Photo by TrailVoice on Flickr.

The Metropolitan Branch Trail has been gradually becoming a reality, but now its future is threatened at both ends: in the north from the Montgomery County Executive’s short-sighted budget decisions, in the south by the District’s laissez-faire protection of trail users.

Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett wants to eliminate funding to complete the trail for 6 years, which would ensure the trail serves far fewer communities and draws fewer users than it should. The lower activity resulting from the incompleteness of this trail makes it less safe, and DC has not done enough to protect trail users from crime.

The Capital Crescent Trail, between Bethesda and Georgetown, is the nation’s most used rail trail with over 1 million trips annually. Bicycle commuters make many of those trips, and each represent one fewer car on the road or passenger on one of the Metro’s most crowded lines. The Metropolitan Branch Trail (MBT) does not yet fully exist, but when complete, it will be a similarly critical recreational amenity and transportation connection between Silver Spring’s transit center and the District’s Union Station.

Trail advocates, neighbors, and the governments of DC and Montgomery County have vetted plans and agreed to a common vision for a continuous, safe, off-road trail connecting multi-modal transportation hubs in Silver Spring and the District.

But this year, the Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett’s budget cuts all construction funding for the MBT for the next 6 years. This breaks the county’s promises to complete the trail.

Empty words don’t define a county’s priorities. Budgetary commitments do. The County Council must ensure that the county respects the community’s efforts to reach this shared vision by restoring the funding for the trail.

Meanwhile, the District’s portion of the trail faces its own challenges. DC rightly pushed ahead to build the southern portion of the trail on its own. The existing segment from Monroe Street to M Street is a gem. However, until it connects all the way to Silver Spring, the trail won’t draw as many riders as it promises.

Without that activity, the trail remains somewhat isolated and needs police attention to maintain safety. Police officials have periodically told trail advocates and neighbors that they are increasing patrols, but this commitment remains reactive and inconsistent.

Several community groups have worked diligently to bring more activity to the trail. Groups like the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, Rails to Trails Conservancy, and Kidical Mass have run programming on or near it to keep eyes on the trail. But special events only do so much.

Two weeks ago, a trail user was mugged and shot. But I have seen no increased police presence nor heard any new communication on trail safety, either to in my professional capacity as executive director of the region’s largest association of bicyclists or in my personal capacity as a trail neighbor. Last week, I was trailside for nearly 6 hours over 2 days giving out bike lights and trail safety information. In that time I did not encounter a single law enforcement officer on the trail.

We need better. Safety is as much a part of the larger vision for this trail as the laying of asphalt. The lack of safety can undermine this community resource just as easily as a capital budget cut or construction flaw.

The vision is clear. The plan is complete. DC and Montgomery leaders: It is time for you to get serious about funding, building, maintaining, and protecting this long-awaited amenity in the eastern portions of your jurisdictions, just as you funded and built the Capital Crescent Trail decades ago, and ensure that it is a safe, usable place for cyclists, runners, and pedestrians.

Tomorrow night at 7 pm, the Montgomery County Council will host a public hearing on the proposed budget and its capital plans. This is the community’s chance to testify in support of the trail, and to ask councilmembers to keep the MBT a priority keep the county’s commitments. If you are unable to attend and testify in person, you can send an email to the Council here.

On the District end, we must continue to push MPD to understand the importance of this trail and the need for a real maintenance and public safety plan. Construction is not the end of the work involved in making a trail succeed. It is just the beginning. We must continue to push DDOT, DPW, and MPD to live up to their responsibilities to the trail and its users. That push will come through ongoing dialogue, communication with trail users and residents, and push for accountability led by those of us who value the trail and its success.

Trail supporters need our leaders in both the District and Montgomery County to be accountable to the full vision of the trail, and we must do our part to remind them of that vision and keep them aware of the greater goal. The next major opportunity to do so is tomorrow night in Rockville.

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Shane Farthing is Executive Director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association. Formerly the head of the Office of Green Economy in the DC Department of the Environment, Shane has been involved in the environmental planning and development of many projects currently changing the face of the District. Shane has graduate degrees in law and public policy from GWU and a Bachelor’s in Religious Studies from Virginia Commonwealth University.