After years of delay, a trail connection between Columbia Pike and the Arlington Boulevard Trail is close to becoming a reality. The wait was frustrating, but the new trail will do less environmental damage and be more pleasant to ride.
Built in 2009, Phase I of the Washington Boulevard Trail begins where the Arlington Boulevard Trail crosses Washington Boulevard. It continues along Washington Boulevard until crossing over the South Courthouse Road exit, where it ends abruptly.
Last week, the Penrose Neighborhood Association unanimously endorsed a new trail design for Phase II, which which will pick up where Phase I ends and continue along the west side of Washington Boulevard and up into Towers Park, ultimately connecting to Columbia Pike via South Rolfe Street.
The trail is an important connection in Arlington’s bike network, extending the reach of the Arlington Boulevard Trail and providing a low-stress alternative to portions of Columbia Pike and South Courthouse Road. Combined with a planned Army Navy Country Club connector, the Washington Blvd Trail & Arlington Blvd Trail would provide a much-needed North-South bicycle connection in the eastern portion of Arlington. It will especially aid those who live in Aurora Highlands and would like to bike to areas to the north and west, like the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor.
Environmental concerns led to delays
90% of Phase II’s design was ready in the spring of 2012, but then it ran into significant opposition. Both the Penrose Neighborhood Association and Arlington’s Urban Forestry Commission opposed the design due to its significant tree impact, as the original design was expected to require the removal of 186 trees (though six were already dead and some were invasive species).
As a result of that opposition, Arlington County staff went to the Naval Research Facility for an easement that would allow the trail to preserve more trees.
At the same time, local activists and State Delegate Alfonso Lopez lobbied VDOT for a design exception that would allow a portion of the trail to go closer to Washington Boulevard.
The trail is ready to go now
Both the easement and the design exception recently came through, so much of the trail will go in on what is currently Washington Boulevard’s shoulder, protected by a curb and five feet of landscaped buffer. Environmentally, that means losing fewer trees, and there will be much less of an increase in impermeable surface.
This version of the trail will also be better to ride on. Prior designs put the trail farther from traffic, but they also made it feel as though you were walking or riding in a ditch. That’s because without a design exception, VDOT required a median barrier between the trail and Washington Boulevard’s shoulder. Putting the trail next to the shoulder rather than on the shoulder itself would have required cutting into the hillside, which would have placed retaining walls on the far side of the trail as well.
The project will follow the County’s tree-replacement formula, meaning about three new trees will be planted for every two that come out. County staff have said that all of the trees will be placed along the trail, including some along Phase 1.
The bidding process for building the trail should start this summer, and for construction to start in the fall. Hopefully it’s wrap up in late spring or early summer of 2017.
Despite trails being Arlington’s most-used recreational asset, the Washington Boulevard Trail is one of the only new trails planned in Arlington. Should Arlington build more? If so, where do you think they should go?