In an informal vote, the Montgomery County Council on Thursday unanimously agreed to fund the construction of the Capital Crescent Trail Tunnel at a cost of $54 million.
In January, more than 100 residents shared frustration with county officials when County Executive Marc Elrich decided not to fund the tunnel, part of a plan to extend the trail through downtown Bethesda.
The passageway will allow pedestrians and cyclists to avoid crossing Wisconsin Avenue — a busy state road — and provide access to a future Purple Line stop on the basement level of a mixed-use development.
During a virtual meeting on Thursday, County Council members voted in a straw poll to include the $54 million project in its six-year capital improvements program, with construction to begin in 2023. A final vote on capital improvements will come later.
“This is a piece of infrastructure that’s going to be here for a really long time,” Council Member Hans Riemer said. “It’s one of those pieces of infrastructure people use and … it’s a major connection.”
Originally intended to be completed in sync with the completion of the Purple Line in 2023, the tunnel is now expected to be ready for use in the summer of 2026.
“There’s really no way — it’s impossible — to fund this in FY ‘21, ‘22 and ‘23 with everything that’s in the budget now,” Council Senior Analyst Glenn Orlin said.
Designs call for a 980-foot tunnel with 12-and-a-half foot ceilings and a 16-foot-wide cycle track. The plans include security cameras, blue light phones, and cellphone coverage in the tunnel, which will come back to ground near Elm Street Park.
During Thursday’s meeting, Orlin pitched a slightly less expensive alternative option that would have reduced the trail to 750 feet with 10-and-a-half foot ceilings. It would have cost about $47 million.
Council Member Andrew Friendson, who represents the Bethesda area, however, said it would be foolish to skimp on the tunnel, which he called “critical infrastructure,” to save $7 million.
“It would be penny wise and pound foolish if we didn’t do it the right way,” Friedson said, noting the tunnel will be used by pedestrians and cyclists for decades.
The surface trail, which will extend the existing 7-mile Capital Crescent Trail, was approved by the county Planning Board in 2018 with a tunnel included as a feature of the design.
County officials began pursuing the tunnel in 2011. A 2014 minor-master plan amendment set a vision for a fully connected Capital Crescent Trail that would run from Georgetown to downtown Bethesda, offering direct access to the light-rail station and “contribut[ing] to the vitality of the area.”
When Elrich released his proposed capital improvements plan in January, he said it was shaped by “fiscal constraints” and senior officials in his office said the tunnel project was too expensive.
“The difference in price when you look at it in the long run is not that big of a difference, and this is a piece of infrastructure that is going to be here for such a very long time,” Council Member Nancy Navarro said Thursday. “So, yes, when we talk about our economic development platform … it seems to me we should do it right and keep our promise, even if it’s not on the same timeline. It is a worthwhile investment.”