Updated: Bethesda residents criticize potential loss of Capital Crescent Trail Tunnel
Elrich decided not to fund project in capital improvements budget
Residents gathered at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School on Wednesday night for a meeting about the Capital Crescent Trail Tunnel. If the project is not funded, MCDOT says it will provide street-level crossings for pedestrians and cyclists over Wisconsin Avenue.
Photo by Kate Masters
This story was updated on Friday, Jan. 31 at 8:45 a.m. to adjust the headline and subhed, reflecting that County Executive Marc Elrich did not remove funding for the Capital Crescent Trail Tunnel from his capital improvements budget because construction had not been funded in previous years. Elrich did not add funding for the project to his budget.
It was ostensibly a meeting for local transportation officials to gather feedback on the design of the Capital Crescent Surface Trail and two related projects.
But for an hour and a half on Wednesday, more than 100 residents angrily questioned why County Executive Marc Elrich decided not to fund the Capital Crescent Trail Tunnel — a long-promised feature of the project — from his most recent capital improvements budget.
“The reason this room is full is that the people of Bethesda feel we were given a promise as justification for the Purple Line and all the other development that was approved,” said resident Phil Stewart, sparking a round of applause from the crowd. “We feel that we were lied to.”
The surface trail, which will extend the existing 7-mile Capital Crescent Trail through downtown Bethesda, was approved by the county’s Planning Board in 2018 with the tunnel included as a feature of the design.
The underground passageway would allow pedestrians and cyclists to safely cross Wisconsin Avenue — a busy state route — and access a future Purple Line stop on the basement level of a mixed-use development.
The county began seriously pursuing the tunnel in 2011 after learning that the Purple Line would take up most of an existing passageway between the Air Rights building — now known as Bethesda Crossing — and the former Apex Building on Wisconsin Avenue.
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.”
But the most recent cost estimates for the project — tallied after 35% of the design was completed — gave the county a serious case of sticker shock, said Tim Cupples, the division chief of transportation engineering for the Montgomery County Department of Transportation. Construction is estimated to cost more than $50 million, including property acquisition, utility relocation, and stormwater management.
Elrich did not attend Wednesday night’s meeting. But when he unveiled his six-year capital improvements budget earlier this month, he emphasized that the plan had been shaped by “fiscal constraints,” including an anticipated 2.5% decline in funding.
“It’s a value discussion I think we have to have,” Cupples said during the meeting. “For $50 million, do we try to address many pedestrian safety issues across the county, or do we focus on a large improvement in one part of the county?”
The anticipated price tag did little to dissuade frustration and disappointment from Bethesda residents, many of whom questioned why the county couldn’t adjust the design to lower the costs.
The most recent blueprints call for a 985-foot tunnel with 12-foot ceilings and a 16-foot-wide cycle track. The plans call for security cameras, blue light phones, and cellphone coverage in the tunnel, in addition to redevelopment on the north side of Elm Street Park, where the passage would begin.
Cupples said the county expected to receive a new cost analysis in early March, after the tunnel design was 70% complete. Clark Construction, a local consulting agency, has a 30-day window to review the designs and suggest potential cost-saving measures — a process known as value engineering.
“Does it need to be 12 feet tall?” Cupples said. “Could you skimp a bit on the height and width to save costs? That’s the next step for us to consider.”
But he also cautioned that the process was likely to shave only a few million dollars off the final price — a negligible impact on such a high-cost project.
Several County Council members, including District 1 representative Andrew Friedson, have vowed to restore funding for the project. State Del. Jared Solomon, whose district includes Chevy Chase and Bethesda, was also at the meeting to speak with constituents and offer his support.
Aaron Kraut, one of Friedson’s legislative aides, said it was the council member’s “number-one priority” while considering the capital improvements budget. The council has final approval over the six-year spending plan, but restoring funding to one project requires subtracting funds from another area.
“I’ll tell you this right now — it’s going to be a heavy lift,” said Glenn Orlin, the council’s deputy director. There’s also concern that delaying the tunnel will increase the final price. Cupples said there was an average 2.5% to 3% yearly rise in cost for most major infrastructure projects across the state.
As the future of the tunnel remains in flux, transportation officials are advancing plans to provide an alternate street crossing over Wisconsin Avenue. Project manager Matt Johnson said pedestrians and cyclists would be directed through a four-way intersection with signal-guided crosswalks and sharper curbs to slow the pace of oncoming cars.
But residents at the meeting argued that it would be impossible to protect pedestrians and cyclists with a street-level crossing in a congested urban area. Many said the anticipated completion of the Purple Line in 2023 would draw more traffic along the Capital Crescent Trail, guiding more people onto Wisconsin Avenue as they crossed to access the rail station.
Without a tunnel, cyclists and pedestrians would be vulnerable to the whims of vehicle traffic in one of the county’s busiest regions.
“If you do not build it, you’ve lost an opportunity to save lives,” resident Nick Keeling said. “Because sooner or later, someone will die crossing Wisconsin Avenue.”