More than two years after its southern segment opened, bicycling advocates are asking District and Maryland transportation officials why there has been no progress extending the 8-mile Metropolitan Branch Trail (MBT) that is supposed to run between Union Station and Silver Spring, Md.
The southern segment is a completed, off-road bicycle path running straight north from Union Station through Northeast Washington to the Brookland neighborhood, but the remaining three segments are a combination of off-road and “interim routes” that force cyclists to leave the path and crowd onto city streets.
“In a couple of places it actually goes up relatively steep hills. In one place it goes against traffic,” says Shane Farthing, the executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association. The group is urging the District Department of Transportation to begin work on the northernmost segment inside the district, from Riggs Road to the Montgomery County line.
“We’d like to see DDOT pushing harder on that,” Farthing says.
But starting work on the MBT’s center segment in D.C. is more complicated: there are outstanding land-use issues that have to be resolved by the National Park Service, DC's transit agency (WMATA), and the DDOT concerning federal property around Fort Totten, where the proposed trail makes a sharp left turn in the vicinity of a trash transfer station. That is where bicyclists face the thorniest part of their ride as two-way bicycling traffic has to squeeze into one of the “interim trails,” a one-way street for cars.
“For kids and novice cyclists who might want to try this connection, I do think where you are sent into oncoming traffic it is intimidating,” says Farthing, who gave an interview at the noisy intersection of Fort Totten Drive NE and Gallatin Street NE.
“All of the area around Fort Totten is National Park Service land, and there are certain agreements that WMATA has with rights of use to get the Red Line through. So they have to make sure (that) all those different legal agreements on land use work together to allow for the trail access,” he added.
The partial completion of the MBT is not stopping bicyclists from using it as part of their daily commutes or for recreation. There were 11,503 trips on the MBT last year, a nearly three-fold increase from 2010, according to DDOT figures.
Sam Zimbabwe, DDOT’s associate director for policy, planning, and sustainability, said funding and land use issues have delayed progress.
“Some of what we face is a challenge of resources and dealing with multiple trail projects moving forward at the same time,” he says, adding that the Fort Totten area “is probably one of the most challenging sections of the trail in terms of dealing with competing needs of the right of way.”
Zinbabwe countered criticism that the DDOT isn't prioritizing the project.
“We don’t feel that we are [idle]. I think that we continue to try to move it forward,” he says. Although Farthing says he believes the entire bike trail could be finished in two to three years, Zimbabwe called that goal “optimistic.”
In Montgomery County, where the proposed trail would end at Silver Spring, there are also outstanding conflicts concerning land use.
The group Montgomery Preservation Inc. is unhappy with a plan to run the trail between its building that houses a B&O Railroad museum and Metro’s Red Line tracks. The plan also calls for building a bicycling bridge over Georgia Avenue that would block views of the historic railroad bridge. The MBT is part of the county’s master plan and the Montgomery County Council has approved funding.
“The county council, county executive, and bicycling community are all interested in completing the design and construction and opening up this important part of this heavily used trail,” says Bruce Johnston, the chief of MCDOT’s division of transportation engineering.
Although frustrated by the slow progress, Farthing looks forward to a day when commuters can ride their bicycles all the way from Silver Spring to Union Station without squeezing past moving vehicle traffic.
“The ability to take your bike on and off Metro, the ability to mix it with bike share, we’ve got a lot of different ways that you can integrate biking into daily life, but it is important to have the trail so the people can do it safely and easily,” Farthing says.