The Capital Crescent Trail should stay in its Bethesda tunnel
Last week, Dan Reed argued that an on-street Crescent Trail may be better for cyclists and pedestrians. But not putting the trail in a tunnel represents a huge downgrade of bicycle infrastructure, and the MTA should find a way of fitting the trail in the tunnel with the Purple Line.
For a year or so I commuted through that tunnel almost every day and have been an occasional user since it opened. It is an excellent cycling amenity, providing a shorter, quicker, safer and more convenient route through the heart of Bethesda.
In his post last Friday, Dan suggests that putting the trail on the street may be safer because the tunnel might attract criminals. He points out crime problems at other bicycle and pedestrian tunnels. In this case, the tunnel has been open since 1998 and crime has not been a problem. More activity makes crime even less likely. The danger of crossing Wisconsin Avenue at street level is greater than the risk of crime.
It makes no sense to eliminate an excellent grade-separated facility that already exists in order to get drivers to understand that bikes "belong" on the street. Plus, with an improved trail to Silver Spring will likely increase the number of cyclists in the Bethesda area. Cyclists in the area will use the streets to get to and from the trail. The better the trail, the more will use it, and the more street traffic there will be.
In the '90s, cyclists fought long and hard to get the tunnel opened because it was a terrific alternative to the on-street routes. It was an enormous success and trumpeted in the biking community. The Coalition for the Capital Crescent Trail not only supported the tunnel opening, but contributed thousands of dollars of funding to help make it happen. Clearly the biking community prefers the tunnel to the on-street routes.
It seems unlikely that one would argue to eliminate the Custis Trail through Arlington or the W&OD trail through Falls Church in order to put more bikes on the streets. But Dan thinks this is a good idea in Bethesda.
Creating cycling facilities like those found in Copenhagen or Amsterdam, including grade-separated facilities like the one shown here, makes it better for cyclists, and more cyclists are everywhere, creating a better atmosphere all around. Those cities did not achieve their high biking mode share by eliminating grade-separated crossings.
Boulder, CO has added 20 new grade-separated crossings in the last 20 years, and cycling has gone up, not down. And there are lots more cyclists on the streets, too, not just the trails.
Current estimates indicate that keeping the trail in the tunnel with the Purple Line will cost $40 million. Even at that price, the trail is worth the cost. However, the Maryland Transit Administration is undertaking detailed studies to determine whether the cost could be lower. The Montgomery Planning Board has also asked them to study alternative ways of fitting the trail into the tunnel.
The shortest on-street alternative to the Bethesda tunnel adds about 400-500 feet to the trip. (The longest adds about 1,500 feet.) The shortest on-street detour also entails a 30-foot elevation rise and fall and a major road crossing that will require a wait at a signal.
This route is likely to add at least 1 minute to any cycling trip, costing as much 10,000 hours per year cumulative for cyclists and peds (at current usage rates, before increased traffic when the trail is completed to Silver Spring). In addition, auto traffic will also be delayed by longer signal cycles to accommodate trail traffic. Some might argue that is good, but it's time lost, nonetheless.
Should Montgomery County propose closing lanes and parts of streets and eliminating parking in order to create this route, they are likely to receive pushback in the public process from drivers and businesses. Officials will likely end up scaling back the design as a compromise with opponents.
There's no guarantee that the alternative on-street route will end up with good design and execution. It could very well end up a lose-lose for cyclists and pedestrians: the tunnel option could be eliminated, and the on-street alternative could be adequate instead of excellent.
The Capital Crescent Trail in Bethesda is equally as busy as the the Custis Trail through Rosslyn. There are approximately 23,000 weekly users on CCT and, according to Arlington County staff, about 26,000 users on the Custis Trail.
Building an at-grade crossing at Wisconsin may end up creating as big a problem as the Custis Trail/Lee Highway crossing. That intersection is a huge headache for planners there and a significant hazard to users. Admittedly, the Bethesda on-street routes do not suffer from the same design issues as the Arlington one, and it would likely be easier to make safer.
Should the cyclists and pedestrians lose this battle, it will once again send the signal that they are are lower-priority citizens. Cyclists showed up in droves a couple of years ago to keep the tunnel open during the upcoming development by JBG and, with the help of Councilmember Berliner, were able to win that concession from the developer.
Prior to that meeting, though, the county was intending to go along with the developer's plan to close the tunnel during construction, an option that would never be considered for a similarly important automobile route. Until the cyclists spoke up, the developer's needs were put ahead of them.
This is an almost identical situation: a proposal is being made to close the trail in the tunnel to accommodate development. Fortunately, this time, it appears pedestrians and cyclists are being given more consideration. A few weeks ago, the county planning board toured the tunnel and, according to the Washington Post, the board was very supportive of finding a solution to keep the trail in the tunnel.
Dan suggests that taking the trail out of the tunnel will make this a "better experience." Given the strong support, including actual financial contributions, from the biking community for the tunnel, it seems that most cyclists feel the tunnel is the better experience.
When I was commuting from Arlington to Silver Spring, I wanted to get home, not browse shop windows. I couldn't wait to arrive at the tunnel during the dark winter nights, and it made for great shelter during summer thunderstorms.
But other times when I was actually visiting somewhere in Bethesda, I could choose to proceed directly to my destination on the streets. The existence of the tunnel does not preclude cyclists and pedestrians from accessing local businesses. In fact, a superior facility is likely to attract more people to the area, which would be good for local businesses.
Lastly, on a per-user basis, my back-of-the-envelope calculation indicates that the per-user cost of the Purple Line is actually higher than the per-user cost of the trail with the tunnel, and that doesn't include operating costs. With 60,000 estimated daily Purple Line in 2030 users and a cost of about $2 billion, the average cost per daily user is $33,333. The trail, on the other hand, is expected to cost about $100 million and handle about 4,000 daily users. That makes the average cost per daily user $25,000.
Keeping this excellent piece of the regional bike infrastructure is critical to the ongoing growth of cycling and continuing to improve Washington's standing as a good biking area. As Dan writes, the trail has been included in plans for the Purple Line for more than 20 years, including the tunnel portion, which shouldn't be eliminated to save a few dollars that no one will remember a decade from now.
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