The trains that will be running along the Purple Line. Credit: Maryland Transit Administration

County Council Member Andrew Friedson is urging officials representing the Purple Line construction project to reconsider plans to delay the reopening of the Capital Crescent Trail between Bethesda and Silver Spring until the light rail begins operating in late 2026.

During Tuesday’s council update on the project, Friedson said he was pleased that major construction had restarted on the 16.2-mile, 21-station light-rail line that will connect Bethesda to New Carrollton in Prince George’s County. But Friedson, who represents Bethesda and most of Chevy Chase, and council members Hans Riemer and Tom Hucker called for an earlier opening of the trail section.

They said the Capital Crescent Trail has served as a valuable commuter corridor for pedestrians and cyclists, whether they be students traveling to Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School or adults commuting to and from work.

The trail is paved from Georgetown to the Bethesda area and becomes a gravel path between Bethesda and Silver Spring, an area known as the Georgetown Branch Trail. The gravel section has been closed since construction on the Purple Line began about five years ago.

Major construction on the long-running project recently restarted after work was shut down in September 2020 due to cost overruns and overall disputes between the project’s prior contractor and Maryland officials. 

The state selected a new design-build contractor, Maryland Transit Solutions, late last year, and the current schedule for the line to begin operating is in late 2026, four years after the initially proposed completion date.

The former design-build contractor for the project, Purple Line Transit Constructors, had promised local officials that the trail section could be reopened at least 12 to 14 months before passenger service began, Friedson said. Now, it seems evident that the section will remain closed — despite promises made publicly and privately to him by the first contractor, he said.

Matt Pollack, executive director of the project for the Maryland Transit Administration, didn’t deny that the delayed re-opening timeline was different from that proposed by the former contractor. But he added that Purple Line Transit Contractors didn’t provide full details on how its construction timeline would have allowed the trail to open up a year or so before the light rail started carrying passengers.

“We don’t have full transparency into what type of construction was being viewed under the prior design-builder … and how they were actually planning to complete their construction without having to use those access points,” Pollack said.

In an interview, Terry Gohde, project director of Maryland Transit Solutions, said construction workers would need to use the trail area to stage equipment and complete other work, including land improvements and other requirements, before it can be reopened.

“There’s a lot of things that are going to occur outside of the railroad itself that are going to occur in that last year,” Gohde said. “My vision isn’t that two-thirds of the trail will be there, ready for a ribbon cutting, 14 months before we actually open the railroad. I think it will be a lot closer to what the actual [opening] date is because there’s work under the trail that must be done in conjunction with work that’s being done on the railroad.”

Tony Marra is chair of the Coalition for the Capital Crescent Trail, a nonprofit that has advocated for the trail and paving the extension from Bethesda to Silver Spring. Marra said in an interview that it’s difficult to understand why the trail can’t be reopened sooner while trains are being tested on the light-rail line. Residents have already had to wait through delays for years, he said.

Marra said the argument by project leaders that more work must be done on the trail while train testing is underway might be a “valid explanation,” but added it deserves further exploration by local officials. With the trail section closed, cyclists and pedestrians now have to navigate a route along residential streets and some state roads, which can be a more dangerous trek, he said.

“The purpose of getting the trail to Silver Spring was to provide a safe and effective way of transportation for people who live in that part of the county,” Marra said. “And we ought to work as hard as we can to help the people who live there.”