Will the Rock Creek Trail Be Repaved Soon?

Bike up and downWe’re consistently asked by WABA members and community members when the Rock Creek Park trail will be repaved. The trail is a very popular, multi-use path in Rock Creek National Park that winds north from Georgetown into the park and connects to Beach Drive (which, on weekends, is closed to cars). It’s well-liked by runners, dog walkers, families, and bicyclists, but desperately in need of repair.

The current condition of the trail is rough, rooted, uneven, and too narrow for daily use. A ride on the trail is a bumpy one, due to tree roots cracking the asphalt. The edges of the trail have deteriorated, due to years of unattended grass and weed overgrowth. This has also reduced the usable width of the trail, which was insufficient to begin with: It was originally to be eight feet wide. In addition to the decline of the paved surface, the trail was built with 90-degree turns approaching bridges and a narrow sidewalk on the bridge near the tunnel. When the National Zoo closes its gates, trail users are forced to use the three-foot sidewalk in the tunnel. Many cyclists have chosen alternate routes because the condition of the Rock Creek Park trail has declined.

Plans to rehabilitate the trail have been in the plans since the late 1980s. Federal recreational trail funding  for design and construction was established over 10 years ago. And the federal environmental assessment planning process has been ongoing for over seven years. So why don’t we have a finished trail?

During the initial planning and scoping for the project, talks between the District Department of Transportation and the National Park Service stalled over a core issue: trail width. DDOT, as the agency funding and constructing the trail, wanted the trail to be 10 feet wide. Rock Creek Park, as the agency with jurisdictional control and administrative authority over the land, rejected widening the trail for its entire length, citing negative impacts to the environment. The negotiations stalled for years.

After much intervention from WABA and the community, NPS and DDOT compromised to widen most of the trail to 10 feet, except for a few pinch points where the eight-foot width would remain. With middle ground reached, the environmental assessment process restarted. A draft EA was released in December 2011 with a 30-day period for public comment.

Under the draft environmental assessment (download the draft here), DDOT would completely repave the entire asphalt surface of the trail and new access trail spurs. The paving would take place on a 3.7-mile segment of the Rock Creek Park multi-use trail from Broad Branch Road to P Street NW; a 0.8 mile segment of the Piney Branch Parkway trail from Beach Drive to Arkansas Avenue NW; a 0.2 mile segment of social trail from Broad Branch Road to Peirce Mill (referred to as the Peirce Mill trail spur); and a 0.5 mile segment of the Rose Park trail from P Street NW to M Street NW. Also incorporated into the EA is construction of a new, wider bridge parallel to the car bridge that crosses Rock Creek immediately south of the zoo tunnel, and a reconfiguration of the tunnel to allow for a six-foot-wide sidewalk for use during hours that the zoo gate is closed.

With no outward progress on the environmental assessment, and therefore a slowing the implementation phases of design and construction, WABA requested a meeting with Rock Creek National Park Superintendent Tara Morrison and DDOT to discuss the current status and next steps to finishing this project. Currently, DDOT is completing the final EA, which will be released to the public in the late summer/early fall. Following the EA, Rock Creek National Park must issue the decision document called a “Finding of No Significant Impact” (FONSI—best acronym ever) for the project to move forward.

Superintendent Morrison and her staff expect the FONSI to be finished by the year’s end. Operating in parallel, DDOT has the trail project at 30 percent design but cannot get to a 100 percent complete design until the FONSI is released. In the bike/ped program’s obligation plan for federal transportation funding, DDOT has obligated to design and construction funds for fiscal year 2014/2015. DDOT is considering hiring a consultant under a design/build contract for this project, which would increase delivery but limit public input during the individual phases—especially between the design and construction phases.

WABA would like to thank DDOT and Rock Creek National Park for meeting with us and for their commitment to finishing this very important rehabilitation. We expect the two agencies to work quickly, efficiently, and effectively to deliver a completed project on time or early. The region has seen a recent renaissance of bicycling for transportation and demands on the infrastructure that support it need urgent attention to sustain that growth.