Planned Capital Crescent Trail tunnel at Bethesda faces another funding battle

The timing of the construction of the new trail tunnel – and whether it will open with the purple line, as long promised – was the subject of budget fights two years ago after the estimated cost of the project was over than doubled, to $55 million.

In his latest budget proposal, Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich (D) would delay the start of the tunnel’s planned 2.5-year construction until mid-2028 by pushing funding beyond plan six-year expenditure. This would delay the opening of the tunnel until at least the end of 2030 – four years after the purple line is due to start carrying passengers at the end of 2026.

Elrich first drew criticism from trail advocates in 2020 when he failed to include money for tunneling in his budget. The county council then added the money. Last year, after Elrich delayed construction funding beyond his six-year plan, the council reinstated the money to allow the tunnel to open. in mid-2027.

Christopher Conklin, director of the county’s Department of Transportation, said the trail tunnel did not meet “readiness criteria” for a financial commitment because the current council-approved budget does not specify where all the money would come from. silver. Instead, it hinges on receiving $21 million in “out-of-county funds,” presumably from the state — money that Maryland transportation officials have not accepted.

Conklin said the county plans to apply for a “very competitive” federal grant to cover much of the cost of the tunnel, but won’t know if it will get the money until later this year. In the meantime, he said, Elrich wanted to focus on shovel-ready construction projects, such as renovating county facilities.

“The county’s needs and wants exceed available resources,” Conklin said. “So if a project doesn’t meet the readiness criteria, other projects move forward in its place.”

In the meantime, he said, cyclists will be able to use new protected cycle paths due to open this spring on Way of the willows and Bethesda Avenue to access the downtown Bethesda trail near Woodmont Avenue.

The Maryland Transit Administration builds and pays for most of the 16-mile Purple Line. The state’s Purple Line contractor is rebuilding the trail east of Bethesda along the light rail tracks at county expense. The county planned to build the trail tunnel separately from the Purple Line, near Bethesda Station.

Montgomery County Councilman Andrew Friedson (D-District 1), who represents Bethesda, said the trail tunnel is key to making cycling and walking safer and encouraging people to give up driving .

“This was a major piece of transportation infrastructure that was taken away from the community and promised to be returned to them in better condition,” Friedson said. “This idea of ​​decommissioning something and not returning it is completely inconceivable to me.”

Washington Area Bicyclist Association board member Peter Gray said the advocacy group would press again for the council to restore tunnel funds to provide a safe and comfortable crossing for trail users of all ages and of all abilities. Having to cross a major thoroughfare like Wisconsin, he said, would prevent some people from using the trail.

“All things being equal, we want it to open when the purple line starts running,” Gray said. “We also recognize that there are other things that need to be funded.”

Elrich proposed running the purple line inside Bethesda Station to make room for the trail inside, which would obviate the need for a separate trail tunnel. However, Maryland transportation officials rejected the idea, saying it would make the rail line less efficient and put it at “significant risk” of not receiving further federal approval.

The county also agreed to pay for a new south entrance to the Bethesda subway station to help transfer passengers between the underground subway and the purple line at street level. These construction costs recently increased by approximately $22.6 million, bringing the total to $132.8 million.

However, Conklin said Elrich’s budget proposal did not request additional money for the Metro station project, as the county awaits a more formal cost estimate from Metro based on a detailed design.

Full construction of the Purple Line is expected to begin this spring, when the new contractor will take over work abandoned by the original contractor who resigned in fall 2020.

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