Planning Board Chairman Frustrated by Lack of Progress on Bethesda Capital Crescent Trail Tunnel

County has not budgeted funds for tunnel expansion to accommodate full-sized trail under Wisconsin Avenue next to the Purple Line when it is built


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Part of the Capital Crescent Trail tunnel that extends underneath Wisconsin Avenue in Bethesda

Bethesda Beat file photo - Aaron Kraut

Montgomery County Planning Board Chairman Casey Anderson says he is dismayed at a lack of progress on plans to restructure the entire tunnel beneath the site of the Apex Building and Wisconsin Avenue to include both the Purple Line and a full-sized Capital Crescent Trail.

The Purple Line station proposed for construction underneath the 7272 Wisconsin Ave. site will crowd the existing tunnel segment that houses the trail—meaning it needs to be widened to allow for a full 12-foot-wide paved trail and the Purple Line to travel through the tunnel. Carr Properties, which is planning to replace the Apex Building with a high-rise complex, has agreed to reconstruct the tunnel and subterranean trail under its property to make sure it’s about 12 feet wide with 2-foot unpaved shoulders on each side.

However, the developer has committed to restructure the trail only to the eastern edge of the Apex site. And there’s no clear plan for rebuilding the rest of the tunnel to where the trail emerges near Elm Street Park, county officials learned at a Jan. 5 planning meeting.

“I was really caught off-guard when I learned that there was no facility planning work being done to get the other piece completed,” Anderson said later in a phone interview.

Meanwhile, the county is moving forward with a project to reroute the trail above ground with a surface path along Bethesda Avenue, Willow Avenue and 47th Street. The trail will cross Wisconsin Avenue where it intersects Bethesda Avenue, according to the proposal.

A Montgomery County planning map showing the tunnel and proposed surface route for the trail.

Ajay Bhatt, president of Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail, a trail advocacy group, and a Purple Line opponent, said he believed a tunnel with a full-sized trail adjacent to the line was promised by state and local leaders.

“I think that’s how they got some of the bicycling folks to go along with the [Purple Line] project,” Bhatt said. “How many more surprises are we going to have and how much are they going to cost us? A safe passage under Wisconsin Avenue is an integral part of the Capital Crescent Trail.”

The tunnel for the trail, estimated to cost $15 million to $30 million, is part of the downtown Bethesda master plan, but no funding is in place to build the underground link, said Tim Cupples, a county transportation designer.

Cupples said it’s only been about seven months since the county and Carr struck an agreement for reworking the section of the underground trail that passes under the developer’s site. At the eastern edge of its property, Carr will install a panel that can be torn down if the other trail tunnel section is constructed.

“Since last May, we went from having no tunnel to having a place for the Capital Crescent Trail to go. That’s a good win for the county,” Cupples said.

A diagram showing how the Capital Crescent Trail will pass underneath a rebuilt Apex Building site. (Click to expand)

The proposed underground trail section, if built, would run underneath Wisconsin Avenue and the buildings that stand along Elm Street, and Cupples said the county will have to work with those property owners to finish the tunnel link.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen to the property on the other side of [Wisconsin Avenue] from the Apex Building,” he said.

The county may be able to work with developers at that site to complete these underground sections, according to Cupples.

In any case, the tunnel under the Apex Building site won’t be finished for about four years, under the current construction timeline for the Purple Line station—meaning the county may have additional time to allocate funding to complete the trail tunnel under Wisconsin Avenue before the Purple Line opens. It’s also no longer clear when Purple Line construction will begin, given the delays caused by an ongoing federal lawsuit.

In the meantime, the county is pushing forward on a roughly $5.23 million project to construct the surface-level path that would send cyclists and pedestrians across Wisconsin Avenue. The county has budgeted about $1.9 million in fiscal 2018 for the interim, above-ground path that has been designed to take trail users around the tunnel as the Purple Line is constructed.

Cupples said in Thursday’s planning board meeting that finishing the tunnel to accommodate a full-sized trail would be a “much larger, much more costly project.”

Anderson said he was surprised the county has not budgeted funding for constructing the underground trail, especially since a major public selling point for redeveloping the Apex site was that it would create room for a full-sized trail in the tunnel.

“Heaven and earth have been moved, literally and figuratively, to get this project done, specifically to get this trail underneath Wisconsin Avenue,” Anderson said during the meeting, at which the board unanimously approved Carr’s preliminary plans to build the complex of 480 residential units and 360,000 square feet of office space.

County leaders in 2014 increased the building height limits at the Apex site to encourage redevelopment of the property. Their express purpose was to facilitate the construction of a trail tunnel, which would’ve been impossible to accomplish if the existing Apex Building remained in place, Anderson said.

He said he will advocate for trail tunnel funding as county leaders craft their budget for fiscal 2018 in the coming weeks.

In December, the County Council approved an $8 million supplemental capital appropriation for this fiscal year to help fund the Bethesda Purple Line station project below the Apex Building. The council document for that appropriation notes it will allow for “the future underground segment of the Capital Crescent Trail,” a project county spokesman Patrick Lacefield said in an email could be added to the county’s six-year Capital Improvements Program (CIP).

“Like all new CIP projects, it would compete for funding against [Montgomery County public schools], economic development, recreation, parks, public safety, college projects, etc.,” Lacefield wrote. He added that funding for the trail tunnel likely wouldn’t be considered until the next full CIP review in 2019. However, the council does have the option to fund the project as a supplemental appropriation before the CIP review.

The county has already budgeted about $54 million over the next six years to rebuild the Capital Crescent Trail and pave the interim Georgetown Branch Trail from Bethesda to Silver Spring next to the Purple Line. Those funds are also being used to rebuild the Bethesda Metro station’s south entrance near the Apex Building and build the Silver Spring Green Trail between Spring Street and the Sligo Creek Trail.

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