In the next several months, a quiet stretch of abandoned railway linking Bethesda and Georgetown will spring to life with thousands of bicyclists, joggers, power walkers and in-line skaters.
Traversing quiet, wooded areas and parklands, the 10-foot-wide asphalt path will allow ambitious commuters to ride bicycles to jobs in the District and runners to enjoy a route far removed from exhaust fumes.
In the last few weeks, heavy equipment has been tearing out tons of old steel rails and heavy hardware and ripping up hundreds of wooden railroad ties along the planned Capital Crescent Trail between the District and Little Falls Parkway near Arlington Road. Paving of the roadbed is to start in July, workers say.
This key link in the long-planned trail conversion project still will leave completion years away, but boosters are elated about the progress and talk about it in gushing, eager tones.
Imagine, they say, a ribbon of wide, smooth pavement stretching 11 miles from the urban heart of Silver Spring, through Bethesda, to the banks of the Potomac River in Georgetown.
Rock Creek Park north and south eventually would be linked to create a 23-mile circle. Virginians could easily get to it by crossing the Key Bridge or Chain Bridge, meaning it could be linked to the Washington & Old Dominion trail and the Mount Vernon trail.
"Of all the 570 or so 'rail trails' in the nation, the Crescent will be the most successful, most popular and most beautiful of them all," said Henri Bartholomot, a board member of the Coalition for the Capital Crescent Trail. The trail is named for the crescent moon-shaped path through Montgomery County and the District.
The Bethesda pieces of the grand vision are giving Bartholomot and other supporters a taste of the trail's potential. The rails have been completely removed from near MacArthur Boulevard to beyond Massachusetts Avenue. That part of the trail will link up with an already completed section that ends at Little Falls Parkway near Arlington Road.
That means the entire 3.4-mile section of the trail from the District to downtown Bethesda should be completed this fall. A nearly four-mile segment in the District, most of it along the C&O Canal, also is scheduled to be completed by the National Park Service this summer, except for reconstruction of the railroad bridge over the canal and Canal Road near Arizona Avenue NW, park service officials said. That should be finished by early 1995.
Montgomery County will spend about $1 million and the park service will spend about $1.7 million on construction.
Yet the completion of the whole trail remains uncertain, particularly east from downtown Bethesda along the northern rim of Chevy Chase, through Columbia Country Club and Rock Creek Regional Park into Silver Spring.
Lawyers for the Columbia Country Club and Chevy Chase Land Co., which owns the golf course land, argue in two lawsuits that the land company owns the railroad right of way and that it should be compensated for the trail conversion. But the county says that the railroad transferred ownership to it under a 1985 rail-to-trail conversion law.
In addition, the country club says that any trail that is built across the golf course should be installed below grade so that cyclists and runners will move at the bottom of a trench crossing the greens.
The club contends the a public trail will decrease the value of its private club. Officials from the country club and the land company did not return phone calls.
"They are claiming they have a property interest. We are claiming they no longer have the property," said Andrea Ferster, general counsel for the Rails to Trails Conservancy, the D.C.-based nonprofit group fighting the Crescent Trail's legal battles.
The country club's attorney, R. Dennis Osterman, disagrees.
"The county club's theory is its land rights to cross and own the strip are superior to any rights the county may have obtained," Osterman said.
Further complicating trail planning is a longtime proposal for a 3.3-mile trolley line that would use the existing rails to link the downtowns of Bethesda and Silver Spring. That could delay Crescent Trail completion until the next century.
If the $107-million trolley line were launched, the county would preserve the railroad tracks and build the trail alongside it. Recently, the state said it would begin a study that could take up to two years to determine if the trolley is feasible.
But the trolley remains in danger because of fears of massive cost overruns and objections from neighbors of the rail line.
There is still much support for the trolley. Edmund Rennolds, president of the Woodside Civic Association in Silver Spring, said the trolley is needed more than a trail.
"To get to Bethesda from Silver Spring by car is such a drama," he said. "We need to promote mass transit."
But fans of the Crescent Trail worry that it wouldn't be as pleasant for users if it runs along a track carrying trolley cars whizzing past every six minutes at speeds averaging 29 miles an hour.
Finally, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers contends that the trail will create a steady line of trail traffic in front of two driveways at its facility between the C&O Canal and the Maryland line. The corps is uneasy about the path-users traversing its property and has suggested the trail be rerouted.
Another possibility, the corps contends, is constructing a bridge over the driveways, but trail advocates worry it will not be properly designed.
Yet none of the legal and development hurdles have dampened the enthusiasm of future trail-users.
"It will be phenomenal," said William Wilkinson, executive director of the nonprofit Bicycle Federation of America, which is based in the District. "If we would have been sitting here 100 years ago and wanted to think of a line to draw for a bike trail, you would have drawn this very line. This will be like the interstate highway for bicycles and walkers."
Planners predict the completed 23-mile Crescent Trail network would attract at least 1.5 million users annually.
The trail follows the old CSX Railroad spur line that carried coal trains from Silver Spring to a federally owned electric plant in Georgetown from 1915 until 1985.
Since then, the route has carried the hopes and dreams of thousands of bicyclists, joggers and skaters, who envision one of the longest rail trails in the East. Rock Creek Regional Park is scenic but impossibly narrow at many points for bicyclists, and the gravel path of the C&O Canal keeps it off-limits to the burgeoning number of in-line skaters.
The 10-foot-wide Crescent Trail would make it accessible to bikers, skaters and people on foot, and a four-foot unpaved hiking and jogging trail is to be built alongside 60 percent of the path. A long rail tunnel that runs beneath Dalecarlia Reservoir property will be illuminated by the fall.
The number of access points from subdivisions and the many private properties near the trail has not yet been decided.
A tiny stretch of the path already is complete, from Bethesda Avenue to Bradley Boulevard. That was partially constructed by the Potomac Electric Power Co. with funding from Montgomery County. But there still are nagging problems even with this segment.
It ends beside the Ourisman Honda car dealership, but there is a dispute about what kind of safety measures should be added there. Trail advocates want a fence to separate the trail from the dealership parking area, but the county and dealership object. They contend that pedestrians should have the right to walk across the trail.
Even to get the trail to its present state of incompletion has taken intense lobbying by bicycle and environmental groups and acts of Congress.
During the trail's bleakest moment, Bartholomot said, "saving angel" Kingdon Gould Jr., the great-grandson of railroad baron Jay Gould, bought portions of the track in the District from CSX and prevented it from being developed. He held the land until the National Park Service could buy it for the purpose of the trail.
The park service expenditure for the District includes $1.1 million that Congress placed in the current Interior Department appropriation for Washington area trails. The money was put in the budget after extensive lobbying by local and national bicycle and environmental groups, including the coalition of the Crescent trail.
A similar effort had persuaded Congress to require states for the first time to reallocate some federal transportation funds for projects other than highways. The 1990 legislation specifically mentions rail-to-trails conversions. Through that law, Montgomery County is getting an $860,000 federal grant from the State of Maryland.
To Bartholomot and other trail advocates, the current construction shows the power of an idea that legal problems cannot halt.
"I remember when myself and hundreds of other volunteers would go out to the railroad track and clean it up so it wouldn't get to the point that it would be too costly to design the trail," he said. "These are final hurdles."