Greater Greater Washington

Montgomery and DC inaction threatens the Met Branch Trail

The Metropolitan Branch Trail has been gradually becoming a reality, but now its future is threatened at both ends: in the north from the Montgomery County Executive's short-sighted budget decisions, in the south by the District's laissez-faire protection of trail users.


Photo by TrailVoice on Flickr.

Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett wants to eliminate funding to complete the trail for 6 years, which would ensure the trail serves far fewer communities and draws fewer users than it should. The lower activity resulting from the incompleteness of this trail makes it less safe, and DC has not done enough to protect trail users from crime.

The Capital Crescent Trail, between Bethesda and Georgetown, is the nation's most used rail trail with over 1 million trips annually. Bicycle commuters make many of those trips, and each represent one fewer car on the road or passenger on one of the Metro's most crowded lines. The Metropolitan Branch Trail (MBT) does not yet fully exist, but when complete, it will be a similarly critical recreational amenity and transportation connection between Silver Spring's transit center and the District's Union Station.

Trail advocates, neighbors, and the governments of DC and Montgomery County have vetted plans and agreed to a common vision for a continuous, safe, off-road trail connecting multi-modal transportation hubs in Silver Spring and the District.

But this year, the Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett's budget cuts all construction funding for the MBT for the next 6 years. This breaks the county's promises to complete the trail.

Empty words don't define a county's priorities. Budgetary commitments do. The County Council must ensure that the county respects the community's efforts to reach this shared vision by restoring the funding for the trail.

Meanwhile, the District's portion of the trail faces its own challenges. DC rightly pushed ahead to build the southern portion of the trail on its own. The existing segment from Monroe Street to M Street is a gem. However, until it connects all the way to Silver Spring, the trail won't draw as many riders as it promises.

Without that activity, the trail remains somewhat isolated and needs police attention to maintain safety. Police officials have periodically told trail advocates and neighbors that they are increasing patrols, but this commitment remains reactive and inconsistent.

Several community groups have worked diligently to bring more activity to the trail. Groups like the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, Rails to Trails Conservancy, and Kidical Mass have run programming on or near it to keep eyes on the trail. But special events only do so much.

Two weeks ago, a trail user was mugged and shot. But I have seen no increased police presence nor heard any new communication on trail safety, either to in my professional capacity as executive director of the region's largest association of bicyclists or in my personal capacity as a trail neighbor. Last week, I was trailside for nearly 6 hours over 2 days giving out bike lights and trail safety information. In that time I did not encounter a single law enforcement officer on the trail.

We need better. Safety is as much a part of the larger vision for this trail as the laying of asphalt. The lack of safety can undermine this community resource just as easily as a capital budget cut or construction flaw.

The vision is clear. The plan is complete. DC and Montgomery leaders: It is time for you to get serious about funding, building, maintaining, and protecting this long-awaited amenity in the eastern portions of your jurisdictions, just as you funded and built the Capital Crescent Trail decades ago, and ensure that it is a safe, usable place for cyclists, runners, and pedestrians.

Tomorrow night at 7 pm, the Montgomery County Council will host a public hearing on the proposed budget and its capital plans. This is the community's chance to testify in support of the trail, and to ask councilmembers to keep the MBT a priority keep the county's commitments. If you are unable to attend and testify in person, you can send an email to the Council here.

On the District end, we must continue to push MPD to understand the importance of this trail and the need for a real maintenance and public safety plan. Construction is not the end of the work involved in making a trail succeed. It is just the beginning. We must continue to push DDOT, DPW, and MPD to live up to their responsibilities to the trail and its users. That push will come through ongoing dialogue, communication with trail users and residents, and push for accountability led by those of us who value the trail and its success.

Trail supporters need our leaders in both the District and Montgomery County to be accountable to the full vision of the trail, and we must do our part to remind them of that vision and keep them aware of the greater goal. The next major opportunity to do so is tomorrow night in Rockville.

Shane Farthing is Executive Director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association. Formerly the head of the Office of Green Economy in the DC Department of the Environment, Shane has been involved in the environmental planning and development of many projects currently changing the face of the District. Shane has graduate degrees in law and public policy from GWU and a Bachelorís in Religious Studies from Virginia Commonwealth University. 

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The lack of police presence you describe surprises me. For a while in the fall, every time I biked or ran home along the Met Branch trail I observed MTPD on bikes. This was typically late afternoon/early evening on weekdays. I found it both impressive and reassuring.

Re: Montgomery County and trail funding. Just one more retrogressive failure of the County DOT.

by jnb on Feb 6, 2012 2:45 pm • linkreport

The crime-related problems with the Metropolitan Branch Trail in the District are based more on just policing, although it's an important part. What the District truly needs is a sector plan for the trail that should include specific goals for residential and commercial development, signage directing the community to the trail and a clear chain of responsibility regarding trail maintenance.

For example, businesses along the trail should be responsible for trash dumped on their property. Conversely, the District could offer tax incentives to encourage businesses to create a more inviting atmosphere using murals or creating environmentally-friendly additions for use on the train (ex. rain barrels). Without a plan that also has the support of those who live along the trail, a plan the makes the trail a destination, we simply have a gated tarmac.

The trail needs to be safe but it also needs to be used. It should not only a commuter highway for those who live in Maryland but also be an area of activity throughout the day because it is an inviting place to be.

by Randall M. on Feb 6, 2012 4:16 pm • linkreport

Thanks for this post.
Some might quibble with your contention that the CCT is the busiest rail trail. The Minuteman Trail in Mass gets a reported 2 million users a year, and I believe I read somewhere that the W&OD gets 3 million. There are numerous other rail trails around the US that claim greater than 1 million users per year.

No doubt, once the trail is completed between Bethesda and Silver Spring, its usage will jump a lot. Perhaps then it will be the busiest.

by Steve O on Feb 7, 2012 12:02 am • linkreport

Randall M. -- apparently the B&A Trail has a security plan and other plans, but not a sector plan like you describe. The proposal for the Cynwyd Trail in Lower Merion Township PA is much more like you describe, but it's a design and use plan, not an operational plan.

http://www.lowermerion.org/Index.aspx?page=657

I sparked some national queries on this topic last year and it doesn't seem as if many trails have the kinds of plans you're suggesting.

I will say that the MBT experience has changed recommendations I make to other jurisdictions about lighting and trails and/or bikesharing. E.g., where the streets come into the trails, the streetlighting system could have been extended right up to the trail. Since those nodes are the entry points where criminals come in, having much more light and making other more distinct connections (again, the street abuts to the trail with industrial buildings that have no "eyes on the trail" but blank walls) would add security value.

Washcycle has pointed out that there were conceptual plans for the MBT that included provision for parks etc. where the land is now used for staging for road building.

In our area, the way that the Northwest Branch Trail functions between W. Hyattsville Station and Rhode Island might be akin to how you're thinking as it connects transit, shopping centers (3 grocery stores within striking distance of the trail), and a variety of park assets (playground, tennis courts, basketball court, ballfield, etc.) along the stretch, it's a great model.

It's not clear to me that the MBT is working towards that kind of model in DC, although a connection is being added to the Rhode Island Metro. Partly though it's a function of where it is, in a railroad corridor, where much of the abutting land has always been industrial (not unlike the problems that the light rail has in Baltimore in terms of sparking revitalization, because it was an industrial rail line not always proximate to population).

In any event we need better planning coordination for the creation of a truly metropolitan bikeways network across jurisdictions. This is especially the case between DC, and MoCo and PGC, because the counties are physically connected.

by Richard Layman on Feb 7, 2012 6:22 am • linkreport

CCT trail - 1 M users a year.

Let's assume they are ALL commuters -- which is false as anyone who uses the CCT knows from weekend traffic.

Subtracting weekends, that is lets say that is 4000 "uses" every working day, or around 2000 commuters.

About the same as a bus line.

There are good reasons for building bike trails. They are great assets for the communities, and encourage people to bike and have fun.

They are not, however, great commuting tools.

by charlie on Feb 7, 2012 9:50 am • linkreport

@charlie They are not, however, great commuting tools

A single lane of Connecticut Avenue carries about 2000 vehicles during the morning rush hour. I would guess that adding a lane to Connecticut Avenue would cost more than the CCT.

by Jim Titus on Feb 7, 2012 10:30 am • linkreport

Not only is safety on the MBT important for bikers, consider walkers too. The trail is the best walking connectionfrom Eckington to NY Ave metro. It's a tragedy that the trail is all but unusable for some people due to safety concerns, which is just a vicious cycle as less usage means fewer eyeballs on the trail which means more crime.

I wonder if crime cameras could help prevent crime on the trail?

by Falls Church on Feb 7, 2012 10:38 am • linkreport

Trails might not be great commuting tools now, because typically there isn't an integrated regional bikeway network, so there are many gaps making it hard to get places. Not to mention the lighting issue (e.g., ever ride the W&OD at night?).

But as Jim Titus points out the cost of serving an equivalent number of automobiles is much less and there is no reason why bike commuting can't be much more successful.

In my work, more and more I see e-bikes as a potential option. Whereas I am willing to ride 10 miles or so to get somewhere, and the hard core cyclists ride further, most people aren't.

So the trick is to extend the distance that people are willing to ride from say 3 miles to 7-10 miles. Or to provide an assist when there are topographical issues (e.g., it would suck to ride uphill to Montgomery County from Downtown DC after a long day of work).

Depending on the distance, a 10% mode split for bicyclists as commuters is reasonable. That ends up being pretty significant and a lot cheaper to serve than either by automobiles or transit.

by Richard Layman on Feb 7, 2012 10:43 am • linkreport

Falls Church -- one of the coolest things I have witnessed thus far on the MBT during the day is some organization that works with the physically disabled brought people with all sorts of disabilities onto the trail to walk/move about in the middle of the afternoon. They didn't have to worry about cars or "how slow" they were moving. They could amble freely. I didn't take any photos 'cause I thought it would seem rude, but it likely was an empowering and freeing activity.

by Richard Layman on Feb 7, 2012 10:46 am • linkreport

@Jim Titus; talk about moving the goal posts.

One lane of a road, for one hour, vs. a yearly count on a bike trail.

And the road still wins.

I found a 2008 DDOT cite of 50,000 vehicles a day on Conn. Ave; or about 18M uses a year. And not all those vehicles are single passenger, although there probably are a few tandems on the CCT. But let's say 25,000 users a day.

Again, terrible solution for commuting. Perhaps a great option for other uses. For the 500 people who bike commute on a regular basis it is nice, but there are other priorities for spending your money.

by charlie on Feb 7, 2012 10:46 am • linkreport

@Charlie:

SHA estimates 40,000 vehicles per day. Divided by 6 lanes makes for about 6500 per lane per day. Peak usage typically 11% of daily flow, making it about 2000 for the 3-hour rush hour. The same as your estimate of CCT.

I hope this clarifies.

by Jim Titus on Feb 7, 2012 12:49 pm • linkreport

Just rode MBT today. Great trail, always love riding it.

side note: Are those piles of coal around the T Street exit from the trail?

by Alan Page on Feb 8, 2012 1:18 am • linkreport

Alan, probably. It's raw material for asphalt.

by Richard Layman on Feb 8, 2012 7:12 am • linkreport

I would like to see the trail extended north through the Fort Totten area soon. I know the EIS is finished; anyone know when DC plans to get bids for building the next segment?

by John on Feb 8, 2012 8:42 am • linkreport

Alan: Those piles are on property owned by Fort Myer Construction, the uber-well connected construction company that seems to have its fingers in a lot of pies in the Wilson Building...

by Geoffrey Hatchard on Feb 8, 2012 9:42 pm • linkreport

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