The Purple Line is necessary to finish the Capital Crescent Trail, which currently ends over a mile west of its planned terminus at the Silver Spring Metro station. But if CSXT doesn’t agree to give up the land where the trail would go, Maryland may simply give up on it.

Rendering of the Purple Line and the trail from the Maryland Transit Administration.

Finishing the trail requires CSXT’s cooperation

Last week, the Maryland Transit Administration released its final environmental impact study (FEIS) for the Purple Line, explaining in detail how the light rail line between Bethesda and New Carrollton will work and what impacts it will have. MTA will collect public comments and give them to the Federal Transit Administration, which will then issue a Record of Decision on whether to continue design development and acquiring land.

The FEIS raises a major issue about completing the Capital Crescent Trail into downtown Silver Spring that has not drawn much attention before. Today, the trail runs between Georgetown, Bethesda and Lyttonsville, 1.5 miles west of the Silver Spring Metro station, with an interim trail along local streets for the rest of the way. Current plans call for building the Purple Line alongside the trail between Bethesda and Lyttonsville, then extending the trail to Silver Spring along the east side of the Red Line tracks.

Planned route of the extended CCT with the Purple Line “Preferred Alternative.” Image from the Maryland Transit Administration.

Most of the land required for this is already publicly owned, but there are a few sections where it would need to use CSXT owned right-of-way. However, CSXT’s general policy is to not allow trails in its right-of-way. MTA sent CSXT a letter last November requesting that they make an exception for this project, but CSXT has still not granted one to date. The FEIS says that if CSXT doesn’t want to let the state use the right-of-way, the CCT won’t be built.

According to the FEIS, if the two parties can’t reach an agreement by the time construction on the Purple Line begins, MTA would simply rebuild the existing Capital Crescent Trail between Bethesda and Lyttonsville and keep the interim bike route on local streets. MTA and Maryland appear ready to give up on working with Montgomery County to complete the CCT into downtown Silver Spring if it cannot get CSXT’s land for the trail.

This could be devastating to the CCT and regional trail network. There would be no off-road trail connection to downtown Silver Spring, no continuous off-road trail between Silver Spring and Bethesda, and no connection to the Metropolitan Branch Trail, forming a complete off-road “bicycle beltway.” The off-road CCT extension that has been promised in every Georgetown Branch Trolley and Purple Line concept study and planning document for more than two decades would be no more than a broken promise. 

There is an alternative way to finish the trail

The FEIS presents a false choice: either get CSXT cooperation for the preferred trail alignment entirely in the corridor, or give up on building any off-road trail and dump the CCT onto local streets at Talbot Avenue. But it is possible to complete an all off-road CCT into downtown Silver Spring without CSXT cooperation.

A “Plan B” trail would be as safe and nearly as direct as the trail would be on the preferred alignment, and could be less expensive to build. Since most of the preferred route is already on public land, small adjustments could move it out of the CSXT right-of-way completely.

A “Plan B” off-road CCT can bypass CSXT right-of-way. Image by the author.

This aerial map shows that it is possible to bring the CCT down 4th Avenue, just a few feet east of the CSXT right-of-way, and behind the Woodside Mews townhouses to Lyttonsville Road. Lyttonsville Road is a dead-end street and extra-wide for the little traffic it carries. It can easily have a “road diet” width reduction to free the space needed for an off-road CCT while still leaving room for traffic lanes and on-street parking.

After turning south onto 16th Street, the trail can descend below the overpass This would give us the much desired grade-separated crossing under 16th Street, but may require “taking” approximately 12’ of land from the Park Sutton and a few feet of right-of-way from CSXT on the west side of the street. The 16th Street Bridge must be rebuilt for the Purple Line, so the state must engage CSXT in right-of-way and construction issues at this location regardless of the trail.

If that doesn’t work, another option is to cross 16th Street at a new light at Lyttonsville Road, then go down the east side of 16th Street to the CSXT. This would stay well clear of any CSXT right-of-way at the 16th Street Bridge, and would require little or no additional space along 16th Street. An at-grade trail crossing of 16th Street would be much safer at Lyttonsville Road than the existing on-road trail crossing at Second Avenue, because this crossing would be shorter, would have very little turning traffic, and could use the wide median for a “safety refuge”.

From there, the trail could join the publicly owned 3rd Avenue right-of-way, which is continuous from 16th Street to Fenwick Place and is already part of the preferred route. There is other private and public right-of-way that can be used for the trail from Fenwick Lane to the Metro Plaza Building at Colesville Road.

The trail does appear to need a small amount of CSXT right-of-way at Metro Plaza, but the Purple Line will already be using this area to cross over the existing rail tracks in a structure shared with the trail. It is unlikely CSXT would try to block putting a trail here.

This avoids the only portion of the CSXT corridor where their “cooperation” is essential to building the CCT’s preferred alignment, a small section behind the Park Sutton condominium at Lyttonsville Road and 16th Street. The preferred route would be relatively isolated behind the building, built behind a high retaining wall and a crash wall for trains.

By placing it on street for a short segment, “Plan B” would be only a few hundred feet longer, and it can be more inviting, more visible, and more accessible over most of its length. The cost to build the bypass route should be lower than the cost of the preferred trail route, because less retaining wall would be needed and the CSXT crash wall would be eliminated.

Looking down Lyttonsville Road from the Woodside Mews Townhomes toward 16th Street. Photo by the author.

“Plan B” has already won community support

The CSXT bypass route is a key part of the off-road “interim” trail planned years ago and described in the M-NCPPC report “Facility Plan for the Capital Cresent & Metropolitan Branch Trails,” approved by the Planning Board in January 2001 and available online on the Coalition for the Capital Crescent Trail website. Representatives from nearby communities, trail user groups, Planning Department staff, and professional trail design group Lardner and Klein developed the plan.

At the time, plans for the single-track Georgetown Branch trolley, proposed to run from Bethesda to Silver Spring, had fallen by the wayside and it appeared that no transit would built along the corridor anytime soon. But shortly after this study was approved the movement for transit came to life again as the Purple Line. The “long term” part of “interim trail” went away, and with it the support for spending millions to build it.

David Anspacher, trail planner for the Planning Department, has recently begun to examine the “Plan B” bypass concept. He has circulated this and other alternative CCT route ideas among planning staff for comments, and has asked trail design consultants Toole Design to include this in an evaluation of CCT alternatives they are doing for the department. This work becomes ever more important as CSXT continues to withhold its cooperation on the trail.

“Plan B” needs to become a feasible option for the CCT

If we allow MTA to give up so easily on the Capital Crescent Trail and it proceeds to build the Purple Line with no consideration for a possible “Plan B” trail, we may get no trail at all. What can trail advocates do?

For starters, you can submit comments on the Purple Line FEIS, pointing out that there are options for an off-road CCT that bypasses the CSXT right-of-way, should it refuse to cooperate on the trail. Ask MTA to commit to designing and building the best feasible off-road CCT extension into downtown Silver Spring, in coordination with Montgomery County, consistent with the promises it has made to the community for over two decades.

You can submit comments online at the Purple Line website or by sending an email to with “FEIS COMMENT” as the subject heading.

Also, you can contact the Montgomery County Executive, Council, and Planning Board and let them know there are options for completing a good off-road CCT that do not require CSXT right-of-way. Ask them to accelerate study of “Plan B” options to be ready in case CSXT blocks the preferred CCT alignment. Tell them that we expect them to keep the promises they have given to us for many years to complete the CCT, and this trail is much too important for them to give up so easily.

A version of this post appeared at Silver Spring Trails.