Friday, January 23, 2009

State to MoCo: Build Your Own Trail!

A recent Examiner article revealed that the state expects Montgomery County to pay for finishing the Capital Crescent Trail near the Purple Line. Are they right that MoCo should pay up?

First, let’s understand the relationship between the trail and the Purple Line. Back in August 2007, I wrote the following in a guest blog on Just Up the Pike:

In 1986, CSX decided to file for abandonment of its tracks. The county then passed the Georgetown Branch Master Plan Amendment in 11/86 designating the tracks as “a public right-of-way intended to be used for public purposes such as conservation, recreation, transportation and utilities.” The amendment stated that “a transit facility could be an important element of the County's long-term transportation system.”

In 1988, the county purchased the right-of-way from CSX for $10.5 million. Two years later, the county passed the Georgetown Branch Master Plan Amendment of 1990, which “designates the Silver Spring & Bethesda Trolley and the Capital Crescent Trail as suitable uses for the 4.4-mile portion of the Georgetown Branch right-of-way between Bethesda and Silver Spring.”

The Bethesda-Chevy Chase Master Plan, also adopted in 1990, reinforces the intended right-of-way use for both trail and transit. It states, “Use of the route for transit would provide an alternative to driving on East-West Highway and Jones Bridge Road. It would assist those people who rely primarily on local public transit. The key to attractive, successful transit service is providing reliable, speedy service. The Georgetown Branch provides an existing travel corridor that could readily be adapted for transit use.”

See the sector plan for further details - pages 103 and 104.

Newspaper articles from that time show that the county government intended transit use at the time they bought the CSX land. Chevy Chase residents reacted by first opposing possible residential development on the land and later by opposing rail service.

In 1989 the County Council voted to accept state money to pay for most of the cost of what was then known as the trolley by a 6-1 vote. [Then-councilman] Ike Leggett was the sole dissenter. Two years later, the trolley line died because of rising cost estimates and state budget problems.
From the beginning, the trail was designated as an integral element of the transit project, not an optional one. Neither the county nor the state has ever completed the trail into Silver Spring, a fact chronicled by Wayne Phyillaier in his Finish the Trail blog. But the Purple Line offers the promise of finally providing a safe pedestrian link between Bethesda and Silver Spring if the trail is completed alongside the transit line.

The Purple Line Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) estimates the project’s capital cost at $386 million to $1.6 billion. According to the Examiner, finishing the trail would cost just $14 million. So why shouldn’t MoCo shut up and pay up? Because we are now revealing a dirty little secret: the county has already committed more money for the Purple Line than has the state.

You don’t believe me? Consider the following:

1. The county is paying $32 million for its share of the Silver Spring Transit Center, which is designed to accommodate the Purple Line. This includes $18.6 million added by the County Council in July to “make the project an example of design excellence.” Former Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan had to fight tooth-and-nail with the administration of former Governor Robert Ehrlich to get any state funding.

2. In June, the County Council voted to spend $60 million to build a new south entrance at the Bethesda Metro Station. This project is also intended to accommodate the Purple Line.

3. The Georgetown Branch right-of-way, explicitly purchased by the county twenty years ago for both transit and trail use, is now valued at more than $30 million.

The above three items alone cost county taxpayers more than $120 million. And what has the state paid? The state’s new budget schedule, which we dissected in September, reveals that it has spent $26.5 million through the current fiscal year and plans to spend a total $106 million on design and engineering through FY 2014. That compares to total spending planned for Baltimore’s Red Line of $221 million through FY 2014.

If the residents of either Baltimore City or Prince George’s County were spending more on a state transit project than the state government, their politicians would be screaming bloody murder in Annapolis. But MDOT must have no such fear of us. Their nickel-and-diming over the trail reminds your author of the state’s unapologetic shorting of the county’s school construction money last spring.

County Executive Ike Leggett said yesterday that MDOT Secretary John Porcari told him that the county will be “credited” for its contributions. Interestingly, we know of no such commitment appearing under the Secretary's signature. Assuming the County Executive's understanding is correct, that does not mean the county will pay nothing more for the Purple Line. Further county payments will depend on the project’s ultimate cost. But if Porcari did make such a commitment, it is the job of the County Executive and our state delegation to hold him to it.