Photo by Eric Gilliland on Flickr.

The Metropolitan Branch Trail is a terrific bike facility, but without better lighting, it’s too attractive for crime. Sadly, it takes repeated emergencies like robberies to get our government to pay attention.

On Tuesday night at 9 pm, I rode the off-street part of the trail from Franklin Street NE, south to M Street NE, and counted 19 overhead lights (as well as 5 lights on the ramp to street level) that were burned out, missing, or flashing like a strobe.

I stopped a police officer on the trail to ask if the police would have any more success advocating for working lighting on the trail than regular citizens would. Sadly, the officer said I should just email the city or call 311, as he had no more pull on this issue than I did.

Just over an hour later, MPD reported a robbery by 8-9 masked youth, armed with a gun, on the “1400 block” of the trail.

One would assume that’s between where O and P Streets would intersect the trail, based on address ranges elsewhere. That is the location of the New York Avenue bridge over the trail, which has been bathed in utter darkness since the trail opened.

There have been constant problems with the overhead lights. The light just south of the Franklin Street overpass has been flashing like a strobe since October 2011 (over a year), and nothing has been done about it. DDOT employee Heather Deutch wrote on the MBT’s Facebook page:

These are solar/LED lights. There is a 5 year warranty, with most components expected to last 10 years (i.e. batteries and lamps). This was a pilot project for us and the company is out of Florida. We have been having problems with the lights and with repairs being performed quickly. That being said, all the lights were repaired and working as of January 2012. There are, again, more lights out and we have submitted this information to the company. If you would like to contact them directly, the company is Sol

DDOT’s bicycle program has few resources, but it’s still unacceptable that they aren’t able to keep the lights working. If there’s a warranty, there should be an employee who deals with contracts who can get the necessary work done.

In addition, it’s been clear that the stretch of the trail under the New York Avenue overpass would be a particularly dark place since that segment of the trail opened in May, 2010. The excuse for not placing lighting under the bridge was that it would soon be under construction (construction began in early 2011). That construction has been ongoing for nearly 2 years, and is not expected to be complete until September 2013.

New York Avenue bridge over the trail. Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

There’s simply no rationale for not putting temporary lighting under the bridge. In addition to the all-too-real threat of crime, there’s the current threat of severe injury because construction equipment takes up some of the space. David Poms noted on Twitter that he almost crashed into the construction material in the darkness.

The city needs to light the underpass now and until construction is complete with a long-term temporary solution, and then with a high-quality permanent solution after that point. Riders need to be able to see construction material or gangs of criminals waiting for them in the darkness.