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Public Spaces


Work on the Rock Creek Park Trail will fulfill a long-ago promise

Two complementary projects starting in the near future promise to completely change the bike trails in Rock Creek Park. Both will address trail issues first raised over 20 years ago.


Photo by TrailVoice on Flickr.

The first project will rebuild Beach Drive and 1.5 miles of the 5.9 mile trail that runs alongside it. It will reconfigure the part of the trail that runs through the tunnel that goes under the National Zoo, build a new bridge over Rock Creek, and reshape the trail's intersection with Shoreham Drive. It should start this year, and finish in 2018.

Meanwhile, the District Department of Transportation wants to start a complementary project in the spring of 2017 that will build one new mile of trail within Rock Creek Park and rehabilitate another 3.5 miles of trail.

This project has been a long time coming. It was first publicly announced in October 2005, at which time work was to start in January 2007 and be finished by the end of that year, but since DDOT and the NPS couldn't agree on some details, it's been delayed. But it actually goes back even further: Many of the problems it's hoping to address (along with some the FHWA project will address) were first identified all the way back in 1990, in a National Park Service report called "Paved Trails of the National Capitol Region." That plan is currently being updated.

But at the Bicycle Advisory Council's March Meeting, DDOT's Michael Alvino said the project is moving forward. A rebuilt and expanded Rock Creek Trail promises to make the trail safer and and more useful. Here's a rundown of the specifics:

Rose Park and the P Street Ramp

Rose Park is on the east side of Georgetown, south of P Street and east of 27th. On the east side of the park there is a trail, about 40 feet above the parallel Rock Creek Park Trail (RCPT), called the Rose Park Trail. From M and 28th to P and 25th, that trail will be widened by about one foot, making it about six feet wide.

From the northern end of the Rose Park Trail, a ramp connects P Street to the Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway. Right now, there's a trail connection on the downhill side of that ramp, and there's now a plan to install a second path along the uphill side. This should help cut down on the number of times cyclists need to cross the ramp, and help minimize times those climbing up the hill and others biking down come into conflict. This project will add trails to both sides of the ramp.


Trail at the P Street Ramp. All images from DDOT unless otherwise noted.

The Devil's Chair

The Devil's Chair Bridge just north of Q street requires trail users to make two quick 90 degree turns to cross Rock Creek. While it won't be realigned, it will get a wider curve on the Mt. Zion cemetery side. Also, the fenced in landing on the opposite side will be replaced with a curved approach.


The north landing of the Devil's Chair Bridge.

Trail straightening

DDOT will straighten the trail in several places. One example of what this looks like is below the Calvert Street Bridge, where the trail curve has resulted in a well-worn desire line. Realizing the people have spoken, DDOT will make the desire line the new trail, and the curved portion will be removed.


Straightened Rock Creek Trail beneath Calvert Street.

New access to Harvard Street

Between Cathedral Avenue and Klingle Road, a distance of about a mile, the only trail access point is Zoo Drive, just south of Harvard Street. Zoo Drive gives trail users a roundabout access to Harvard Street, but only when the Zoo is open. The trail project will create new, more direct access to Harvard Street, via a route that is not impacted by Zoo hours. A small trail spur will connect to a crosswalk across Beach Drive. On the other side of Beach, trail users can connect to Harvard Street at Adams Mill Road via a five foot wide ramp. Part of the ramp can be bypassed by a set of stairs with a bicycle runner.


New trail connection to Harvard Street.

Paved desire line north of Tilden

Just north of Tilden, the current trail splits in two. A paved trail connects to the parking lot off Broad Branch Road and a desire line leads to the current crosswalk. DDOT will pave the desire line, connect the two trails and create a new curb ramp at the existing crosswalk across Broad Branch.


Twin trails between Broad Branch and Tilden.

Improved Beach/Blagden/Broad Branch intersection

The double intersection of Beach Drive with Blagden Avenue on one side of Rock Creek and Broad Branch on the other side will be reworked to make it safer for trail users, and to create a better connection to the trail along the south side of Blagden Street.

The new intersection will remove the slip lane from Beach to Blagdon to slow down turning vehicles. Three new crosswalks with curb ramps and new sidewalk on the east side of Beach will connect the RCPT to the trail along Blagden. Another curb ramp will connect the end of the RCPT to Beach.


New Beach Road intersections with Blagden and Broad Branch.

New trail along Piney Branch Parkway

In addition to improving miles of existing trail, DDOT will build about one mile of trail along Piney Branch Parkway. Connecting, via a crosswalk across Beach, to a new section of trail that the FHWA will construct adjacent to Beach Drive, the Piney Branch Trail will climb up to Arkansas Avenue on the north side of Piney Branch Parkway, passing under 16th Street on the way.

Once at Arkansas Avenue, DDOT will extend the trail east to Taylor Street and west to 16th Street.


Piney Branch Trail terminus at Arkansas Avenue.

Klingle Road connection

The current trail spur to Klingle Drive will be removed and a new one will replace it about 10 feet closer to Rock Creek. This will allow DDOT to install two new crosswalks to the sidewalk on the other side of Klingle and use the existing median as a pedestrian refuge. The sidewalk along Klingle will also be improved, connecting to the new FHWA-built section of trail along Beach to the Piney Branch Trail.


Crosswalk to Klingle Road Sidewalk.

As comprehensive as these projects are, and as much of an improvement as they represent, they—and other ongoing or previously completed projects—still don't address all the needs identified in the 1990 Paved Trails report. In fact only one of the four "high priority" projects have been completed. We still need a complete trail between Broad Branch and the Maryland boundary, a re-design of Zoo security "so that the streamside trail can be used 24 hours a day all year", and a trail along Broad Branch (though a plan to install a sidewalk and bike lane is scheduled for construction in 2019).

Since the Klingle Valley Trail is currently underway, there is only one unaddressed medium priority project: using the Lover's Lane path to connect the trail to Massachusetts Avenue.

Finally, the three unaddressed low priority projects are a trail from W Street and 44th to Rock Creek via the Whitehaven Parkway and Dumbarton Oaks Park, rehabilitation of the Oregon Avenue/Bingham Road loop and the addition of a trail along Park Road NW from Beach Road to the Piney Branch Parkway.

Still, this project represents a major step towards the fulfillment of that plan.

History


Check out this DC bike map from 1896

Did you know our region had bike lanes all the way back in 1896? This map shows the best way to get around DC and parts of Maryland and Virginia on two wheels before the start of the 20th Century.


Image from the DC Public Library.

The map is one of 70 that the DC Public Library recently added to its Dig DC collection.

These newly available maps are part of DCPL's ongoing effort to digitize the Washingtonia Map Collection, which includes material from various sources dating back to 1612. So far, the collection on Dig DC includes maps from 1768 through 1900.


Image from the DC Public Library.

According to the note above, the direction and frequency of triangles along paths indicates the slope and incline of hills. If topography is your top concern, this map could still be helpful in choosing your best route: The gentle decline of Bladensburg Road as you travel southward into the city could certainly offset traffic considerations.

It's also interesting to note that certain roads—7th St. NW, Connecticut Ave. NW, Pennsylvania Ave. SE, among others—are as preferable now as they were then. One detail begs the question: was Virginia Avenue SW/SE once a preferred bike route?

What else about this map do you notice?

Bicycling


A safer bike ride through Rock Creek Park is on the way

Later this year, work will begin to reconstruct Beach Drive and parts of the Rock Creek Park Trail. The road will get a lot of work that should mitigate the environmental damage it causes, and the trail—in particular, three spots that consistently give cyclists and pedestrians trouble—will get wider.


A cyclist navigates the National Zoo tunnel under Administration Hill. Photo by Jay Mallin on Flickr.

Headed up by the Federal Highway Administration, the project should take between two and three years. It will focus primarily on Beach Drive, a 6.5 mile long road that runs from the Maryland state line to the Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway, rehabilitating nearly a dozen bridges and rebuilding the roadway and adjacent parking lots.

New pavement markers and centerline rumble strips will also go in, along with new steel-backed timber guardrails and better lights and signs.

To mitigate stormwater runoff, stormwater management elements like bioretention ponds and bioswales will go in at strategic points along the road, and workers will stabilize the creek bank with retaining walls.

In addition, DC Water will take the opportunity to add 16 manhole vaults to the Rock Creek Main Interceptor beneath Beach Drive. This will allow DC Water to rehabilitate the interceptor and Beach Drive sewers at a later date without cutting Beach Drive's newly-added asphalt.

Rock Creek Park Trail is a big part of the project

As part of the road rehabilitation, the project will resurface and widen parts of the Rock Creek Park Trail in the sections closest to Beach Drive.

The main section of the Rock Creek Park Trail is a 5.2 mile stretch from Peter's Point along the Potomac River, just south of the Roosevelt Bridge, to Broad Branch Road, near the Forrest Hills neighborhood. Another 0.7 mile long section starts north of there at the intersection of Joyce and Beach Drive and then follows Beach to Bingham Drive.

The FHWA work will focus on a piece of the main section from Shoreham Drive just south of Connecticut Avenue to Bluff Bridge just south of Tilden Street.

Changes to several problem areas along the trail, which users have long said were dangerous, will be a signature of the project.

The tunnel that runs under the National Zoo's administration building is currently an unappealing option for cyclists and pedestrians because there is little space set aside for them, and what is there is totally unprotected. As of now, it's the only option for getting through the park when the trail section that runs through the zoo is closed.

To make it more appealing, the FHWA will narrow the travel lanes inside the tunnel and widen the sidewalk from two feet to five feet, with a new 21 inch tall crash-worthy railing. "Cyclists Must Dismount" signs will also go up.


FHWA will widen the sidewalk through the Zoo tunnel. Image from US DOT.

Just south of the Zoo tunnel, the trail currently crosses Rock Creek on a notoriously narrow five foot wide sidewalk. The FHWA will build a new 11 foot wide, 140 foot long bridge just upstream from the existing zoo tunnel bridge that will serve as the new trail bridge. The existing sidewalk will also remain.


Rendering of the new trail bridge adjacent to the Zoo bridge. Image from US DOT.

Another trouble spot is where the trail crosses Shoreham Drive, the ramp that runs from Beach Drive to Calvert. There, trail users must cross two lanes of fast moving traffic on a diagonal crosswalk without the aid of a traffic-control device.


Shoreham Drive intersection and trail reconfiguration

Already improved once less than 10 years ago to remove the old dual crosswalk configuration, the crosswalk will be straightened to take the shortest path across the road. The crosswalk will also be widened to 12 feet, and include a pedestrian island. The trail just north of there will also be straightened, and the intersection with the trail along Cathedral Avenue will get separate paths for those going north or south.

The trail is getting work in other places too

The FHWA will pour new asphalt, straighten the trail in several places, and widen it to ten feet in most places, eight in others (it's currently between six and seven feet wide in most places).

The FHWA will also construct a new trail, running from Porter Street to Bluff Bridge and connecting to a 0.8 mile long trail that DDOT plans to build later along Piney Branch Parkway from Beach to Arkansas Avenue. All trails will be designed for speeds of 18 mph (designated speeds for bikes mostly have to do with the turning radius and the amount of space at turns).

Delays and completion time

The project, promised since before the adoption of the Park's General Management Plan in 2006, has been delayed again this year. Last year WABA announced that these projects would start in the fall of 2015 and then in December the Park Service said they would start this spring, but since then the proposal due date has slipped from November 5th to March 29th, putting them a little less than five months behind, with a "no earlier than" date of August 2016.

Bicycling


Low-income residents can now buy cheaper CaBi memberships

If you qualify for need-based services in the District, you can now get a year-long Capital Bikeshare membership for $5 rather than the regular $85 fee. DC's Department of Transportation hopes the initiative will encourage more people to use bikeshare and make transportation more accessible for the District's less affluent residents.


DDOT director Leif Dormsjo announcing the new Capital Bikeshare Community Partners Program. Photo by James Huang.

The new Capital Bikeshare Community Partners Program offers qualifying residents significant savings off the regular annual membership fee, as well as a free helmet and introduction to the system.

In addition to the savings, members in the program will also be able to use a bike for 60 minutes instead of the normal 30 minutes before incurring additional ride fees.

"It is critical that those with the most need are able to travel quickly and economically to and from their appointments, jobs, training and classes," said Leif Dormsjo, director of DDOT, in a statement. "By including need-based Capital Bikeshare annual memberships, we are ensuring that all District residents can use this healthy, affordable and efficient means of travel."

The program works through local non-profit and social service organizations, including Back on My Feet, Community of Hope, the DC Center for the LGBT Community, Unity Healthcare and the Whitman Walker Clinic. Clients who qualify for those organizations' services can qualify for the Community Partners Program.

The program is available now to DC residents, and CaBi hopes to expand it to Alexandria, Arlington County, and Montgomery County in the future.

Removing barriers could mean more riders

The National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) found that paying for an annual membership can be a barrier for lower-income people to using bikeshare systems, in a 2015 report.

The low upfront cost—$5 is less than the cost of three Metrobus trips—will hopefully remove this barrier for low-income residents in DC.

In addition, CaBi's estimates that members saved an average of $710 each in transportation expenses annually in 2014, in its most recent member survey.

NACTO also found that extensive outreach is important to the success of low-income bikeshare membership programs. In 2014, about 18% of the 12,673 members of Boston's Hubway bikeshare system joined through the city's $5 low-income membership program—the highest in the USA—after heavy marketing, according to the report.

A big question for the new program is whether it will expand CaBi's reach to a more diverse group of users. Bikeshare use has grown regularly in recent years, with monthly trips surpassing 360,000 for the first time in 2015, its data shows.

CaBi trips peaked at around 330,000 a month in 2014 and 300,000 in 2013, according to the data.

However, users are "on average, considerably younger, more likely to be male, Caucasian, and slightly less affluent" than commuters in the Washington DC region based on US census data, CaBi's 2014 member survey found.

The new community partners memberships should help shift these demographics. However, more will be need to be done, including marketing the program to those who can benefit from it and expanding CaBi's presence in low-income neighborhoods - there are only 20 docks east of the Anacostia River - to ensure its success.

Public Spaces


Would it be the end of the world if fewer cars could pass through Rock Creek Park? We'll find out soon.

Work to reconstruct a nearly 6.5 mile stretch of Beach Drive, from Rock Creek Parkway to the Maryland line, will start soon. That will mean closing a section of the road that the National Park Service, environmentalists, and cyclists have long wanted to close but that motorists and some neighbors have fought to keep open.


Cyclists enjoy Beach Drive without automobile traffic. Photo by Oblivious Dude on Flickr.

The work, which the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) will oversee, will happen in five phases, with a section of Beach Drive closing for between four and eight months during each phase. The fourth phase will involve the section of Beach that runs from Joyce Road to Broad Branch Road, which officials have considered closing in the past but have not due to strong opposition.

The closures could be a chance for traffic engineers and Park staff to study the impacts of closing parts of Beach Drive to cars.

There was a movement to close Beach Drive in the 60s and 70s

Rock Creek Park has a long history of turning its roads over to cyclists and pedestrians. The first time Beach was limited to bike and pedestrian traffic was in 1966, on the section from Joyce Road to Broad Branch on Sunday mornings only. Over the following years, additional sections of roads eventually closed, and for more of the weekend. There was even an experiment with closing a lane of the Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway north of Virginia Avenue for a week.

Efforts to encourage recreation in Rock Creek Park, and to make it more of a park and less of a commuter route, continued through the 1970s. Pointing to how both Central Park and Prospect Park in New York City had seen success with limiting car traffic, NPS announced in 1983 that it would gradually close the section of Beach from Joyce to Broad Branch.

At first, one lane would be reserved for cyclists and joggers during weekday rush hours, and the lane pointed in the direction of the rush hour commute would stay open to cars. Later, once the Red Line was completed beyond Van Ness, the Park Service planned to place a gate near Boulder Bridge and permanently close the section of Beach from there to Joyce.

Political pressure has pushed against efforts for long-term closures

Three months later, however, under pressure from automobile groups, commuters, and the DC Department of Public Works and Transportation, the Park Service backed off from that plan and decided to keep Beach open. Instead they promised to build a 2.5 mile trail on that section of Beach Drive. Later, due to the constrained geography of the area and the objection of the National Parks and Conservation Association, the plans for the trail fell through altogether.

In 1988, a FHWA report concluded that Beach Drive was getting more traffic than it could handle. Since expanding the road wasn't an option, FHWA recommended adding tolls, instituting HOV requirements, or permanently closing all or part of Beach Drive.

The report, along with the limited impact of a 10-week closure of the Zoo Tunnel in 1990, emboldened both activists and the Park Service to again look at further limiting automobile traffic in the park.

The process of writing Rock Creek Park's General Management Plan (GMP), which lasted from 1996 to 2006, turned into a showdown between the People's Alliance for Rock Creek Park (PARC), a coalition of environmental and cycling advocacy organizations in support of closing Beach Drive, and a less-organized coalition of Maryland commuters, Park neighbors, and motorist organizations, like AAA.

The fight over how to use Beach Drive left it open for cars

Several possibilities for closing Beach Drive received consideration, and advocates for limiting automobile traffic finally settled on a compromise to close only the section between Joyce and Broad Branch—the same section as in 1983, where no trail exists and where Ross Drive is an alternative—in the time between rush hours.

But in 2005, the Park Service, again facing opposition from commuters, automobile advocates, and political leaders like Maryland's congressional delegation, Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the majority of the DC Council (Phil Mendelson, Jack Evans and Harold Brazil, all who had supported the closures) and others, chose a different option that was close to the status quo: leave the road open during the entire weekday.

Despite a 2004 traffic study that found midday limits on Beach Drive between Broad Branch and Joyce would have "minimal impact" on travel times and on nearby streets, especially if drivers were encouraged to use Ross Drive and Glover Road, one of the main concerns of the GMP was spillover traffic.

In fact, all of the letters from members of Congress were about the closures, ignoring all other aspects about the GMP. They questioned the utility of the closures, criticized the methodology of the traffic study, expressed fear that diverting traffic onto other roads would be unsafe and inefficient, and promised to find money for a trail in this section.

DC Councilmember Carol Schwartz, for example, feared that closing any part of Beach Drive at any time during the week would have "severe" impacts on Cleveland Park, Crestwood and Mount Pleasant.

Another concern, brought up by Maryland Representative Chris Van Hollen, was that closing this section to through traffic would limit access for those with disabilities. NPS pointed out that "all park facilities, such as picnic areas, parking lots, historical features, and trails, would continue to be available to visitors traveling by automobile. The only limitation would be on driving the length of Beach Drive between these facilities."

Instead of midday closures, NPS proposed a lower speed limit in this section, down to 20 mph, increased enforcement, and speed bumps or speed tables. But to date, none of those things have actually happened.

NPS also promised to improve the existing trail south of Broad Branch—a process which is, finally, nearly underway—and study expanding the trail north of Broad Branch to Joyce. The upcoming projects will not build a trail north of Broad Branch, nor are there any plans to ever do so. It's not clear that there was ever money to study the trail in that segment or if a study was performed.


Beach Drive Closure similar to 1983 and 2005 proposals

Upcoming work is a chance to test some of these hypotheses

Phase four of the Beach Drive rehabilitation project involves the closure of the very section of Beach Drive, Joyce to Broad Branch, that faced opposition in 1983 and 2005. Will the impact of such closures—during the midday, not rush hour—be "minimal," as the Park Service concluded, or will it be "severe?" Will neighborhood roads be filled with traffic? Will safety be compromised? Will travel times dramatically increase? Will those with disabilities stay away from the park? And what are the impacts during rush hours?

We'll now get a chance to study these things in a much more robust way—during a real-world experiment, which is exactly what Norton, Van Hollen, Mikulski and others asked for.

Unfortunately, since the road won't be open for non-automobile traffic, we won't be able to determine to what extent its closure would increase recreational use.

With phase four still more than a year away, now is the time for DDOT and FHWA to put a plan to study the impacts into place. There is still no trail on the section of Beach Road between Broad Branch and Joyce. Perhaps such a study will show something two reports have already shown: limiting this section to non-automobile use, for part of the day or permanently, is not that big of a deal.

Bicycling


In DC's West End, construction projects are endangering cyclists and pedestrians

In DC's West End, portions of the bikeways on L and M Streets, along with the adjacent sidewalks, are closed because of construction projects. The detours are confusing, and the result is that people on both bikes and foot are sharing narrow, unsafe spaces.


Pedestrians are supposed to use the barricaded space that's usually a bike lane along the 2300 block of L street. There isn't any bike space right now. All photos by the author.

On M Street, two separate segments of the sidewalk and protected bikeway are closed. The reason for closing the first segment, located along the 2200 block, is construction for a new fire station and apartments. The second segment, located along the 2500 block, is closed for a project that's converting a former office building into luxury condominiums.

On L Street, the sidewalk and bike lane are closed along the 2300 block for construction for a new mixed-use development that will include a public library, retail, and luxury condominiums. Note that L Street's bike lane doesn't become a protected bikeway until one block later, east of New Hampshire Avenue.

In all three locations, physical barriers separate bike and foot traffic from car traffic.


Image from Google Maps.

The detours aren't very effective

As cyclists and pedestrians approach the M Street construction sites from the east, traffic signs warn that the bike lane will be shifting to the left and that the sidewalk is closing. There are instructions for pedestrians to cross to the south side of the street, where the sidewalk remains open. But with a barricaded path that seems safe right in front of them, a lot of people just proceed through it, similar to what's currently happening at 15th and L Streets NW.

Blind spots amplify this problem, with tall barriers and sharp adjustments to the barricaded path drastically limiting visibility. This is especially dangerous in the scenario where the paths of a pedestrian heading east and a cyclist heading west converge.


Tall barrier walls and sharp curves along the barricaded path on the 2300 block of M Street create dangerous blind spots for cyclists and pedestrians.

Along L Street, there are signs directing pedestrians to use the barricaded space, and there is no space clearly designated for cyclists. Many cyclists end up proceeding through the space since there is nowhere else to go and the visual cues are contradictory (hard-to-see signs and a painted bike lane remain visible).

As you can see in the pictures, the barricaded spaces at the construction sites are extremely narrow. There is not enough space provided to allow for cyclists and pedestrians to safely pass each other. The traffic barriers take up significant pedestrian and bicycle real estate, and the fences are anchored by large cinder blocks that invade the already small space.

There's another option: Close a lane of car traffic

The way construction is set up on the 2500 block of M Street is especially questionable. The stretch includes three lanes of vehicle traffic (in addition to parking on each side, as well as the protected bike lane), but all three vehicle lanes have remained open despite the construction.

Given that this portion of M Street feeds directly into the heart of Georgetown, it sees heavy bike and pedestrian traffic. It would not be unreasonable to close a lane of car traffic along this particularly wide segment of the street to ensure a safe amount of space for everyone.


Cyclists traveling west along the 2500 block of M Street are forced to share lanes with vehicle traffic, as pedestrians walk through the space designated for bikes. Directing pedestrians to cross the street clearly is not a viable solution.

The West End is one of the most walkable and bikeable neighborhoods in DC, but too often, walking and biking are the first to be compromised when it comes to making space for construction. Giving equal priority to all modes of transportation would help keep everyone safe.

Transit


Here's a closer look at what's in store for Union Station

Plans for renovating and rebuilding parts of Union Station are well underway, the aim being to better connect train, bus, pedestrian, bicycle, and vehicle traffic to accommodate a surge in ridership over the next 25 years and beyond. On Wednesday, the public got a closer look at some of the possibilities.


Photo by David Jones on Flickr.

Union Station houses DC's busiest Metro station, is the hub for both of the region's commuter rail systems, MARC and VRE, and is both the second-busiest intercity train station in the country and the second-busiest station in Amtrak's system. In anticipation of rising demand, planning started last year for a $10 billion, four-year expansion project that could triple station capacity.

Several hundred people attended a Wednesday night meeting to hear what the Federal Railroad Administration, which owns Union Station, has in mind for the overhaul. While plans for expanding the area where passengers wait to board trains surfaced Wednesday morning, this meeting was about telling the public about the need for renovating and rebuilding virtually the entire complex, from parking areas, bus terminals, taxi stands, and train platforms to the original station building and the space above the tracks just north of the station.


Image from the Federal Railroad Administration.

With Union Station being in its 109th year of service, some of the project's literature refers to the project as the "Second Century Plan."

Here are some of the functional features the project team said it's looking to bring to Union Station:

  • A more efficient way for taxis and car services (including ridesharing programs) to pick up and drop off passengers. Taxi drivers typically have a 30-45 minute wait in the taxi queue at the station today.

  • A more bike-friendly environment. There's currently too little capacity for both bicycle parking and bike sharing to meet even current demand.

  • Wider train platforms, as the ones there now aren't compliant with ADA standards, and also do not meet standards for an emergency evacuation. Widening the platforms will actually mean a decrease in the number of tracks at the station, from 20 to 19. But planners also emphasized that intercity rail capacity will increase because the platforms will be significantly longer-- nearly a quarter mile in some cases.

  • Larger, more open concourses that can handle the expected tripling of passenger demand by 2040.

  • A safer bus terminal, where there's less of a chance that people and buses will need to use the same space. Also, a more visually appealing bus terminal.

  • A complex that meshes well with the H Street Bridge, which will be rebuilt in the next several years.

Architecture, parking, and air space

One thing the FRA is putting significant emphasis on is the aesthetic appeal of the new station. The current building is on both the National and Washington DC Register of Historical Places, and its key features, such as the great hall, will remain unchanged. Presenter Paul Moyer reviewed examples of other stations around the world that are both functional and attractive, to use as an example.

While demand is maxing out for just about every mode of transportation that passes through Union Station, there's one mode where it's not: driving. Usually, only 70-90% of the parking spaces Union Station's garage are full at peak times, and nearly a quarter of those are leased out on a monthly basis, meaning they're likely used by workers in surrounding offices not directly tied to the station.

Rather than increasing the number of parking spaces, the planners are simply looking to make a more visually appealing parking facility. An architecturally renowned garage in Miami was cited as a possible inspiration.


Image from the Federal Railroad Administration.

Also, having empty railyard just blocks from the US Capitol is not the most economically stimulating use of space. Therefore, the air rights over the tracks were sold to Akridge, who will develop a project called Burnham Place, a mix of offices, retail, hotel, and residential that will sit above the tracks. Because the air rights begin at the current height of the H Street Bridge, designers will not be limited to a claustrophobic experience like what travelers experience at New York's Penn Station.

As you can see in the graphic above, the Federal Railroad Administration (and the Union Station Redevelopment Corporation), Amtrak, Akridge, DDOT, WMATA, and the National Park Service all own different portions of the affected site, and will need to sign off on the plan, as will various historical review boards and federal interests.

Community engagement

While at least some of what was presented is very likely to happen, nothing is a done deal yet. The official purpose of the meeting was to solicit input from the community before developing formal proposals.


Image from the Federal Railroad Administration.

Community members were shown a scale map of the study area (roughly, the current station footprint, including the parking garage, plus the tracks as far north as L Street), and asked to place cardboard templates representing possible concourses, bus terminals, and other features in various places on the map, to gather feedback on possibilities.


Photo by the author.

The strongest sentiments at both this meeting and the last one, which was in December, were about how the Union Station project will affect surrounding neighborhoods.

The business community is looking for better intermodal connections (between Metro, Amtrak, bus, and streetcar), and local residents is looking for better connections to the neighborhood itself, such as through the long neglected entrance off of H Street, and to have many of the nearby Metrobus routes actually stop at the station, rather than blocks away.

Because the projects are dependent on one another, both local residents and the business community asked that the required environmental reviews for Burnham Place and the rest of Union Station will be done at the same time. This is not guaranteed, because the process for each project is different.

If you would like to view the presentation from the FRA, it is posted here, and comments are still being accepted on the site. The next public meeting, where project alternatives will be presented, is scheduled for this summer. Once the project is approved, construction is expected to last about four years.

Bicycling


Check out the final design for connecting two Bethesda trails

A connector trail between the Little Falls Trail and the Capitol Crescent Trail now has a final design. It makes for a longer connection than one of the other options, but it's also safer, cheaper, and will have less environmental impact.


The route Montgomery's planning department is recommending for connecting the two trails.

Right now, the only route between the two trails is through the parking lot of the Bethesda Outdoor Pool. The hard surface trail will run along the south side of Hillandale Road, then along the east side of Little Falls Parkway.

The connector trail will have at-grade crossings at Hillandale Road and one of the pool parking lot's entrances. It will be 860 feet long, and the cost is estimated at $408,000.

The Montgomery County Planning Board recommended this trail over another option, a boardwalk that would have been a more direct connection and would have avoided entrances to the pool, but that also would have cost $200,000 more.

The design process initially included three total options, all coming as results of a trail alignment study. Those options were two shorter routes on the north side of the pool and a longer one, similar to what the planning board chose but with the crossing of Hillendale at the north side of the pool.


Trail Alignment Study Options

Based on community input, especially from the Little Falls Watershed Alliance (LFWA) which proposed the recommended option, these options were refined to two: what's now being proceeded with, and the boardwalk.

The boardwalk would have been 525 feet long, on piers with a concrete deck and a section of concrete paving and stairs. It would have made for a shorter and more scenic trip between the two trails, with fewer places where bikes and cars would have had to share the road. But it also would have cost $617,000 and required construction in the Willett Branch stream buffer and removal of several trees including a 22-foot pine tree.

The planning board recommended the hard surface trail because it will cost less, doesn't run through the woods, and will have less of an environment impact (it will also require construction in the Willett Branch stream buffer, but would only impact, not remove, seven trees, all under 12 feet tall).

Leading up to the decision, the LFWA, Coalition for the Capital Crescent Trail (CCCT) and Kenwood Forest II Condo Association all supported the hard surface trail over the boardwalk and no-build options. The CCCT opposed the boardwalk, primarily out of a concern for safety. The CCCT believes that the safest place to connect to the Capital Crescent Trail is at the intersection with Little Falls Parkway, where traffic is already slowed down, not farther north where cyclists are up to speed.

Meanwhile, three local residents, including at least one daily bike commuter, supported the boardwalk and another supported the boardwalk and Option C from the original trail alignments. In addition, six individuals, the Chevy Chase West Neighborhood Association, and about 100 signatories to a petition were against building anything altogether, finding the project to be too costly and environmentally damaging.

The connector trail currently has no funding, and there are no immediate plans to begin construction.

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