This story was updated at 3:55 p.m. on March 7, 2021, to include comments from County Executive Marc Elrich
County Executive Marc Elrich’s request to have the light-rail Purple Line single-tracked in a downtown Bethesda tunnel is drawing criticism from some County Council members.
Elrich has asked state transportation officials to consider using one track instead of two through the tunnel into the Bethesda station. The change would save the county the $54 million of construction for a second tunnel running parallel to house the Capital Crescent Trail.
The county has greater budget constraints stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, said County Transportation Director Chris Conklin, who works for Elrich.
Conklin wrote in a Feb. 22 letter to Council Members Hans Riemer, Andrew Friedson and Council Members Tom Hucker and Evan Glass that the county is “encountering extraordinary budget pressures” due to the pandemic.
The letter says Elrich has recommended deferring funding for both the Capital Crescent Trail Tunnel and a second entrance to the White Flint Metro Station. Combined, the two projects cost more than $100 million, he wrote.
The plan for the 16-mile light-rail line, connecting Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, has been to have two tracks through an existing tunnel into the Bethesda station — the western terminus of the Purple Line.
Friedson, whose district includes Bethesda, opposes single-tracking idea. He wrote to the council’s Transportation & Environment Committee on Feb. 17 that the proposal is “highly problematic and would represent a dramatic departure from the county’s longstanding commitments to the community.”
“To my knowledge, the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) has never expressed that such an arrangement is feasible. Project plans were approved long ago and construction has already started,” he wrote.
A new separate tunnel for the Capital Crescent Trail, running parallel to the Purple Line tunnel under Wisconsin Avenue, is in the six-year capital budget as part of the construction of the trail. But funding it has been a point of contention between Elrich and the Council the last two years.
Last year, Elrich did not include funding for the tunnel, but the County Council ultimately voted in April to restore the funding.
This year, Elrich has deferred funding for the tunnel to Fiscal Year 2027 or later.
“To provide an alternative approach, the county has requested that the State consider single-tracking through the Purple Line tunnel, freeing up space for the trail at considerable cost savings,” the budget states.
Adam Pagnucco first reported the single-tracking proposal on the website Seventh State on Monday.
Friedson said in an interview with Bethesda Beat on Friday that he understands the budgetary constraints during the pandemic, but people need to examine the historical record of the Purple Line.
He noted that Elrich, as a council member 12 years ago, also proposed the idea of single-tracking the Purple Line. He also pointed out that Elrich had not included funding for the Capital Crescent Trail tunnel last year in the CIP.
“So, the facts don’t necessarily support the timeline of the argument. It’s a question of whether or not we support a Purple Line that meets Montgomery County’s standards for quality and reliability of public transit, and that means headways,” he said.
Friedson said he worries that single-tracking the project could “threaten the quality, reliability or headways” to a “critical east-west transportation connection.”
“We won’t be able to fix a mistake that we make, if we make it here,” he said.
Elrich told Bethesda Beat in an interview that the state is considering the proposal, but there isn’t a definite timeline of when it might act.
“We’re asking the state to look at it. If it doesn’t interfere with operations, there’s no reason not to do it, because it saves $50 million and it makes room to put the bike (path) right through there, which is what the original master plan called for,” he said.
Elrich said that under the proposal, one track would run from the station through the tunnel before dividing into two tracks when trains emerge from the tunnel. With eight-minute headways, he said, trains have plenty of time to go into the station on the single track, unload and load passengers, and pull back out.
“Picture it in your head. Trains moving along eight minutes apart. Ask yourself whether you can get in and out of the tunnel in eight minutes. I believe the answer is yes,” he said.
“You’re not adding a switch or something that doesn’t already exist in the system. All you’re doing is relying on the fact that the timing won’t create a conflict. And I don’t know why people are afraid to look at it. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work.”
Elrich said that given the county’s budget constraints, using one track in the tunnel make sense, as long as the trains run on time. He said he hopes council members take another look at the idea.
“None of them have asked me what the logic was or anything else, so it’s not like they know. When I heard them saying ‘I’m gonna single track the Purple Line,’ it’s pure BS,” he said.
Riemer wrote on his blog Wednesday that single-tracking the Purple Line at the tunnel could “build a bottleneck into Bethesda,” meaning less frequent trains and low ridership.
“With a bottleneck, we’d be unable to increase the number of trains operating on the Purple Line to the full capacity that we need,” he wrote.
The county is responsible for the construction of the Capital Crescent Trail tunnel, while the state is in charge of the Purple Line.
Friedson said Friday that he has been communicating with members of Montgomery County’s state legislative delegation in Districts 16 and 18, which include Bethesda, Chevy Chase and Silver Spring — those affected by the Purple Line.
Del. Marc Korman, a Bethesda Democrat who chairs the Montgomery County House delegation, said in an interview on Friday that while Elrich is “trying to be creative” with budget challenges, he disagrees with the proposal.
“I really appreciate the county’s efforts to rebuild the Capital Crescent Trail as they pledged to do as part of the Purple Line. But I think it would be a mistake to disrupt the operations of the Purple Line in the fashion the county executive is suggesting,” he said.
Korman said members of the delegation plan to send a letter to the Maryland Transit Administration next week asking that the agency “reject operational changes to the Purple Line.”
Korman said single-tracking the Purple Line in the Bethesda tunnel could create “operational complexities.”
“Yes, it’s the end of the line, but it’s not as though he’s talking about single-tracking to repair and replace tracks or something like that,” he said. “We’re talking about single-tracking in the station where they want people to enter and exit the Purple Line…”
County officials talking with state
Conklin wrote to the council members that the county transportation department staff and Elrich have discussed options for the tunnel with state Secretary of Transportation Greg Slater and other officials.
“We understand that MDOT is currently evaluating the opportunity to defer installation of a second track into the Bethesda Purple Line Station. Since Bethesda is a terminal station and given the initial headways planned for the Purple Line, it may be viable to eliminate this track without impact to the operations planned for the Purple Line,” Conklin wrote.
Ray Feldmann, a Purple Line spokesperson, wrote in an email to Bethesda Beat on Friday that “we have received County Executive Elrich’s request and will be responding to him directly.”
Conklin wrote in his letter that it “may be possible” to route the Capital Crescent Trail through the existing tunnel, parallel to the Purple Line, if there is only one rail track, and that it would be “more direct” than the alignment proposed in the new trail tunnel.
“In the future, if more frequent Purple Line service is needed, the trail alignment through the Carr Properties building could be constructed so that the second track could be installed,” he wrote.
Dan Schere can be reached at email@example.com