Part of the Metropolitan Branch Trail (MBT) near the NoMa Metro stop may close for several months to make space for building construction, meaning there will be no direct route to avoid the treacherous intersection at Florida Avenue and New York Avenue. But what if there’s a way to make the intersection far safer for walking and biking?

The MBT could be closed during construction of an adjacent development. Image by Aimee Custis.

The closure would be for construction of the second phase of the Washington Gateway, which is slated to be 16 stories tall with 372 residential units, 8% of which will have rents capped at affordable levels for people who quality.

"There will be a period of time when we have to pick up the asphalt and put in a better MBT,” said Fred Rothmeijer, founding principal at developer MRP Realty, at an Eckington Civic Association meeting. Improvements will include repaving the trail, new landscaping and better light, he added.

The location of Washington Gateway with the section of the MBT in question. Image by MRP.

Michael Alvino, a bike program specialist at DC’s Department of Transportation, tacitly confirmed the closure at the meeting, saying, “we’re still trying to determine exactly what the impacts on the trail will be, certainly it’s not going to be closed for an extended period of time — we’re going to push for that to be open as much as possible.”

Right now, the trail lets cyclists avoid a perilous intersection

This is a critical section of the MBT. The trail is the only car-free alternative to the congested “virtual circle,” as DDOT puts it, intersection at Florida Avenue, New York Avenue and First Street NE.

Also called “Dave Thomas Circle” because it’s home to a Wendy’s, the intersection has narrow sidewalks along frequently backed up streets, primarily on Florida Avenue and First Street. It’s unenjoyable for pedestrians and unsafe for cyclists in the roadway. In addition, the lights are timed to prioritize through traffic on New York Avenue, giving people on foot and bike little time to cross the six-lane wide thoroughfare.

In other words: the MBT is your safest and most practical route if you’re headed to the NoMa-Gallaudet Metro station or the First Street NE protected bikeway.

The closure could be an opportunity

What if DDOT used the potential MBT closure as an opportunity to improve the pedestrian and bike connections through the virtual circle?

The agency is already studying ways to improve the circle as part of a planned redesign of Florida Avenue NE. It proposed two possible alternatives that include direct pedestrian and bike connections through the intersection in the final report it released in 2015.

The orange lines in both options below represent new “pedestrian areas,” though the report does not go into detail on exactly what kind of walking and biking facilities these would include:

One potential redesign of the virtual circle at the intersection of Florida Avenue and New York Avenue NE. Image by DDOT.

A second potential redesign of the virtual circle. Image by DDOT.

Right now, DDOT’s potential redesigns of the circle face a significant stumbling block: they require the acquisition and demolition of the Wendy’s restaurant at its center. DDOT has yet to set a timeline for this, or for redesigning the circle.

An interim solution to allow cyclists a safe path through the circle would be to build a protected bikeway that begins at R Street NE, heads south on Eckington Place to Florida Avenue, then continues briefly on Florida before turning south on First Street NE, crossing New York Avenue and then connecting with the existing bikeway at M Street NE.

Route of a possible protected bike lane from R Street NE to the existing facility on First Street in NoMa. Image by MapMyRun.

This solution would not require the acquisition of private property but it would likely require taking some of the traffic lanes for the roughly 150 feet the bikeway would be on Florida Avenue and the roughly 300 feet on First Street NE north of New York Avenue. There is no on-street parking in either of these stretches of roadway.

The protected bikeway could be created by reorganizing the traffic lanes and parking spaces on Eckington Place north of Florida and First Street NE south of New York Avenue.

Now is the time to speak up

MRP is in the process of modifying its planned unit development (PUD), the agreement where it commits to certain community benefits in exchange for DC Zoning Commission approval of a project, to include changes to Washington Gateway. These include converting one of the planned buildings to residential from commercial, as well as changes to a controversial “bike lobby.”

The Zoning Commission has yet to set a date for a hearing but a modified PUD could include specifics for how the developer works with DDOT to mitigate the likely MBT closure during construction.

You can find out more by searching here for case number 06-14D.