Bicyclist advocates last week were surprised and angered to hear that Montgomery County wanted to change a planned Capital Crescent Trail underpass in Chevy Chase to a street-level crossing.
Montgomery County Department of Transportation officials presented the new trail design for the Jones Mill Road crossing on Tuesday at a meeting of the Purple Line Implementation Advisory Group (PLIAG). A rebuilt Capital Crescent Trail will be funded by Montgomery County and be built next to much of the 16-mile Purple Line light rail route.
But for some who see the trail as an important bicycle commuter route, changing the roughly 25-foot deep grade-separated underpass to a street-level crossing dependent on vehicle traffic wasn’t just a bad idea.
It was a complete reversal of the design that had been discussed — and in the view of advocates, agreed upon — in years of meetings and hearings with the county and Maryland Transit Administration, the agency in charge of the Purple Line.
Wayne Phyillaier, a trail advocate and member of the PLIAG, wrote about Montgomery County’s requested change to the MTA in detail on his blog:
Any public discussion of the pros and cons of an at-grade trail crossing will be moot if MCDOT is only making a show of listening, and is allowed to press ahead regardless of public input. There are disturbing signs that MCDOT has little regard for public participation in this decision.
MCDOT has already given direction to MTA to begin redesigning the CCT for an at-grade crossing at Jones Mill Road. MCDOT gave its briefing to PLIAG only upon request from PLIAG coordinator Tom Street, after hearing concerns about the issue from me as the CCCT PLIAG representative and from the office of Councilmember Leventhal. There is no indication that MCDOT had any intention to present any of this information in any public forum before executing the change.
On Friday afternoon, the Washington Area Bicyclist Association issued an action alert, urging members to rally against MCDOT, which it said, “just moved unilaterally to eliminate the long-promised grade-separated crossing of busy Jones Mill Rd.”
“Frankly, they tried to sneak this past without any of us noticing,” wrote WABA Executive Director Shane Farthing. “We noticed. We noticed that at the first opportunity to save money by sacrificing trail safety, they attempted to do so in a manner that evades public scrutiny and reneges on years of promises.”
In a matter of hours, MCDOT said it had pulled back its request for the street-level crossing, according to an email MCDOT transportation engineering chief Bruce Johnston sent to Farthing later Friday afternoon.
On Monday, Johnston told BethesdaNow.com that county transportation officials are now analyzing a revised underpass design from the Maryland Transit Administration.
“It’s an improvement and we’re analyzing it now to see if it will work. It’s better now,” Johnston said. “We’re going to review it with the bicycle community and the local community.”
Johnston said MCDOT made the original request to change from underpass to street-level crossing because of concerns about the lack of visibility and potential for crime with the first design. Johnston said the underpass would have presented trail-users with basically a “long canyon between two retaining walls,” that would be about 1,500 feet long and about 25 feet deep under Jones Mill Road.
But Phyillaier (and later WABA) argued a street-level crossing would only make the trail more dangerous by putting trail users at risk of being hit by vehicles turning right onto Jones Mill Road from Jones Bridge Road. The trail today crosses Jones Mill Road at a signalized street level crosswalk.
Johnston said MCDOT must balance the desire of bicyclists wishing to use the trail without interaction with vehicle traffic and the aim to keep the trail visible.
“Those are exactly the things that we’ll be looking at discussing with the community,” Johnston said. “We’ve talked with the WABA people. I talked with Wayne [Phyillaier]. We have a little bit of time here to evaluate and make a decision here. We want to make the trail as pleasant an experience as we can and as safe as we can and hopefully still have the grade-separated crossing.”
On Friday, Phyillaier wrote that at Councilmember Roger Berliner had scheduled an upcoming session of his Transportation Committee to review the Jones Mill Road trail crossing and that other county officials had called the county executive’s office looking for an explanation for MCDOT’s change.
Photo via Silver Spring Trails