The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Closure of popular trail for Purple Line sparks community anger and nostalgia

Ajay Bhatt, left, is backed by a group of supporters Monday as he speaks with the media before this group of walkers, runners and bikers use the Georgetown Branch Trail between Bethesda and Silver Spring in Maryland before the trail closes Tuesday. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Ever since it opened 20 years ago, the clock had been ticking on the Georgetown Branch Trail, an oasis of green space in suburban Maryland that was set aside for a public transitway during the late 1980s.

Even so, the heartache was palpable Monday among trail users who spent a picture-perfect Labor Day holiday taking a last walk, jog or bike ride along the 3.1-mile path before it closes Tuesday for the next four to five years to make room for the light-rail Purple Line.

“This is an irreplaceable loss,” said Dan Leggett, 50, who lives in nearby Wheaton. He has biked the trail since it opened to the public in 1997, and was out riding on Monday. “It’s tree-lined and it’s shaded and it’s a respite from all the built-up environment that’s around us,” he said.

With emotions raw around the $2 billion Purple Line as construction moves forward, the trail’s closure — announced last Tuesday — adds another layer to the controversy surrounding the much-debated project that has been tied up in federal court for several years.

Court ruling paves way for Purple Line construction to begin

The Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail group — a lead plaintiff in the ongoing federal lawsuit to block the project — announced Monday that it will seek a federal court order to keep the Georgetown Branch open while litigation around the Purple Line continues.

Meanwhile, dozens of trail enthusiasts rallied against the closure, among them parents whose children use the trail as a safe route to school and — with Tuesday marking the first day of classes in Montgomery County — spent the holiday weekend scrambling to figure out alternate routes.

“There is no better route,” said Wendy Vicente, whose son Mark, 13, will have to cross a busy Wisconsin Avenue intersection to make it to his first day as an eighth-grader at Westland Middle School in Bethesda. “He used to take the [trail] tunnel, [but] now he has to go through a major intersection. At rush hour.”

Montgomery grants legal approval to build Purple Line on county-owned land

A spokesman for Purple Line Transit Partners, a consortium of private companies that will design, build, operate and maintain the light-rail line, declined to comment on the closure, which will involve cutting down nearly all of the surrounding trees to make room for the 16-mile project that will connect Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.

The group was allowed to begin construction on the project after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in July reinstated the Purple Line’s environmental approval, which a lower-court judge had revoked last year.

The ruling cleared the way for the state to secure $900 million in federal grants for the line’s construction while Maryland’s attorney general appeals an earlier ruling in the 2014 lawsuit seeking to block it. A ruling could come as soon as next month in the one remaining issue from the lawsuit: a court-ordered redo of the Purple Line’s ridership projections to account for Metro’s ridership decline and safety problems.

Congress appropriated $325 million for the project.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao signed a funding agreement last week with Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R), and the two appeared at a groundbreaking ceremony for the line.

Maryland to get $900 million federal full funding agreement for Purple Line

When the Georgetown Branch Trail reopens, it will be paved with asphalt, officials have said.

The community’s latest frustration about the project has spurred local officials to lobby state transportation officials to delay closing the trail or to shut it down in phases.

Chevy Chase Mayor Mary Flynn said the town has been working with Montgomery County and some surrounding municipalities to map out safe alternative routes for cyclists and pedestrians in an area where some streets lack adequate sidewalks, are too narrow to accommodate bikes and cars, or are slated for different types of construction.

“We don’t have a lot of good options,” Flynn said, calling the project “devastating” to her community because residents will no longer have direct access to the trail when the Purple Line is completed.

“We’re going to be completely walled off from the trail,” she said. “The only access we’ll have is from outside the town. It’s a permanent loss.”

Roger Berliner, a Montgomery County council member whose district includes the trail, criticized Purple Line Transit Partners for not giving residents more notice in their push to start the project after more than a year of delays caused by the legal challenge.

Berliner, who supports the Purple Line, said local officials and the partnership need to better plan how to avoid disruptions to surrounding communities.

“I believe the county had great foresight in purchasing the site and the need for public transit certainly has not decreased since then,” Berliner said of the 1988 land deal.

But, he added, “the fact that the state is now moving forward so quickly has caught everybody off guard. There’s been little time to digest this.”

Along the trail path Monday, longtime users did their best to take it all in.

Some snapped photos of the path and its canopy of trees to share as lamentations on social media. Others stopped amid the hum of crickets to reflect on the long talks with friends they had there and the solitude they enjoyed.

Jon Reinhard, 54, trained for five marathons along the trail’s gravel path.

On Monday, he drove from his home in Prince George’s to walk his dog, Dash, along the trail one last time.

“I’ve been running here for about 20 years,” he said, while standing near a trestle in the Chevy Chase portion of the trail that offered breathtaking views of nearby Rock Creek Park. “I remember when this was still a railroad bridge and they were renovating it to make it pedestrian friendly.”

Alan Roe, 54, stood along the same section, taking photos that he plans to look at every once in a while.

“I’m bittersweet about it,” he said, about the loss of the trail. “I’m a supporter of the Purple Line and I recognize the importance of getting an East-West thoroughfare, but it’s a shame. I understand what they’re doing, but I’ll miss it for sure. I suppose the silver lining to all of this is maybe when it’s finished, the trail will become more popular and more people will be able to fully appreciate it.”