wayne Phyillaier Well, I didn't know that.

I remember there was a proposal years ago to have the Purple Line run outside the beltway in hopes that it would spur development. I think a light rail line on the Georgetown Branch was part of a separate proposal, I don't think it was originally intended to be part of the same line that would connect with New Carrollton.

Don't even think they'll bother building the complete line to New Carrollton, this is really about connecting just Bethesda and Silver Spring.

Really the money to build this line would be better used providing some form of transit to people who don't have it, like Metrorail to southern Maryland or simply extending the Green Line to BWI or the Orange Line to Bowie.

by Ted on Nov 17, 2011 7:52 pm • linkreport

Ted said: "All this destruction for a slow-ass trolly."

According to MDOT, the ride between Downtown Silver Spring and Downtown Bethesda will take 8.5 minutes on light rail.

That's FAR faster than in a car!!!!

by Capt. Hilts on Nov 17, 2011 11:19 pm • linkreport

You can call it light rail, but it's still a trolly and it's a bandaid fix. We're thinking 2015, when we should be thinking 2030.

by Ted on Nov 18, 2011 8:11 am • linkreport

8.5 minutes? It takes about 15–20 at rush hour to travel it by car. Do you really think saving 7-12 minutes is enough incentive to get people out of their cars?

by Ted on Nov 18, 2011 8:20 am • linkreport


Extending Metro to the far flung reaches of the DC metro area is more beneficial than the Purple Line? Citation Please.

Everything I've read says that the Purple Line will have better ridership than the Silver Line (60K vs 50K).

And you don't think cutting people's travel time in half will make some ditch their cars for the sleek new light rail? If that's the case then there's no hope for transit.

by MLD on Nov 18, 2011 8:54 am • linkreport

In reading your feedback, I get the feeling that your comments are slightly less than informed. I understand you are passionate about your position, but you are not providing much data to support your objections. Perhaps you could share links to data/studies/articles to help us understand. If your goal is simply to be an obstructionist then perhaps we should simply ignore your posts. However, if you are attempting to alter the outcome of the current CCT/Purple Line, I encourage you to bring more to the table.

I understand that here on the internet it's easy to lob anonymous volleys at faceless contributors, but I assure you that my comments are in no way a personal attack. I think an informed debate will only help to illuminate the issues and to provide a way to come up with the best solution for the community.

by AEB on Nov 18, 2011 8:59 am • linkreport

@Wayne Phyillaier

Just read more about this... maybe the county council insisted the right-of-way be used for mass transit when it was purchased, but it was The Coalition for the Capital Crescent Trail that convinced the council to purchase the former rail line and convert it into a trail. It wasn't until 1989, a year after the purchase of the right-of-way, that the county incorporated a trolley into their master plan.

So maybe all along the county wanted to turn it into a light rail line, but they purchased it with the intention of turning it into a trail. So essentially they told the coalition "Sure, we'll turn it into a trail... suckers."

But correct me if I'm wrong.

by Ted on Nov 18, 2011 9:12 am • linkreport

The right of way purchased is FAR wider than that required by the Crescent Trail.

by Capt. Hilts on Nov 18, 2011 9:13 am • linkreport

@ AEB Well, which comments are you wondering about?

by Ted on Nov 18, 2011 9:16 am • linkreport

It's not my job to help you defend your position. In general you are citing unnamed sources. Let's keep this discussion on topic. Your last posts suggest something you just read regarding history of the CCT

"Just read more about this... maybe the county council insisted the right-of-way be used for mass transit when it was purchased, but it was The Coalition for the Capital Crescent Trail that convinced the council to purchase the former rail line and convert it into a trail. It wasn't until 1989, a year after the purchase of the right-of-way, that the county incorporated a trolley into their master plan."

Can you share the link/source of this information?

by AEB on Nov 18, 2011 9:24 am • linkreport

@MLD It's pretty obvious that was just my opinion, I wasn't citing any study when I wrote that. And are you saying that the "far flung reaches of the DC metro area" don't deserve better mass transit? Why should this project take priority over extending the Green or Orange Lines into PG County?

by Ted on Nov 18, 2011 9:29 am • linkreport

@AEB "In reading your feedback, I get the feeling that your comments are slightly less than informed." Could your comment be more snarky?

You know, I've not called anyone out on their sources. It's not as if I assume everyone is lying.

by Ted on Nov 18, 2011 9:40 am • linkreport

Has the author ever cycled, walked or jogged through the tunnel? I get the feeling that the from reading this opinion piece that he has in fact not. I find it difficult to take a recommendation from someone who has not a frequent user of this piece of infrastructure.

by RiverCrossing on Nov 18, 2011 9:48 am • linkreport

The first three pretty much say the same thing, that is that the section from Bethesda to Silver Spring was never designated as hiker/biker only. The GBT trail was allowed to proceed.

The last article, while eleven years old is the most informative. I'm still working my way through it. Thanks for sharing.

For the record, I never said you were lying.

by AEB on Nov 18, 2011 9:53 am • linkreport

@AEB It's the Gazette piece that mentions that council incorporated a trolley into their master plan in 1989. The Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail page on the history of the trail states it was the coalition that convinced the council in 1988 to purchase the right-of-way to be used as a trail. So what I'm saying is, maybe the council alway intended to turn the right-of-way into light rail, but I guess they did not tell the coalition this.

And I don't want to be your enemy... we both read GGW, I think we want the same things--for the most part. :)

by Ted on Nov 18, 2011 10:03 am • linkreport

I do not drive, and therefore must rely on public transportation to get around. That being said, my favorite form of recreation is long walks, preferably on trails in parks and "greenspace". In all the rah-rah boosterism for the Purple Line, I don't find any recognition of the fact that putting it in place essentially destroys the greenspace of the trail. Sure, the trail may end up with better pavement and amenities for cyclists. But it will no longer even approximate greenspace for people who need to get away from traffic and transit every once in a while. I wonder why it was so prohibitively difficult to push the Purple Line onto land already de-greened by urban use, instead of taking away this corridor. I know in this case the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, and certainly I'm for public transportation. But why are advocates for the project not even expressing an iota of regret for the destruction of this space? By setting up the greenspace enthusiasts against the public transportation enthusiasts, the car-and-roadway crowd are the net winners, IMHO.

by Kyle on Nov 18, 2011 10:23 am • linkreport


Thanks for the vote of confidence. I'm an avid bicyclist (for transportation, not just recreation) and I've been on the Capital Crescent Trail many, many times. Check out my bio - I grew up in Silver Spring. I even went on a tour of the trail with Pam Browning in Chevy Chase and Wayne Phyillaier in Silver Spring a few years ago to learn about the issues surrounding it and the Purple Line.

by dan reed! on Nov 18, 2011 10:25 am • linkreport

The important part of this to wonder about is, when will 'they' decide to extend the purple line (or whatever) from bethesda to east or west falls church metros? That would be revolutionary and absolutely decrease bodies taking up space in the core.

by James on Nov 18, 2011 10:26 am • linkreport

@Kyle and some others

Why do people think that the light rail is going to "destroy" the green space of the trail? There can and will be tree canopy, and the railbed isn't going to consist of poured concrete. It's not like they're putting a traffic-choked roadway next to the trail, it's a quiet electric vehicle going by once every few minutes.

by MLD on Nov 18, 2011 10:33 am • linkreport

There will be an appetite in Va for a transit river crossing AFTER there is massive additional development in Tysons - I do not know how long that will take. If and when that happens, the push will likely be for something more or less following the beltway - either heavy rail, or possibly BRT extending from the HOT lanes (or on extended HOT lanes) I think the purple line will complement that.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 18, 2011 10:37 am • linkreport

@MLD, have you seen the Metropolitan Branch Trail? It's certainly 'nice' in terms of pavement and access. It's highly functional as a pathway for biking. It's also very unattractive in terms of visual stimulation for pedestrians. Sure, the Purple Line Trail will have some trees, but not nearly as many. And walking next to any public transportation is inherently unpleasant. Motorized vehicles, however clean, still throw off dust and detritus as they go by. There'll be leaks of brake fluid and other spillage. As I've said, I support public transportation, and I recognize that this is the necessary evil because there's no way we're ever going to get a Purple Line along or under the roadways. But what really saddens me is there is not one iota of recognition that this trail, as a trail, will be fundamentally altered for the worse in service to the transit needs of the majority. I could stomach it better if someone from the Purple Line booster party would just fess up and acknowledge this.

by Kyle on Nov 18, 2011 11:03 am • linkreport

The section of the former Georgetown Branch right-of-way has been proposed as a passenger rail line for several decades. The earliest record I have found of that is in the 1974 Friendship Heights Sector Plan. It's also mentioned in the 1976 Bethesda Central Business District Master Plan (as a combination trolley and biker trail). The 1982 Westbard Sector Plan even mentions that MCDOT considered extending the trolley to Westbard.

All of those mentions happened before the B&O (later CSX) decided to abandon the line.

Once the line was abandoned, the county purchased the right-of-way in two segments. The section from the DC Line to Woodmont Avenue in Bethesda is owned by the Parks Department as a park. This section of the trail is paved.

The section from Bethesda to Lyttonsville is owned by the Montgomery County Department of Transportation. This section of the trail is not paved, specifically because it's a temporary facility intended to be replaced when light rail is installed in the corridor.

From the day the right-of-way was purchased, the section from Bethesda to Lyttonsville has been proposed as light rail (with trail). Incorporation of the trail into the master plan in 1989 probably happened at that time because the county had finally acquired the property. As late as 1982, the railroad had stated that they were not willing to sell the line to the county, and that they did not think light rail and freight trains could share the corridor.

As I mentioned before, the 1974 Friendship Heights Sector Plan is the earliest reference to what is now known as the Purple Line that I've found. In this section, the Plan is discussing ways of increasing transit mode share. Keep in mind that in 1974, Metro was under construction, but had not even opened yet. Here's an excerpt:

It is recommended that... A limited-stop transit service be developed to connect Silver Spring, the Walter Reed Army Annex [Lyttonsville], Chevy Chase, Bethesda, Kenwood, and Georgetown, using an off-street right-of-way - The B & O Railroad Georgetown Branch freight line may provide a right-of-way for such service which could utilize buses or rail cars of some type.

by Matt Johnson on Nov 18, 2011 11:08 am • linkreport


It is absolutely correct that there will be winners and losers with the Purple Line. If you are a loser in this process, my condolences. But this trail is a public good, and public goods msut be utilized in a way that benefits the largest number of people the most. Keep in mind that more efficient use of infrastructure means less sprawl in the region that greatly offsets the loss of the peaceful but not environementally pristine Georgetown Branch.

Your loss is a net gain for the very things you love.

by Crickey7 on Nov 18, 2011 11:31 am • linkreport

"Personally I enjoy tunnels to cross busy streets on a bicycle for one reason: it's faster. You don't have to wait for the light to turn green. Don't have to waste momentum. Just keep on pedalin'. "

A lot of cyclists are already riding like that. I nearly hit one yesterday evening at M Street and NJ SE. Idiot blew through the light while riding in pitch darkness on a bike with no lights or reflectors and wearing dark clothes - in the rain, no less. Good thing for him I was driving slowly and paying attention. Next time, he might not be so lucky.

Attention flamers: I ride too - but I stop at red lights.

by ceefer66 on Nov 18, 2011 12:43 pm • linkreport

@Matt Johnson Didn't know Mont Co. had its eyes on the Georgetown Branch all the way back to the 70s. Still don't think it's the best route for the Purple Line. Maybe we shouldn't call it the Purple Line or even bother connecting it with New Carrollton, which I think is what's going to happen anyway.

@AWalkerInTheCity Agree with you, at some point within our lifetimes something like a circle line will be built. Will the Purple Line fit into whatever is built? Could you imagine taking a trolley from say Silver Spring to Tysons? Whatever is built has to be fast.

by Ted on Nov 18, 2011 4:10 pm • linkreport

I don't know what you're complaining about. The Purple Line light rail is expected to cover the 4.3 miles from Bethesda to Silver Spring in 8.5 minutes. That gives it an average speed of 30.4 miles per hour.

To compare, the fastest of the Metro lines, the Orange Line, has an average speed (full line) of 32.9 miles per hour. The slowest, the Yellow Line, has an average speed of 25.9 mph.
[More on Metro's travel speeds:]

It's all about stop spacing and running speed. The Georgetown Branch part of the Purple Line will be entirely grade-separated, so it can have a top running speed of 50-55 miles per hour. Just like heavy rail.

So, it links two major jobs centers using the straightest, flattest route between the two, and the route is already owned by the County.

Any cross-suburb line through lower Montgomery County has to serve Bethesda and Silver Spring. As jobs centers, urban villages, and transit hubs already, they make sense. So making a line run round the Beltway, just because you think the Beltway is a good place, would just mean a longer distance (read: longer trip time and therefore a slower trip) or making riders transfer twice: once at Forest Glen and once at Grosvenor.

Now, will the Purple Line be slower going through the street-running and median-running segments between Silver Spring and New Carrollton? Yes. But it also serves major jobs, housing, and activity centers.

A fast line that doesn't go anywhere won't have any riders.

by Matt Johnson on Nov 18, 2011 4:34 pm • linkreport

Well it doesn't have to necessarily follow the entire beltway, think I said that in one of my earlier comments. I would love to see something with express and local trains circling the entire city. I think something like that was originally envisioned. They should just call the current proposal the Bethesda-Silver Spring Trolly and skip connecting it with PG County. Save the name Purple Line for for what was originally planned.

by Ted on Nov 18, 2011 5:29 pm • linkreport

By the time they build a train circling the city, they'll have to call it the Platinum Line.

by Crickey7 on Nov 18, 2011 6:02 pm • linkreport

We're going to spend billions of dollars on the Purple Line. I think whatever we build should be the first piece in a rail line around the city. I don't think current proposal could be a part of that.

by Ted on Nov 18, 2011 6:51 pm • linkreport

Ted, the studied both a Metro-style purple line and a Beltway purple line and dismissed both ideas. You might disagree with that, but those ideas have had their time. You can probably find the reasoning and study of those ideas out there somewhere.

You can call it light rail, but it's still a trolly

Well, yes. But you say trolley like it is a bad thing. Trolley just means that it gets it's power from a pantograph. This will a modern, and very fast trolley.

It's like calling the space shuttle a glider. Technically true, but deceptively over-simplified.

What do you think it means if it is just a "trolley"

Kyle, I think most people recognize that there will be something lost if the purple line is built. The ROW will be less organic and quiet, and less of a refuge. It will have trees, but they will have more of a managed feel to them. But a lot of people think it is still worth the price. I plan to ride it the last day before they start work, and I'll miss it for it is now. But I'll enjoy the amenities of the new trail and transit more. It's like having a kid. You love them as they are, but you don't want them to stay like that forever.

by David C on Nov 19, 2011 12:08 am • linkreport

If you don't build the tunnel, you're putting cyclists who want to ride from Bethesda to Chevy Chase or Silver Spring (or vice versa) onto surface streets, because "putting more pedestrians and bicyclists on the street in Bethesda shows that they have a right to use that space and makes those activities seem 'normal.'"

I would rather get to my destination quickly than ride around Bethesda to get people used to seeing bikes in Bethesda. Making it easier to bike to places is what gets people onto their bikes. Build the best trail possible and you'll see more cyclists in Bethesda, not fewer.

by Jack Cochrane on Nov 19, 2011 4:25 am • linkreport

@David C

Is a rail connection from Tysons to MoCo feasible? Or is BRT going to be the best solution? Extending the HOT Lanes into Maryland?

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 19, 2011 7:25 am • linkreport

@David C Well, I know I'm not the only one thinking big. There have been a few Metro System fantasy maps that have appeared on GGW, and some of them have shown a line around the city. I'm sure there is a way to do it. Whatever we build could be the first piece of that line.

by Ted on Nov 19, 2011 8:22 am • linkreport


I would rather get to my destination quickly than ride around Bethesda to get people used to seeing bikes in Bethesda.

So . . . what if your destination is, you know, somewhere on a surface street in downtown Bethesda? The tunnel won't really help you with that. And why would we need a tunnel to keep bikes out of other traffic if the streets of downtown Bethesda are set up to make it safe for bikes and pedestrians?

Saying we need a tunnel so bikes can speed through Bethesda isn't much different from saying that we need Wisconsin Avenue to be six lanes wide so cars can speed through Bethesda. And neither of those things really work to create a good urban environment in Bethesda.

by dan reed! on Nov 19, 2011 11:58 am • linkreport

Sorry, didn't mean to sound snarky. I just think the part of Bethesda that the tunnel would bypass is relatively short so I wouldn't say the tunnel bypasses Bethesda. If anything it links two parts of Bethesda. The entrances are close to Wisconsin Ave, especially on the west side where a lot of the "action" is. In fact the trail comes out just a block west of Wisconsin. But for the two blocks of downtown Bethesda where you might see fewer cyclists passing through, the tunnel really shortens the trip to Silver Spring and links two parts of Bethesda as well. Think of it not as a highway that bypasses a town, but as a highway that connects two towns (in an environmentally friendly way of course).

by Jack Cochrane on Nov 19, 2011 2:41 pm • linkreport


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.

by Wayne Phyillaier on Nov 19, 2011 7:49 pm • linkreport

Ted, Those maps show the purple line as light rail. The heavy rail options were eliminated over a decade ago after a study that looked at 3 light rail and 3 heavy rail options. It was eliminated for reasons dealing with cost. Unfortunately, Maryland has less money now - and less money available from the feds - than they did then.

If you think things have changed since then, and that those changes are relevant and quantifiable - and that they are so compelling that we should stop where we are, restart the whole design process over again and delay the whole thing by a decade, then lay out your case. Otherwise, I'm afraid that ship has sailed.

by David C on Nov 19, 2011 11:58 pm • linkreport

@David C I understand what you're saying, a system like what I'm thinking would be too costly, so we should just settle for the current proposal.

I think whatever we build could be the first part of what I'm envisioning. Wonder how much it would cost just to tunnel between Bethesda and Silver Spring. Has there been a study on that? Forget about connecting New Carrollton, that could come later.

Link to 90s fantasy Metro map...

I know, I know... parts of this fantasy system don't make much sense.

by Ted on Nov 20, 2011 10:37 am • linkreport

No I'm saying that a system like what you're thinking would be so costly compared to the benefits that it would be a waste of money. The cost/benefit ratio is too high. The study in the early '00s was just between the two arms of the red line.

by David C on Nov 20, 2011 11:50 am • linkreport

The beltway is too far outside the center city to be worthwhile as a circle line. It's 15-20 miles across, whereas the circle lines in Moscow and London are around 3 miles across.

I could potentially see a circle line that was around <10 miles across that would serve Rt 7 areas, areas of NW DC not served by the red line, etc.

by MLD on Nov 21, 2011 8:39 am • linkreport

Boston has trolleys that run through urban green space with no real detriment to their enjoyment as cyclists and pedestrians IMO. These quiet proposed train will be an improvement over those, so I think we will be presently surprised at how much of a refuge the area still remains.

As to the tunnel crossing under Wisconsin Avenue: As a pedestrian I regularly cross Wisconsin, Old Georgetown and East West near the Metro Station. This is one of the least pedestrian friendly intersections in Bethesda IMO, near a very busy metro stop. I never feel safe crossing here at rush hour and never have enough time to cross nor do I enjoy the long waits to cross. Cars regularly go through red lights endangering pedestrians with no penalty for doing so. I can't imagine how bringing a bike path to the surface will improve this, but I can see pedestrians and cyclist being at greater danger. The county has not made pedestrian safety or convenience a priority until now, what makes anyone think they will make a serious commitment to them above grade in the future.

by mg on Dec 2, 2011 5:54 am • linkreport

There's a movement underway to develop a continuous "bike way" along our future Red Line here in Baltimore. It would stitch together existing paths--such as the Gwynns Falls trail--with new ones. Keeping your path above ground makes total sense. We'll continue to follow discussions about your Capital Crescent Trail and the Purple Line, its a great case study for us.

by Robbyn Lewis at Red Line Now PAC on Jan 26, 2012 2:18 pm • linkreport

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