Photo by msandman on Flickr.

Last night, the Montgomery County Council affirmed its support for the Purple Line, Capital Crescent Trail, and building the Bethesda Metro’s new entrance as soon as possible, rather than waiting 6 more years. But the decision didn’t come without a fight from County Executive Ike Leggett.

Leggett’s budget stripped funding for the Metro entrance until 2018, and he’s been lobbying against restoring the funding. The entrance is a key part of the Purple Line project, to allow Purple Line riders to easily access the Metro station.

Leggett says Montgomery County needn’t start funding the entrance until after Purple Line construction starts. But councilmembers say that Montgomery needs to show its support for the project by following through on its portions of the project. More than that, the benefits of a new entrance go beyond the Purple Line.

Last night, in the straw vote, the council unanimously agreed to defer 3 road projects which Cavan Wilk argued aren’t necessary right now: Montrose Parkway East, Goshen Road South, and part of Snouffer School Road.

Marc Elrich (at-large) joined in, but not without a few complaints. The Examiner wrote:

“It’s becoming harder to tell when you’re entering Montgomery County and leaving another jurisdiction,” said [Elrich], saying that the difference in road quality between Montgomery and neighboring counties used to be obvious.

Repairing roads is important, but perhaps instead of spending lots of money just to make sure Montgomery’s roads are even better than perfectly usable ones in neighboring jurisdictions, the county could invest in signs to help people know when they’ve crossed its borders.

The vote repudiates Leggett, who argued in a letter that those 3 projects are absolutely necessary because of growing population and congestion. One point he ignores, however, is that the Bethesda entrance and Purple Line also respond to growing population and more severe congestion.

The entrance makes sense on its own as well

The Purple Line is the primary reason for building this entrance, but there is ample reason to push ahead with the project even ignoring the Purple Line. Since before the station opened, people have bandied about the idea of adding a second entrance. There are many reasons to build it.

It would reduce crowding: Bethesda is one of Montgomery County’s densest job centers, and it continues to grow. New housing, offices, and retail mean increasing demand for the station. Already the third busiest Metro stop in Maryland, ridership will grow, and the station needs improved accessibility to accommodate this growth.

It would provide an alternative during escalator replacement: The escalators at Bethesda Metro station are scheduled to be replaced in 2014. Considering the depth of Bethesda station, closing escalators will potentially be very disruptive. A second entrance would ultimately make replacing escalators a much safer and easier proposition.

The entrance will take years to build, so it may already be too late to build it in time for the scheduled 2014 escalator replacement. However, if Montgomery started on the second entrance soon, then it might make sense for Metro to push the escalator project back a couple of years.

At Dupont Circle, Metro is currently replacing the escalators at the 19th Street entrance. Luckily that station has a second entrance, but Metro trains still bypass the station if anything goes wrong with the north entrance.

It would put more of Bethesda within walking distance of Metro: A new southern entrance would greatly expand the area of Bethesda that is within walking distance of the Metro stop. Properties further south along Wisconsin Avenue would come into easy walking range, while those already in range would have their access to transit greatly enhanced.

Additionally, the new southern entrance could provide a direct connection to the Capital Crescent Trail, one of the most popular multi-use trails in the region.

If delayed, it might not be ready for the Purple Line: Deleting funding from the six-year Capital Improvement Plan would push construction of the new entrance back to 2018 at the earliest. The Purple Line is scheduled to open in 2020. Pushing back funding might mean that the new entrance wouldn’t be ready for the start of service on the Purple Line.

Without that direct connection, riders will face a walk of several blocks to change trains. Such a disincentive would have a strong negative effect on ridership.

The Maryland Transit Administration, which is building the Purple Line, says that construction on the second entrance must start in 2016 at the latest in order to be ready to open with the Purple Line. Pushing construction back 2 years is a bad idea for that reason alone.

Under Leggett’s proposed timeline, there is no room for error. Any additional delays would result in the Metro entrance not being ready for the Purple Line. Not having a southern entrance to Bethesda station on the Purple Line’s opening day would severely reduce the light rail’s utility, and might even delay the opening of Purple Line altogether.

The design can be ready: One argument for waiting is to make sure the design is right. The entrance will open onto the Purple Line station in the Bethesda tunnel, and the county needs to decide the elevation.

Under initial plans putting the Capital Crescent Trail into the tunnel, engineers would excavate the floor of the tunnel to place the Purple Line below the current grade. If the trail doesn’t go in the tunnel, as MTA now recommends, the station would be at the level of the floor today.

The County Council’s Transportation and Environment Committee recommended last week to construct the Purple Line without deepening the tunnel.

While the full council hasn’t yet voted on a final decision, that will come soon, and final design for the station can move ahead.

Montgomery County needs to fund the second entrance to make sure it’s ready for the Purple Line, and improve mobility in Bethesda. The county is committed to getting the Purple Line built, but even if the Purple Line never opens, Bethesda residents and commuters will benefit greatly from an alternative to the current entrance.

Bethesda generates much of the employment and tax revenue for the county to pay for schools and other services. The new entrance and the Purple Line benefit all residents, even those who might never ride the Metro to Bethesda or take the Purple Line.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.