Michael Witt was riding along the Capital Crescent Trail one Wednesday evening in the spring of 2012 when he came upon a couple dozen members of the Georgetown University crew team out for a training run. They were running in lines of 10 or so people, and Witt called out to let them know he was approaching. The runners at the back of the pack acknowledged him with a wave. But as Witt sped ahead on his bike, the leaders of the pack made a sharp U-turn to change direction—directly into the path of Witt and his bike.
Witt stopped short and somersaulted over his handlebars, landing flat on his back on the pavement. When he opened his eyes, the team was standing in a circle around him. They apologized for the sudden change in direction. Witt apologized for his speed, which he acknowledges was a bit fast for the crowded trail. Then he rode home, and spent the night nursing what he guesses were badly bruised ribs.
Bethesda's Michael Witt uses the trail to commute year-round. "I love the winter, in part because there aren't a lot of people out there," he says. "Sometimes, the more extreme the weather, the more invigorating I find the ride." Photo by Skip Brown.
For weeks following the accident, Witt couldn’t laugh, cough or sneeze without pain. But he was back on his bike—and on the trail—the next day. “The Capital Crescent is an amazing bike trail,” says Witt, 58, who lives in Bethesda. “It’s as nice as anything I’ve ever ridden. It goes from Bethesda, a great place to raise a family, to one of the most exciting cities in the world, with all types of job opportunities. We have a treasure in that trail.”
Therein lies the paradox of the Capital Crescent Trail, which runs 7 paved miles from Georgetown to downtown Bethesda, with an additional 4-mile section of crushed gravel trail from Bethesda to Silver Spring. For the reasons Witt describes, it has become one of the most popular trails in the country. When county officials recently placed automated counters along the trail, they found roughly 700 users per hour in Bethesda during the busiest part of a Sunday in April—that’s more than 11 people every minute on a trail that’s roughly 12 feet wide.
Because of its congestion, the trail has become the site of nasty accidents, near-misses and arguments between cyclists and pedestrians. So what do officials do when a trail is so popular that it becomes a cause for safety concerns?
The Capital Crescent Trail follows the former path of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad’s Georgetown Branch line, which was built in the late 1800s and early 1900s to transport coal and building materials between Chevy Chase, Bethesda and Georgetown.
By the 1980s, trains ran infrequently on the line, and in the fall of 1985, Peter Harnik received a phone call saying that the B&O would soon run its last train on the tracks.
An avid cyclist, Harnik was then living in Washington, D.C., and serving as vice president of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA). He and his fellow cyclists sprang into action. Through WABA’s newsletter, they announced the creation of a group to support the construction of a rail trail along the soon-to-be-abandoned rail bed. The group would later become the Coalition for the Capital Crescent Trail (CCCT).
The group held its first meeting at the Cleveland Park Neighborhood Library in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 24, 1985, and quickly amassed a coalition of more than 35 groups, ranging from cyclists to walkers to nature lovers.
Soon after, Harnik and other leaders of the group approached Bruce Adams, then a Montgomery County Council member. Harnik explained that this rail bed represented a chance for Montgomery County to be a leader in the national rails-to-trails movement. Harnik had by then co-founded the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, a nonprofit headquartered in Washington, D.C., that has since helped to build, maintain and connect thousands of miles of trails throughout the country.
“When the national expert on rails-to-trails comes to talk to you about an opportunity like that,” Adams says, “the only reasonable response is, ‘What do I need to do, and when do I need to do it?’ ”
Harnik told Adams that Montgomery County would need to purchase the right-of-way on the Maryland side of the Washington, D.C., border. Because the portion of the corridor in the District was within the C&O Canal National Historical Park, Congress would need to appropriate funds for the National Park Service to purchase the other half. That meant each side would be responsible for roughly $10 million to $12 million.
Adams knew the cost might be a hard sell in tight budgetary times, but he saw a bargaining chip in what was then referred to as the Bethesda-Silver Spring Trolley, a proposed street car that would run on a single track between Bethesda and Silver Spring. The project eventually grew into the larger and more elaborate Purple Line.
Regardless of what happened with the trail, the county would need to purchase the right-of-way in order to construct the transit line. “I recall other council members saying, ‘If we don’t get the trolley, I want out of that $10 million,” Adams says. “I told them that honestly, even if we’re just talking about the trail, this might be the best $10 million you ever vote for.”
In 1988, Montgomery County purchased the right-of-way from the D.C. line to Silver Spring under the National Trails Systems Act. Two years later, the National Park Service purchased the other portion of the right-of-way, stretching from the Maryland-D.C. border to Georgetown. The 7-mile trail from Bethesda to Georgetown was paved with private and public funds, and was formally dedicated in 1996.
By the mid 1990s, the drumbeat for creating what would become known as the Purple Line became louder, and the question of what to do about the section of rail bed stretching from Bethesda to Silver Spring became more pressing. “There was a fear among some on the council that if we opened up that section of trail, we wouldn’t be able to have the trolley, because the ‘NIMBYs’ would argue that the transit would harm the trail,” Adams says.
The county council voted in 1996 to fund the removal of tracks and railroad ties on the right-of-way from Bethesda to Silver Spring to create a gravel trail known as the Georgetown Branch Trail. Adams cast the swing vote.
The Purple Line remains a contentious issue, with some trail advocates arguing that any rerouting or urbanization of the trail to accommodate light rail would change its character.
“Every time I hear that the trail is too great to ruin by putting in a rail line, the top of my head wants to fly off,” Adams says. “I just think, ‘Well, there wouldn’t have been a trail if it wasn’t for the possibility of transit.’ ”
As debate brewed over the Georgetown Branch Trail, the Capital Crescent Trail from Bethesda to Georgetown grew increasingly popular with bike commuters, walkers, runners and Rollerbladers.