Planning to Extend the WB&A Trail in Both Directions

WABA is urging Prince Georges County to continue with plans to connect the Anacostia River Tributary Trails with the Washington, Baltimore, and Annapolis Trail. At the annual budget hearing last week, WABA board member Jim Titus urged the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC) to authorize $45,000 this year to extend the WB&A trail about 2 miles westward across US-50 and the Capital Beltway. (See map).

The WB&A Trail follows the right of way of the old WB&A railroad from the Patuxent River in Bowie to MD-450 in Lanham. MD-704 has been built along the right of way from about that point to the DC line. Many people who use the WB&A Trail would like to continue along MD-704, but doing to can be hazardous because the speed of traffic is typically 55-60 mph, and there is no shoulder along MD-704 until one crosses to the other side of US-50.

Extending the WB&A across US-50 and the Capital Beltway would immediately improve the usefulness of the trail because the Beltway is often a serious barrier to mobility. It would also provide a route to the New Carrollton Metro. On the broader scale, extending the WB&A across the Beltway is a key step toward the eventual goal of a trail between the WB&A and the Anacostia River.

Last year, Councilman Eric Olson persuaded M-NCPPC to commission a design study on how to connect the WB&A to the Anacostia River Trail. More than $125,000 was set aside for the study, whose scope of work included the following task:

Identify appropriate long-term improvements necessary for a safe and attractive bicycle and pedestrian connection(s) linking the Anacostia Trail Network with the WB&A Trail. This portion of the study should address the “big picture” of how we ultimately want to connect the Anacostia Tributaries Trails Network with the WB&A Trail over the long term. This route(s) may serve as the alignment for the East Coast Greenway and the America Discovery Trail within Prince George’s County, as well as serving as a critical east-west connection in the countywide trails network.

The winning contractor’s bid was for less than half the money—but in the end, the contractor only did half the job. The study designed a trail from the Anacostia River to New Carrollton, but not the “safe and attractive connection” between New Carrollton and the WB&A Trail. We are hoping that M-NCPPC will now complete the study—possibly using the funds that were left over from last year.

M-NCPPC’s decision to focus on the inner portion of the Anacostia to WB&A corridor is understandable, given the County’s need for safe bike routes into the District of Columbia. Yet the near-term opportunities from extending the WB&A may be just as great. This two-mile extension would probably be built by the State Highway Administration (SHA) because it will follow MD-704. It is already the county’s top bike-ped request to SHA. While SHA’s budget is down, it has not declined to the same extent as M-NCPPC‘s budget, which relies on the property tax in a county where assessment are down 40%. So this is an opportunity to leverage scarce resources to accomplish something big.

We are mindful that many of our members are especially interested in extending the WB&A Trail east into Anne Arundel County, where a 4-mile segment to Odenton has been built. Officials hope to eventually build a trail along the right of way of the WB&A’s South Shore line from Odenton to Annapolis. For the last decade the planned trail crossing over the Patuxent River has been on hold because the owners of the right of way on the Anne Arundel side of the river oppose the trail. (We offer our condolences to the family of Buz Meyer, the most prominent foe of the trail, a devoted naturalist, and community-minded environmental educator and gun safety instructor, who died last month.) Although Anne Arundel County and a developer own the land immediately next to the right of way, the County has chosen not to pursue a trail next to the right of way, for reasons it has not stated publicly. (County officials did make off-the-record statements about their thinking; but it is unclear whether those reasons are still relevant today.)

County officials have instead pursued a detour that would cross the Patuxent River about ½ mile northwest of where the trail currently reaches the river on the Maryland side. The Maryland State Highway Administration and M-NCPPC are cooperating with Anne Arundel on the detour crossing.

Rail trails almost always follow the old railroad right of way as closely as possible, unless there are unusually compelling reasons for a significant detour. Such reasons may exist in this case, but so far they have not been articulated to the public.

WABA is unlikely to play a leading role in the extension of the WB&A Trail eastward from Bowie to Odenton and beyond. Our area of advocacy includes Prince Georges County, but not Anne Arundel County. Nevertheless, we are concerned that the long-established plans of Prince George County and the City of Bowie for the trail to cross the Patuxent near the old railroad bed may be cast aside for an inferior detour, without a serious effort by local governments or the State of Maryland to engage cycling organizations in a dialogue about the alternative routes and potential costs and benefits of each option. We hope that the voices of bicycling advocates statewide, including groups like like Bike Maryland, the Maryland Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee, and the Prince Georges Bicycle and Trail advisory Committee, will all be consulted before the state or M-NCPPC takes significant steps to move the trail’s crossing away from the railroad right of way.