Purple Line trail project would cost at least $40 million more than planned

By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 16, 2010; B04

Keeping the popular Georgetown Branch trail running alongside a future light-rail line between Bethesda and Silver Spring would cost at least $40 million more than predicted, Maryland transit planners told Montgomery County Council members Thursday.

The county could have to absorb much of those costs under a long-standing agreement that it would build, own and operate the jogging and cycling trail as part of a Purple Line project, state and county officials said. However, a Maryland Transit Administration official said the state will look for other money -- including possibly using state funds -- to help cover trail construction costs, which have ballooned from $25 million to at least $65 million.

Michael D. Madden, the state's project manager on the Purple Line study, said about $20 million of the cost increases resulted from designers discovering part of the tracks would need to be sunk into the ground to squeeze the trail through a tunnel that passes beneath a downtown Bethesda office building at the western terminus. Other increases resulted from planners reclassifying as trail costs any work that would be done solely to accommodate the trail, such as building retaining walls to separate walkers from trains, he said.

"The bottom line is the trail will be built as part of the Purple Line project," Madden said after a Montgomery County Council meeting on the subject. "We'll work together to try to identify a source of funding for the trail."

The trail's growing price tag made some council members wince.

"That's not a small chunk of change," said Montgomery council member Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda), whose district includes the trail. "This is one of those unpleasant surprises."

Council President Nancy Floreen (D-At Large) said the county is committed to keeping the trail open. "Of course, our concern is how we can pay for it," she said.

The trail costs are likely to increase further, Madden said, because the council asked the state to add lighting and to expand the trail's width from 10 feet to 12 feet where possible to reduce the possibility of collisions between walkers and cyclists.

The council discussed the trail as part of updating the county's master plan to reflect state plans to build the 16-mile east-west light-rail link between Bethesda and New Carrollton in Prince George's County. Montgomery's master plan now includes only a previously proposed single-tracked trolley line between Bethesda and Silver Spring.

The Georgetown Branch trail has long been a major sticking point in plans to link Maryland's ends of the Metro system and provide a more reliable transit option for people now traveling east-west on buses. Montgomery County bought the land formerly used for a CSX rail line in 1988 to preserve for a trolley but turned it into a gravel path for cyclists and walkers in the meantime.

Some trail supporters say they favor a Purple Line because it would lead to the trail's completion to Silver Spring as an extension of the paved Capital Crescent Trail. Other trail users and some residents in East Bethesda and Chevy Chase say a train line would destroy a rare swath of much-used green space and be dangerous for children who might try to cross the tracks.

Berliner also said he is satisfied that the MTA has adequately studied the possibility of using a single track to spare some trees in an especially narrow part of the trail between downtown Bethesda and Columbia Country Club in Chevy Chase. State planners said two tracks would be needed along the entire line to maintain fast and reliable travel times during rush hours.

The state is seeking federal funding for at least half of a light-rail line's construction costs, estimated at $1.68 billion. County officials said they could seek federal grants, such as those for sidewalks and bikeways, to build the trail.

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