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Montgomery rethinks Bethesda Purple Line station

The Bethesda Purple Line station is currently planned to squeeze into an existing tunnel below the Apex Building on Wisconsin Avenue. But planners are now considering an alternate plan to tear down the building and redevelop the entire site.


Existing plan (top) and alternate proposal (bottom). Images by Maryland MTA.

Between Silver Spring and Bethesda, the Purple Line will run along the Georgetown Branch, a former railroad line. While Montgomery County bought most of the rail line for transit and a trail, years ago the railroad sold the development rights above the tracks in downtown Bethesda. Now there are two buildings atop the rail corridor, the Apex Building and the Air Rights Building.

The Purple Line will pass easily under the Air Rights Building, but the Apex Building needs to accommodate a station. And while the tunnel there was designed to carry tracks, it wasn't originally built with room for much more. The structural columns supporting the building come down into the rail tunnel, severely constraining the space.

Planners can squeeze a station in the existing space, but the result is a narrow platform crowded with building columns.


Apex Building column layout. Image by Maryland MTA.

Meanwhile, there are other problems with the existing arrangement. There's not enough room in the tunnel for both a light rail station and a bike trail, so county planners explored moving the trail to the surface.

Also, building a subway station under the Apex Building would complicate any potential future redevelopment prospects. Since the Apex Building is only 5 stories tall, it's already shorter than most other buildings nearby, and it will become a prime redevelopment candidate after Bethesda becomes a key transfer point between the Purple and Red lines.

Redeveloping now could solve the problem

The new proposal suggests tearing down the Apex Building, building the Purple Line station in a new custom-built trench, adding a 2nd tunnel for the trail, and then allowing the owners of the Apex Building to replace it with a bigger building. Montgomery County is currently in talks with the owner of the building, and is working through a minor master plan amendment to determine the density and height.

If the new plan is approved, all the pieces will work together better. The Purple Line station will be simpler and more spacious, bike riders will have an uninterrupted dedicated trail, and one of the most transit-accessible properties in Montgomery County can be redeveloped at a more appropriate density.

It would be win/win/win. As long as this doesn't delay the rest of the Purple Line, I say let's do it.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Dan Malouff is a professional transportation planner for the Arlington County Department of Transportation. He has a degree in Urban Planning from the University of Colorado, and lives a car-free lifestyle in Northwest Washington. His posts are his own opinions and do not represent the views of his employer in any way. He runs the blog BeyondDC and also contributes to the Washington Post Local Opinions blog. 

Comments

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As a bike commuter, I know I would prefer a surface bike trail. I would not want to be be isolated in a tunnel. However, much would depend on tunnel length; 100 feet, or 1000?

by eric on Sep 10, 2013 10:21 am • linkreport

The Apex Building is ugly, full of harsh angles. I won't miss it.

by Frank IBC on Sep 10, 2013 10:22 am • linkreport

Oooh that building. I always thought of it as the movie theater. Don't actually hate the architecture at least it's different...

That said - Great location for a second entrance and connects with the Purple Line. Really hope this goes through. Bethesda should be pushing this assuming they can get the Feds/State/MoCo to finance it. To my mind Bethesda will be one of the 3 cornerstone stations along with Silver Spring and UMD, I really hope they treat it accordingly.

by BTA on Sep 10, 2013 10:30 am • linkreport

A major advantage of this plan is that if the station is built in the existing tunnel, passengers transferring between the Red and Purple lines will have to walk across the Purple Line tracks. The number of transferring passengers is so large that this will inevitably affect rail operations. Under the new plan, the elevators will discharge only at street level, passengers will walk across an open space above the tracks, and take escalators or stairs down to the center platform.

People walking into the station from the east will still cross the tracks on foot, but they are much fewer in number.

It isn't possible to have the elevators discharge directly into the center platform because the narrow rail tunnel under Wisconsin Ave. constrains how wide the center platform can be.

Eric - There will be a surface trail on Bethesda Avenue parallel to the tunnel.

by Ben Ross on Sep 10, 2013 10:33 am • linkreport

Further advantage of this plan is that the connection between Wisconsin Ave. and the Red Line is significantly faster, because all elevators (rather than just 2 of them) will stop at the street, and elevators won't make an intermediate stop at the Purple Line level.

by Ben Ross on Sep 10, 2013 10:35 am • linkreport

"As long as this doesn't delay the rest of the Purple Line, I say let's do it." That about sums it up. Let them build a tall building like all the others around. I do think biking or running through a tunnel will be less than ideal. They should accomodate those who would and provide a surface alternative.

by Thayer-D on Sep 10, 2013 10:40 am • linkreport

Ben, based on the diagrams above, it looks like the access path crosses the right-of-way after the bumpers. Are you sure there's any need for passengers to go onto the tracks?

by Neil Flanagan on Sep 10, 2013 10:56 am • linkreport

It's a no-brainer. Do it right the first time versus regrets down the road. Trust me, I live in San Francisco where nothing gets done right. Just look at our $2B Central Subway boondoggle. *Sigh*

by Mark on Sep 10, 2013 11:01 am • linkreport

Even if it would delay the Purple Line for months or a year, it would still be worth waiting on.

The rush to get the Silver Line built meant no reconsideration of the decision to build above-ground through Tyson's -- and that is a decision whose impact will last for centuries. Similarly, the rush to get parking built for Nationals Park led to a short-sighted, bad decision to build the aboveground parking garages. Even the team will come to regret the decision not to make do with surface lots for a year.

If there's an opportunity to build the Bethesda station in a better manner to the benefit of all concerned, then the county needs to explore that possibility fully. We will reap the rewards for decades or centuries.

by Fischy (Ed F.) on Sep 10, 2013 11:08 am • linkreport

"The rush to get the Silver Line built meant no reconsideration of the decision to build above-ground through Tyson's -- and that is a decision whose impact will last for centuries. "

I see no evidence the decision would have been made any differently now. The same considerations would still be in play. But we would have delayed the project, with negative impacts.

I think the elevateds are attractive (certainly given the way Rtes 123 and 7 already look, they do not make it look worse). The only significant long term disadvantage is locking in the routes of those roads - but I see no evidence that VDOT is likely to be interested in dramatic alteration to them any time in the foreseeable future.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Sep 10, 2013 11:12 am • linkreport

Is there any private company that wants to build these things with its own money? Montgomery County does not have a good track record, witness the Paul Sarbanes / Silver Spring Transit Center disaster, and now there is water leaking from window boxes there as well. What will we discover next?

by Bob Bruhns on Sep 10, 2013 11:18 am • linkreport

This is a total win. I didn't realize that there was a realistic chance of this happening until now.

I am mystified at those who want a surface trail. If you want to see what a surface trail looks like, try connecting from the Georgetown Branch to Silver Spring Station. Up and down, round the houses, and over numerous intersections, any of which are opportunities for vehicular collisions.

The vision should be a continuous trail from Georgetown to Bethesda to Silver Spring and back to DC. Eliminate at-grade crossings, don't add new ones. I'd say it's actually irresponsible to route the only major bike trail in the area across Wisconsin Avenue when there is another option available. I really hope this new plan happens.

by renegade09 on Sep 10, 2013 12:09 pm • linkreport

I agree with AWalkerInTheCity regarding the Silver line tunnel. Although a tunnel throughout Tysons would have been preferable, a very likely result would have been pushing a funding decision for the Silver Line off to 2010, when the Ayn Rand-disciples were looking to prevent as much spending possible.

by 202_cyclist on Sep 10, 2013 12:13 pm • linkreport

BTA:
"To my mind Bethesda will be one of the 3 cornerstone stations along with Silver Spring and UMD,"

I think New Carrolton is going to be more significant than the University of Maryland. There are already proposals for significant development at New Carrolton and at that station you will have the Orange line, Purple line, MARC, Amtrak, Route 50, and I-495.

by 202_cyclist on Sep 10, 2013 12:18 pm • linkreport

I don't understand all the tunnel hate. The trail is already in a tunnel (and there's another closer to DC). I actually like tunnels as they usually provide a brief cool spot on a hot day, or a dry one when it's raining. Also, as Ben pointed out, the surface option will still be there.

by David C on Sep 10, 2013 12:38 pm • linkreport

Yeah. People were pretty opposed to moving the trail to the surface.

The existing trail isn't particularly inviting, but it sure beats crossing Wisconsin Ave.

One thing I can't tell/understand from the drawings is why the trail still seems to cross Wisconsin Ave at grade. Surely there's a better way to design that connection?

by andrew on Sep 10, 2013 1:55 pm • linkreport

I think 'go big' is the right path here. It may be that Bethesda is, thirty years later, getting a second chance here to build a 'core' intersection that's inviting and active throughout the day. The current semi-disaster at the Bethesda Metro entrance shows how not to do it-- Here's a chance to learn from experience and do it better, this time.

by MattF on Sep 11, 2013 7:55 am • linkreport

The Apex building is awful and outdated. A redo is sorely needed to make Bethesda's center a destination and not a departure point.

by Ben on Sep 11, 2013 2:02 pm • linkreport

Also in Bethesda - CaBi installed the first three bikeshare stations, at Norfolk & Cordell (in front of CalTort), in Veterans Park, and on Bethesda Avenue in the driveway to the parking garage.

by Frank IBC on Sep 11, 2013 2:30 pm • linkreport

What about the movie theater though?

by Joe J on Sep 14, 2013 12:47 am • linkreport

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