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    Saturday Debut for Bethesda-Silver Spring Trail Link

    By Barbara J. Saffir
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Thursday, May 15, 1997; Page M04

    Nine years after the project began, another major link in the Capital Crescent Trail officially opens Saturday. County officials will snip a ceremonial ribbon in Elm Street Park at 9:30 a.m. to launch the Georgetown Branch Interim Trail.

    "The trail is one more piece in reaching our final objective, which is a first-class hiker-biker trail from Georgetown to Silver Spring," said John Dugger, a retired naval officer and specialist in international law who is chairman of the group that inspired the project.

    The Coalition for the Capital Crescent Trail has led a battle to transform the unused rail line from Georgetown to Silver Spring into a pedestrian way. Last summer, the paved segment between the C&O Canal in Washington and Bethesda Avenue in downtown Bethesda was mostly completed.

    This week, the unpaved trail from Elm Street in Bethesda to Stewart Avenue in Silver Spring debuts, although many parts of it have been in use for months, and it still will have a few gaps. The coalition hopes eventually to extend the trail to the Silver Spring Metro station.

    But completion of the Capital Crescent Trail remains uncertain until the county resolves a controversy over whether to build a trolley line along the hiker-biker route between the downtowns of Bethesda and Silver Spring.

    On Saturday, one of the coalition's member groups, the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA), will lead a 35-mile bike ride to celebrate its vision. It begins at the Washington Harbour boardwalk in Georgetown at 8 a.m., arriving in Bethesda an hour later. The ride will continue along the unpaved interim trail to the Sligo Creek Trail, eventually looping back to the harbor through Prince George's County and Washington.

    Although the ride was planned well before the dedication was announced, some bicycle advocates hope to use the ceremony to protest recent County Council actions that so far have quashed their dreams for what many call one of the trail's key missing links: a bike tunnel under Wisconsin Avenue.

    Two weeks ago, the council's Transportation and Environment Committee voted 2 to 1 against County Executive Douglas M. Duncan's proposal to spend $180,000 to install lights, security cameras and fences in the airy 800-foot-long railroad tunnel that runs beneath the southeast corner of the Air Rights Building.

    The full council adopted the committee recommendation last week in a 6 to 3 vote, excluding funds for the renovation in the fiscal 1998 transportation budget. Money still could be added later as an emergency or supplemental budget item, if council members approved.

    Council member Gail Ewing (D-At Large), who joined Derick Berlage (D-Silver Spring) in voting against the tunnel in the committee, called it a "terrible idea." Even with improved security, "it's not a place where women by themselves, families or, for that matter, men by themselves would be safe," Ewing said.

    Isiah Leggett (D-At Large), a longtime supporter of building a trolley line parallel to the path, was the only member to support the spending in the committee meeting and was one of three members voting for it in the council meeting. Betty Ann Krahnke (R-Potomac/Bethesda) and Nancy Dacek (R-Up County) also supported the tunnel.

    The coalition and bicycle groups plan to continue crusading to open the tunnel, pave the route and substitute a pedestrian bridge for a train trestle in Rock Creek Park.

    "The tunnel is a real cornerstone to the Capital Crescent Trail," said Ellen Jones, executive director of WABA. "Without [it], people using the trail are going to have to follow an extremely circuitous route to cross Wisconsin. . . . This is a serious safety problem and makes the trail considerably less friendly to use."

    The interim trail now stops at Elm Street Park, a block east of Wisconsin Avenue. The tunnel would carry riders under Wisconsin Avenue, but they would still have to cross Bethesda and Woodmont avenues in a bustling retail district to reach the trail.

    Following a route where freight trains once ferried coal, the stone trail begins at Elm Street, passes under East West Highway and curves through Columbia Country Club. After crossing Connecticut Avenue, it winds high above homeowners' back yards until it ends near Stewart Avenue and Brookville Road in Silver Spring. A section through Rock Creek Park remains barricaded.

    Montgomery County bought the trail right-of-way in 1988 from CSX Corp. for about $10 million under the Rails to Trails Act, which helps turn abandoned railways into pedestrian paths.

    It became embroiled in controversy in 1989 when then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer (D) offered $70 million to build a trolley line on the site from downtown Bethesda to downtown Silver Spring. The county then added a combination trolley way and bike way to its master plan. In the 1990s, as the trolley project lost favor with county officials, the bike path was built.

    Well-funded citizens groups faced off over the transit way proposal, with the Action Committee for Transit fighting for the trolley and associations such as the Greater Bethesda-Chevy Chase Coalition opposing it. The Coalition for the Capital Crescent Trail remained relatively neutral, campaigning for a hiker-biker trail with high-profile helpers such as the late senator and secretary of state Edmund Muskie, who lived in Bethesda.

    Early on, two lawsuits challenging ownership of the land were filed against the county and the federal government.

    In March, the county temporarily won a fight over big chunks of the 100-foot-wide right-of-way. A federal judge ruled against Chevy Chase Land Co. and Columbia Country Club, which had claimed that the land had reverted to them once the railroad stopped using it. But both parties filed appeals last week.

    A group of homeowners also sued the county, claiming that they own the right-of-way that abuts their property because they have been using it for decades.

    "We are pursuing the case, and we expect to proceed to trial," said William Dansie, one of the attorneys for more than a dozen property owners, including himself. However, the case has been inactive for some time.

    Oblivious to the turmoil, nearby residents and long-distance bikers and joggers are enjoying the path, parts of which have been open since January.

    Tom Flournoy, 42, a transportation engineer who recently pedaled along the tree-lined trail on a trip from Arlington to Rock Creek Park, said: "It's a great trail. It's beautiful and it's well-shaded."

    Bethesda resident Jim Carroll, who was jogging along the path one Sunday, was succinct. "It's swell."

    © Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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