Walkers stroll along the Georgetown Branch Trail on Aug. 30. The trail is scheduled to close Sept. 5 for Purple Line construction to take place. Credit: Andrew Metcalf
UPDATED – 11:15 a.m. – Bikers and walkers will have one last weekend to use the Georgetown Branch Trail before it closes for Purple Line construction next week.
A new notice on the Purple Line website says the approximately 3.5-mile unpaved trail that stretches from downtown Bethesda to Silver Spring will close on Tuesday. It will remain closed for four to five years between Woodmont Avenue in Bethesda and Talbot Avenue in Silver Spring.
The trail is closing so crews can begin clearing trees and start building the light-rail line. The route will run along the northern border of Chevy Chase, through the Columbia Country Club and near residential communities in Lyttonsville and western Silver Spring.
The notice says tree clearing won’t begin until “necessary approvals” are issued and that work may occur seven days a week.
Montgomery County’s Department of Transportation established an alternate route for the trail that takes bikers and walkers through east Bethesda, along Jones Bridge Road and through Lyttonsville before reaching Silver Spring.
The notice about the trail closure shows this as the alternate route for the trail. Signs have already been posted along the route to help guide users.
County transportation officials previously said they were negotiating with the Town of Chevy Chase to attempt to put the interim route through the town, which has fewer busy streets, but the alternate route will be the one presented at a community meeting in Bethesda in March.
The alternate trail route and trail work zone. via Purplelinemd.com
County transportation officials said Wednesday morning they attempted to negotiate use of the town’s streets for the trail, but have not been able to reach an agreement.
“The county has always preferred a route that goes through the Town of Chevy Chase,” Esther Bowring, a transportation department spokeswoman, said. “We feel it’s safer and a better route to send people through. We need the permission of the Town of Chevy Chase to officially do that. We’ve been working for a year to try to get an agreement to post the alternate route through the Town of Chevy Chase and we have not been successful to get to that point of agreement, despite our best efforts to address all of the concerns they have raised with us.”
Mary Flynn, the mayor of the Town of Chevy Chase, said Wednesday that the county never made a good-faith effort to negotiate with town officials to put the interim route through the town.
In particular, the town was concerned about bikers or walkers being injured on the route and the town being liable in a lawsuit, Flynn said. She noted the town has its own insurance policy and pays to maintain its streets with its tax money. The town requested that the county hold the town harmless if there’s an incident on the route and cover it with the county’s insurance policy.
She said the county never responded to this request.
“Frankly, they have not answered that question,” Flynn said. The town was also concerned about potential safety and traffic issues between vehicles and cyclists on the town’s streets as well as who will maintain the alternate route.
She said the town attempted to hold a meeting with county transportation officials and cycling advocates in May, but when the town sent the county questions it had in advance, the county cancelled the meeting.
Flynn said she walked the Jones Bridge route and the one proposed through the town, and described both as “really dangerous.”
She also said closing the trail with just five days of notice “doesn’t feel respectful.”
Tim Cupples, a county transportation planner, said the meeting in May was cancelled after the county received a lengthy list of concerns and questions from the town about the alternate route that the department wasn’t prepared to answer. He said the meeting was rescheduled for September and county officials were hoping to address the town’s concerns then.
“I still hold out hope that we can get to an agreement,” Cupples said. “I think we can address their concerns.”
Bowring added that bikers and walkers can still use the town’s streets without the official route and the county’s goal was to provide signage to help former trail users navigate through the town.
The county has also budgeted $57.3 million in funds to pay for a new 12-foot wide paved trail to be built next to the light-rail line between Bethesda and Silver Spring.
— Greg Sanders (@gregorysanders) August 30, 2017
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and numerous other elected officials and community advocates broke ground on the project Monday. As part of the ceremony, Hogan and U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao signed an agreement that will give the project $900 million in federal funding to help pay for its estimated $2 billion construction cost.
Soon after, Hogan immediately kicked off construction by tearing down a building at the site where the new Purple Line command center will be built in the New Carrollton area.
In addition to work on the trail, Purple Line Transit Partners, the team of construction companies building the 16.2-mile light-rail line, has said it will begin work immediately on demolishing structures in the right-of-way, relocating utilities and building access roads to accommodate construction vehicles.
Group of construction workers with Purple Line Transit contractors walk along Georgetown Branch Trail on Wednesday pic.twitter.com/o5t1EQlKap
— Andrew Metcalf (@AJwatchMD) August 30, 2017
The work begins as a three-year-old lawsuit is being weighed in the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. The court is considering whether to overturn federal District Court Judge Richard Leon’s ruling that a new environmental analysis be conducted to determine the impact that Metro’s safety issues and ridership decline will have on the Purple Line.
Officials including state Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn believe the state is on strong legal grounds to prevail in court. Construction is allowed to proceed because the Appeals Court reinstated the project’s federal approval in July.
Questions sent by the Town of Chevy Chase to county transportation officials regarding the alternate route, provided by Flynn: