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Trail tunnel planned for downtown Bethesda faces another construction funding battle

Montgomery County has committed to the tunnel but a fight over how to pay for it could bring delays

Montgomery County and Maryland officials tour the previous trail tunnel beneath Wisconsin Avenue in downtown Bethesda in 2011. That site will now house a Purple Line station for the Metro. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)
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The fate of a planned trail tunnel to carry cyclists and runners beneath downtown Bethesda faces another round of uncertainty as Montgomery County officials debate their construction funding priorities.

Montgomery leaders have pledged for years to continue routing the Capital Crescent Trail beneath busy Wisconsin Avenue by replacing a previous trail tunnel that will become a light-rail station for the Purple Line. Trail advocates say a tunnel must be returned to protect runners, walkers and cyclists on the critical east-west link in the region’s trail network.

The tunnel and trail between downtown Bethesda and Silver Spring have been closed since Purple Line construction started in 2017. The timing of the new trail tunnel’s construction — and whether it will open along with the Purple Line as promised — became the subject of budget fights two years ago after the estimated cost of the project more than doubled to $55 million.

Estimated cost of trail tunnel beneath Bethesda reaches $55 million

In his latest budget proposal, Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich (D) would delay the start of the tunnel’s expected 2½-years of construction until after mid-2028 by pushing funding beyond the six-year spending plan. That would delay the opening of the tunnel until at least late 2030, four years after the Purple Line is scheduled to begin carrying passengers in late 2026.

Elrich first drew criticism from trail advocates in 2020, when he didn’t include tunnel construction money in his budget. The county council then added the money. Last year, after Elrich delayed construction funding beyond his six-year plan, the council restored the money to allow the tunnel to open by mid-2027.

Christopher Conklin, director of the county’s transportation department, said the trail tunnel didn’t meet “readiness criteria” for a financial commitment because the current approved budget doesn’t specify where all the money would come from. Instead, it depends on receiving $21 million in “non-county funds,” presumably from the state, which is money that Maryland transportation officials haven’t agreed to.

Maryland officials have long said the county is responsible for the trail costs, including the tunnel. The state also is facing its own cost overruns. The Purple Line’s significantly delayed construction has grown by more than $1.4 billion, or almost 75 percent, over budget with the selection of a new contractor.

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

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

Montgomery council approves $55 million for Bethesda trail tunnel

In the meantime, he said, cyclists will be able to use new protected bike lanes scheduled to open this spring on Willow Lane and Bethesda Avenue to access the trail in downtown Bethesda near Woodmont Avenue.

The Maryland Transit Administration is building and paying 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 the county’s expense. The county has planned to build the trail tunnel separately from the Purple Line, near the Bethesda station.

Montgomery County Council member Andrew Friedson (D), who represents Bethesda, said the trail tunnel is critical to make cycling and walking safer and to encourage people to forgo driving.

“This was a major piece of transportation infrastructure that was taken away from the community and was promised to be returned to them better,” Friedson said. “This idea of taking something out of service and then not returning it is totally inconceivable to me.”

Peter Gray, a board member for the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, said the advocacy group will push again for the council to restore the tunnel funds to provide a safe, comfortable crossing for trail users of all ages and abilities. Having to cross a major thoroughfare like Wisconsin Avenue, 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 there are other things that need to get funded.”

Elrich has proposed single-tracking the Purple Line inside the Bethesda station to make room for the trail inside it, which would avoid 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 new federal approval.

State rejects county request on Purple Line inside Bethesda station

The county also has agreed to pay for a new southern entrance at the Bethesda Metro station to help passengers transfer more easily between the underground Metro and the street-level Purple Line. Those construction costs are estimated to have increased by over $22 million, bringing the total to more than $132 million.

However, Conklin said Elrich’s budget proposal doesn’t seek additional money for the Metro station project because the county is waiting for a more formal cost estimate from Metro based on a detailed design.

Full Purple Line construction is scheduled to begin this spring, when the new contractor resumes work abandoned by the original contractor that quit in fall 2020.