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Light rail train may cross Connecticut Ave. in Montgomery County

ROCKVILLE — Maryland transit planners are considering cutting Purple Line construction costs by running light rail trains across Connecticut Avenue rather than over a bridge as now planned, but critics say the change would further snarl traffic on the jammed commuter corridor.

Michael Madden, the Maryland Transit Administration’s manager for the project, told Montgomery County Council members Thursday that engineers are analyzing the potential impact to train operations and traffic. The crossing would be in the North Chevy Chase area, just inside the Capital Beltway.

“We’re evaluating a number of cost-saving measures,” Madden said under questioning from council member Nancy Floreen (D-At Large) at a committee work session on the Purple Line proposal. “That’s one of them.”

After the meeting, Madden said an at-grade crossing could save the state roughly $40 million to $50 million in construction costs. He said planners are looking for ways to reduce expenses in case the cost estimate of $1.93 billion begins to rise, as often happens when major projects progress from conceptual design into more detailed engineering.

Madden said trains wouldn’t preempt traffic but could prompt the traffic signal at Chevy Chase Lake Drive to give motorists an earlier or longer red light to allow trains to cross.

“The trains (could cross Connecticut) very quickly,” Madden said. “It’s a matter of a few seconds.”

The revelations came during a council committee work session on how much the county should spend to rebuild the Capital Crescent Trail alongside Purple Line trains. State planners recently told the council that rebuilding the trail through an existing tunnel in downtown Bethesda would cost $50.9 million, while rerouting the trail around the tunnel and along streets in the Bethesda Row shopping and restaurant district would cost $3.5 million.

The committee plans to vote on the tunnel issue Thursday. The state is seeking federal funding for half of the light rail line’s construction costs, but the county is responsible for the trail costs.

A 16-mile Purple Line between Bethesda and New Carrollton is intended to spur redevelopment in older inner Beltway communities and improve east-west transit by connecting Maryland’s ends of three Metrorail lines with MARC commuter rail and Amtrak stations.

Discussion about the tunnel’s costs and engineering difficulties offered few new details, but the few minutes of discussion about the potential scrapping of a Connecticut Avenue overpass raised some eyebrows in the room.

When Floreen asked about rumors that state planners were reconsidering the bridge, Madden said he wasn’t “prepared to talk about that” in detail and said he would have more answers in a few weeks.

“This is not okay,” Floreen shot back. “This is not fair to our residents.”

Pat Burda, a member of Chevy Chase’s town council and a member of the Connecticut Avenue Corridor Coalition, said state planners shouldn’t be allowed to cut costs in ways that would hurt local communities. Requiring trains to cross congested Connecticut Avenue, she said, “would be a total disaster.”