Will Baker make Prince George’s safe for walking and biking?

The new administration of Prince George’s Rushern Baker sent conflicting signals last week about its approach to bicycle and pedestrian safety. Baker endorsed the great work from a few officials on biking and walking, but his transition report recommends shifting their responsibilities to another agency that has repeatedly disregarded bicycling and walking.

In Prince George’s County, two very different agencies handle transportation issues. Most trails are managed by the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC), a state-chartered bi-county agency with independent taxing authority. M-NCPPC is also responsible for planning and permits for new subdivisions, including neighborhood roads, trails, and sidewalks.

But once the roads are built, they are operated by the Department of Public Works and Transportation (DPW&T), which is part of the Prince George’s County government. (To further complicate the picture, major roads such as US-1 and Pennsylvania Avenue are managed by the Maryland State Highway Administration.)

When it comes to bicycle and pedestrian issues, M-NCPPC and DPW&T are as different as night and day. “Bicycling and walking are the foundation of the county’s transportation network, because no one parks a car in their living room,” said Eric Foster, head of M-NCPPC’s transportation planning section.

M-NCPPC requires new developments to include trails, sidewalks, and complete streets. The county master plan has a comprehensive network of bike routes similar to those in Arlington and Montgomery counties.

But DPW&T has not made bicycling or walking part of its core mission. DPW&T views the bike routes in the master plan as future bike routes if and when the road is widened, not as the network people should be using now.

Last fall, I suggested some signs and pavement markings to make biking safer alongChurch Road in Glenn Dale. M-NCPPC endorsed the request because it is an official bike route. But DPW&T declined because “by placing sharrows on the road, we would be endorsing riding a bike on Church Road.”

Oxon Hill Road connects the $60 million Woodrow Wilson Bridge Trail to points south along the Potomac River. This road is potentially the gateway for thousands of bicycle day trippers from Virginia and the District. DPW&T agrees that this road should eventually have a bike lane.

Members of the county Bicycle and Trail Advisory Group suggested that during the planned repavement, DPW&T should post signs warning motorists that cyclists are using the full lane. The traffic office representative replied “we hope that people will not ride bicycles on Oxon Hill Road while it is being repaved.”

Bringing DPW&T into the 21st century has long been a goal of county cycling advocates.

In a recent letter to County Executive Baker which I helped write, the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA) pointed out that other metro-area jurisdictions “each have full-time staff in their transportation departments explicitly tasked with improving cycling and walking; but Prince George’s does not.”

WABA recommended that Mr. Baker “create a full-time bicycle and pedestrian coordinator position within the county government, direct DPW&T to make bicycling and walking a priority using professional best practices, and develop a bicycle-pedestrian plan with specific milestones to be implemented in the next 4 to 8 years.”

In his response, Rushern Baker generally agreed with WABA’s goals, though not necessarily about the specific recommendations:

I also share your belief that walking and biking is beneficial for the environ­ment by getting cars off the road, as well as in addressing the physical well-being of individuals. … I very much share your goals for looking to the transit oriented redevelopment model for creating a more vibrant, sustainable model for the County that emphasizes strong pedestrian and bicycle connections. … I intend to work with our County agencies and specifically DPW&T.

Mr. Baker also endorsed the longstanding partnerships, in particular the Bicycle and Trails Advisory Committee headed by Eric Foster and Trails Coordinator Fred Shaffer, both of M-NCPPC. He added:

While your concern about staffing is well-taken, and that planning and implementation serve two different functions, it is important to note that allotted staff resources also include Daniel Janousek, a senior planner with M-NCPPC, who is dedicated to bicycle and pedestrian activities. DPW&T staff coordinates regularly with M-NCPPC on the implementation of plans and how to best fulfill walkable and bikable communities.

Mr. Baker’s letter had about all WABA could have realistically expected: an affirmation that he wants to make the county more bikeable and walkable; a hint that he recognizes the need for implementation staff; and a pretty strong commitment to use the existing staff expertise as effectively as possible to move the county forward.

But the transition team report had a very different message. Released March 11, 2011, its report looked very broadly on what is needed to improve county government. But it also included some extremely detailed revisions to transportation planning.

It proposed to shift virtually all of the work by Daniel Janousek and Fred Shaffer from Eric Foster’s transportation planning section at M-NCPPC to DPW&T, as well as the review of both the design and need for transportation projects. The transition team added:

Trails coordination is also an important transportation function, part of the overall network as there is constant conflict between DPW&T and Park & Planning for the size and location of a trail along the side of a road. This review authority should also be moved to DPW&T.

Thus in a single week, the County Executive said that the county has a great team that will be energized to do great things. But his transition team said that the county’s trails program is so dysfunctional that it needs to be shifted from an organization with the required expertise (M-NCPPC) to an organization with little demonstrated interest or capacity (DPW&T).

Is this an ill-considered proposal to gut the only program in the county truly working toward complete streets? Or did the transition team simply assume that once the policy decisions are made, DPW&T will be provided funding to hire a world-class team of people to carry out the mission? The two documents we saw this month were presumably drafted by staff with different experiences and perspectives, but not necessarily different goals.

Mr. Baker seems to be articulating the right vision and the right goals. Creating a county government that can carry out those goals may require some re-organization. But dismantling what works is probably not the best place to start.

(Cross-posted on Greater Greater Washington.  The author, Jim Titus, is a Member of the WABA Board of Directors and resident of Prince George’s County, MD.)