A 15th Street protected bikeway that extends through the Mall and a Mount Vernon trail with more connections are two of the many changes that a new plan from the National Park Service (NPS) would make to the region’s trails.

The Mount Vernon Trail near National airport. Photo by the author.

In its recently-released Paved Trails Study, NPS makes 121 recommendations for improvements that include everything from bridge access to safety and closing missing gaps in the trail network. It prioritizes 18 projects for implementation in the next two years, including:

     
  • Extending the 15th Street NW protected bikeway about a mile, across the Mall to the 14th Street bridge. It currently ends at Pennsylvania Avenue NW.  
  • Connecting the Mount Vernon Trail to the south side of the Roosevelt Bridge, which would make it easier to get between the trail and the Mall by using the existing path on the bridge that ends on the west side of the Potomac River.  
  • Studying the possibility of a protected bike lane from Rock Creek Park to 16th Street NW along Military Road, a stretch of road that is like a four-lane highway with scant shoulder and no sidewalks or bike lanes.  
  • Studying the possibility of an off-street connection between Oxon Hill and the planned South Capitol Street Trail that would connect to National Harbor and the Woodrow Wilson bridge path. Closing this gap in the trail system east of the Anacostia River would provide cyclists and pedestrians with access to job and activity centers in Prince George’s County and Virginia.  
  • Improving safety at the “intersection of doom” where cyclists and pedestrians on the Custis and Mount Vernon trails must share space with cars at the corner of Lee Highway and North Lynn Street in Rosslyn.

Map of NPS and other trails in the Washington DC region. Image by the NPS.

NPS will make prominent trails easier to get to

Extending the 15th Street protected bikeway to the 14th Street Bridge would close a prominent gap between the District’s burgeoning bike lane network and one of the busiest bike crossings of the Potomac River. The bridge saw an average of 2,400 to 2,500 cyclists on weekdays during June, July and August, Bike Arlington’s counters show.

The route of an extended 15th Street protected bike lane to the 14th Street Bridge. Image by the NPS.

The lane would replace parking along 15th Street north of Constitution Avenue NW, be built in the space between the curb and sidewalk from Constitution to Independence Avenue SW, and replace a southbound traffic lane on Maine Avenue SW to the bridge, the report says. It would be built in partnership with the DC Department of Transportation.

The other planned connections listed above also close gaps in the regional trail network. One of the more exciting is probably the off-street trail to Oxon Hill that would provide District residents who live east of the Anacostia River an off-street bike route to jobs and activities in National Harbor and in Virginia. It would also create a new bike loop on both sides of the Potomac River using the 14th Street and Woodrow Wilson bridges.

The proposed off-street connection between South Capital Street and Oxon Hill. Image by the NPS.

A fix is coming to the “intersection of doom”

The Park Service plans to work with Arlington County to improve safety at the busy intersection of the Custis and Mount Vernon trails in Rosslyn, otherwise known as the “intersection of doom.”

The intersection is one of the most frequent sites of bicycle and pedestrian collisions, Arlington County Police data has shown. Pedestrians and cyclists going from the Mount Vernon trail to the Custis trail, or waiting to cross Key Bridge, must pass through the intersection, sharing the space with two lanes of auto traffic that is trying to turn onto the Key Bridge from I-66.

The recommendation includes “clearly separate” spaces for bikes, pedestrians, and cars at the intersection, as outlined in Arlington’s Realize Rosslyn Sector Plan, the report says.

Concept plan for the intersection of the Custis and Mount Vernon trails in Rosslyn. Image by Arlington County.

However, beyond saying that the NPS will work with Arlington County on the plan for the intersection, the report does not detail exactly how they plan to clearly separate pedestrians and bikes from car traffic.

A change of heart from NPS?

The recommendations hopefully signal a change of heart for NPS. For years, the agency did not take bike travel seriously, instead emphasizing keeping existing auto-only roads as they were. For example, it took NPS 20 years to respond to trail user and resident requests for improvements to the popular trail through Rock Creek Park.

"Trail usage has increased significantly and as the area continues to grow in residential and employment population, walking and biking trips will also continue to increase,” NPS says in the report. “These trends place increased pressure on the trail network, particularly the trail segments that form the backbone of the larger regional trail network.”

The plan has one big hole: funding. None of the proposed improvements can be implemented in the timeline outlined by the report without funds to pay for them.

The plan does not gloss over funding entirely. It points out that NPS parks in the Washington region have been more successful at securing funding for projects from non-federal sources, like partnering with local jurisdictions, than parks elsewhere, but that it also receives fewer federal funds.

Such partnerships certainly present an opportunity for funding the 121 trail improvement recommendations but fall short of a firm plan that leaves the fate of many of the proposed projects in limbo.