Feb 13, 2023 - News

Montgomery County wrestles with growing cost of $82.5M Bethesda bike trail tunnel

A map of the proposed bicycle trail tunnel running under Wisconsin Avenue

The bolded path (K) would be the underground portion of the Capital Crescent Trail. Image courtesy: MCDOT

In Bethesda, there’s an $82.5 million fight over building a bicycle trail tunnel.

Why it matters: Montgomery County leaders now have the thorny dilemma of funding the ballooning price tag for the Capital Crescent Trail project or diverting the money to build new schools.

  • County Executive Marc Elrich last month proposed delaying the project’s start to 2028, angering bicycle advocates who want the tunnel to open at the same time that the Purple Line is expected to begin service in 2026 or 2027. (Or, who knows when — the Purple Line has been delayed multiple times.)

The decision now rests with the Montgomery County Council.

  • In previous years, lawmakers have reversed Elrich's proposed budget cuts. But this year the project’s increasing costs and new political dynamics will complicate the tunnel’s fate.
  • The council expanded from nine to 11 members this year, and freshmen lawmakers representing five newly created districts will jostle to fund needs in their own communities over affluent Bethesda.

What they’re saying: “There are many competing demands for building infrastructure,” County Council president Evan Glass acknowledges.

  • As supporters of the tunnel project, Glass and Bethesda's council member Andrew Friedson tell Axios they believe the council will restore funding again this year.

What’s happening: The tunnel would be built under Wisconsin Avenue and provide an uninterrupted path for cyclists and pedestrians on the Capital Crescent Trail.

  • The trail is currently about seven miles long and runs from Georgetown to Bethesda. Work is underway to extend the asphalt path to Silver Spring, parallel to the Purple Line light rail route currently under construction.

The Washington Area Bicyclists Association warns that without the tunnel, an estimated 15,000 weekly users of the trail would have to cross Wisconsin Avenue's six busy lanes.

  • Peter Gray, a bicyclist advocate with the group, emphasizes the importance of the project given the development boom in Bethesda and Silver Spring.
  • But Gray now believes it is “unlikely” it will get built by 2028 due to the cost.

The other side: Elrich says the project’s cost increase from $55 million to $82.5 million is too much for the county’s six-year construction budget.

  • “It’s more than the price of a brand-new elementary school,” Elrich aide Richard Madaleno told Axios. “This 900-foot tunnel is just not worth it.”

What’s next: The council will debate the budget before a final vote likely in May.

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