A bike trail might go here. Image by MPD01605 licensed under Creative Commons.

Would a trail right next to I-66 be the worst thing in the world?

GGW Contributor Edward Russell posed that question on October 4, citing San Diego's protected highway-side trail which many cyclists actually like. However, there are some key differences that make the trail being proposed in Virginia much less desirable, leaving me wondering: is it really the only option?

Plans are in the works to build a 16.5-mile-long trail as a part of Transform 66, which will widen the highway. This might be good opportunity to expand trail access across Fairfax County, but recent design changes have cyclists concerned. Now up to five miles of the trail may run directly alongside the highway–a sudden departure from previous plans. Fairfax Advocates for Better Bicycling (FABB) first raised the alarm about the changes, and many local elected officials have since written to the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) asking them to better explain the changes.

A lot of trails have sections that run along highways or rail lines, and sometimes that's necessary. A local example is the Custis Trail in Arlington, which runs along I-66's route and has short sections that nearly hug the shoulder. However, the difference is the sheer length.

VDOT is proposing a five-mile-long section, far more lengthy than San Diego's mile-long trail (which is also a shortcut). That's a long time to be exposed to pollution and debris, which make riding near traffic hazardous. Running next to the highway in part may be a compromise, but running along the highway for nearly a third of the total length is an unreasonable ask.

VDOT changed the plan without telling anyone

I don't know the origins of the plan in San Diego. I don't know what alternatives were floated or if the current trail is the best option, the worst, or somewhere in the middle.

However, along I-66 the original intentions were clear. The drafts of the plan showed the trail running closer to neighborhoods and outside of the sound wall, a barrier that protects pedestrians and bicyclists from noise pollution but can make them feel boxed in. Last month Washcycle noted that the design changes were made without input from the biggest group affected by them: cyclists. Only then did VDOT offer an explanation of why they diverged from their original plans.

From Washcycle: "Maps from June 2016 show the trail (solid green line) outside the sound barrier (green and black line) But in April 2017, show it (green) inside the noise barrier (blue and black)." Image by Washcycle used with permission.

VDOT then doubled down, arguing it was too late to do anything and even going so far as to blame cyclists for any project delays that may arise.

No bike trail in my backyard?

There's another group pushing for the change: some of the people living along the proposed route. Some feel a trail near their property would be detrimental, citing crime and privacy concerns. However, neither claim holds a lot of water.

Evidence linking trails to crime rate increases is thin. Privacy is a valid concern, but take a trip along the Custis or W&OD trails today and you'll see homeowners making decisions for themselves about how much privacy they feel is necessary.

Both of these houses in Vienna are next to the W&OD trail. Both have their own approaches to privacy and access. Image by the author.

Some houses have fences, while others prefer having the ability to step out immediately onto the trail and enjoy what it has to offer–something that will be impossible if plans for a highway-side trail go forward. People who will live next to the trail deserve to be heard, but their concerns need to be balanced against trail users'.

However, it's hard to compromise when stakeholders don't even know that changes might be made in the first place. Now VDOT can avoid responsibility by pitting concerned homeowners against trail users, rather than taking the opportunity to bring different groups together and find workable solutions.

Having a trail next to the highway is not the worst thing in the world, and it might even be necessary for portions of the I-66 trail. However, it's unclear why that is the option favored now, and why VDOT is arguing the decision has to be finalized immediately. Many local politicians, along with Fairfax County bicycle advocates, feel tricked–myself included. We need VDOT to be clear about how and why it came to the decisions it did, and see if there's a way to do better.

Canaan Merchant was born and raised in Powhatan, Virginia and attended George Mason University where he studied English. He became interested in urban design and transportation issues when listening to a presentation by Jeff Speck while attending GMU. He lives in Reston.