What’s the Best Thing to Do With the Met Branch Trail? Finish It.

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The Metropolitan Branch Trail’s primary safety concern was highlighted in a recent WAMU story: It’s not finished. The trail is often described by local news outlets as an 8-mile multi-use trail that runs from Union Station to Silver Spring. But that’s not what it is at all. The MBT is a proposed 8-mile trail that follows the path of Metro’s Red line from D.C. to Maryland. Some trail sections are completed, and an on-road bicycle route connectsthe off-road segments. The MBT has been a long time coming. The concept for a rail-with-trail multi-use trail and greenway paralleling CSX rails and Metro’s Red line was the idea of WABA member and planner Pat Hare in 1988. He and other residents formed the Coalition for the Met Branch Trail in 1990. WABA began advocating for the trail soon after the formation of the coalition to help build support for the project. In 1999, WABA published a concept plan that outlined possible alignments, neighborhood resources, economic development and transportation benefits, potential funding sources, and coordinating agencies. In the years since WABA published the concept plan, there has been progress towards a full trail. A 1.2-mile section of wide sidewalk trail was opened along Bates Drive near Catholic University, the city of Takoma Park its section, and short segments were built near Union Station. The longest continuous segment to date opened in 2010. That 2.2 miles of multi-use trail is between M Strett NE and Franklin Street NE. In the past three years, there has been no construction of any segment of the Met Branch Trail in the public right-of-way. A short and important section is under construction now; it’s part of Bozzuto’s Monroe Street Market project near the Brookland Metro Station. DDOT has not built any part of the MBT since 2010. In 2012, DDOT counted  at least 15,000 trail users per month. The MBT’s complementary trail to the west, the Capital Crescent Trail, has about 100,000 uses per month. The Capital Crescent Trail is a finished trail and the MBT is not. Personal safety has been a concern since the MBT’s last section opened, and complete trail will drastically improve safety for trail users by increasing the overall trail usage. The final major segment of trail in D.C. would be 2.75 miles in length and continue north from the Bates Drive trail section to the Maryland border in Takoma Park. This is a complicated project, especially the section around the Fort Totten Metro station. At least five different parties—CSX, a private concrete plant, WMATA, D.C., and the National Park Service—own land in that section. Additionally, the elevation change there will require considerable engineering to create a route that weaves around the Metro tunnel portal. But such a route is necessary, because the on-road alternative is daunting and steep; few bicyclists use it currently. That section of trail will also include a short piece connecting to the Anacostia Tributary Trail system. DDOT completed an environmental assessment in 2011 for the northern section of the MBT. The EA outlines a range of alternatives for trail alignments and discusses the environmental impacts of each, including a no-build option. Read the EA here. Following DDOT’s EA, the National Park Service issued a required decision called a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) in September 2011. Read the FONSI document here. The FONSI chooses the preferred alternative and gives the go-ahead to begin design and construction. It’s almost two years after NPS issued the FONSI. Where’s our trail? We at WABA have been frustrated with the lack of progress on many of the District’s major trail projects recently; read our recent blog post about the Rock Creek multi-use trail. We’ve explained how one of the underlying issues regarding the completion of the MBT is DDOT’s internal structure and the process through which bicycle and pedestrian projects are implemented. Also contributing the slow development of the MBT is the involvement of multiple public agencies, both local and federal. As longtime advocates of the MBT, WABA recently called a meeting with DDOT and Rock Creek National Park to establish what’s preventing the beginning of further progress on the trail. DDOT and Rock Creek National Park officials have two pieces of legal agreements and permits to complete before design and construction can start. A memorandum of understanding regarding the trail’s design-review process, maintenance, and operation is still not finished. Also, NPS needs to issue a special-use permit for access to Rock Creek Park for construction activities. Both agreements should be finalized in the next few months after lawyers from both agencies give their approval. DDOT has funding obligated for fiscal year 2013/2014 and construction funds for fiscal year 2015/16. To improve personal safety for trail users, fill a major gap in the bicycling network on the city’s east side, and provide an excellent location for recreation and fitness, the Met Branch Trail must be finished as soon as possible. WABA would like to thank Rock Creek Park Superintendent Tara Morrison and DDOT for meeting with us and making moves to bring the Met Branch Trail to completion. Sign up to receive updates from WABA about the Met Branch Trail.