Image by US Army Corps of Engineers.

Arlington National Cemetery is expanding by 70 acres because it expects to run out of room in about 25 years. Southgate Road will close, and Columbia Pike will be realigned further south. The cemetery will get the land where those streets are now, and Columbia Pike will get a fresh design that's hopefully more multimodal.

The development is occurring at a transportation bottleneck, so this could have an outsized positive impact on biking and walking in Arlington. With the cemetery north and I-395 and the Army-Navy Country Club south, Columbia Pike is the only significant east-west connection in a two-mile span. This route is also the most direct connection between much of western Arlington, and Pentagon City and Crystal City.

Arlington National Cemetery Southern Expansion project and roadway realignment. Image by US Army Corps of Engineers.

For many south Arlington neighborhoods, this route is the most direct link to DC. Alternative routes can double (or more) travel distances, making walking and biking more difficult and sometimes eliminating them as viable transportation options.

“The Pike” today: People bike there?

Nonetheless, bicycling is growing more frequent along the Columbia Pike corridor. More than 100 cyclists showed up at Sustainable Mobility for Arlington’s Bike4ThePike in June. In March, Arlington’s Bicycle Advisory Committee conducted a standing-room-only meeting about bicycling on the Pike. Residents have become increasingly vocal in calling for increased bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure and safety measures along the corridor.

Columbia Pike, where this project is located, is one of the only places where northern and southern Arlington come together. Land to the north and south is impassable for transportation. Image by the author.

The County is planning for more people living, shopping, learning, and working along Columbia Pike, but the infrastructure in this area cannot support that growth if it is car-dependent. The Columbia Pike corridor already has the highest amount of bus service in Arlington County, with a bus every two to three minutes during peak periods, and the highest ridership of any corridor in Virginia, with 17,000 passengers every weekday.

In the area covered by the Cemetery expansion, people biking already use Southgate Road as a safe and comfortable alternative to riding on Columbia Pike. The expansion will remove most of that street. There is also a side path on Columbia Pike east of Joyce Street, but many find the crossings of the highway-style interchange between Washington Boulevard and the Pike to be dangerous and intimidating.

The current plan is out for comment

Because this road construction will be part of the cemetery’s expansion, the US Army Corps of Engineers is leading the planning process for the new road. Besides increasing space for burial units, the purpose is to “increase multi-modal transportation capacity on Columbia Pike….[this] is needed to improve transportation and transit options along the Columbia Pike corridor thereby improving the environment, economy and quality of life.”

Image by US Army Corps of Engineers.

The Corps anticipates road construction to start in 2021 and to be complete in 2023. It has published a request for comment on its Environmental Assessment for this project. The planning document describes three alternative projects, all of which would includes the following basic elements:

  • Realign Columbia Pike as a four-lane principal arterial with a speed limit of 25 mph
  • Change the intersection with Washington Boulevard into a tight diamond interchange, presumably with signals where ramps cross Columbia Pike
  • The intersection with South Joyce Street would move closer to I-395
  • The planned Pentagon Memorial Visitor’s Education Center would move from inside a Washington Boulevard interchange cloverleaf to a space south of the Pike
  • A new street, South Nash Street, would be built between the Foxcroft Heights neighborhood and the expanded cemetery

For people biking and walking, the planned Columbia Pike would have a 10’ side path on the north side and a 6’ sidewalk on the south side, separated by street trees as shown in Figure 2-3 from the proposed plan.

Call a trail a trail, and provide space for bikes

The proposed plan gets a lot of things right. Most notably, realigning the Washington Boulevard-Columbia Pike interchange not only saves space and reduces asphalt, but will also increase safety and operational efficiency. Assuming the resulting intersection at the Pike has clear signals, one current deterrent to walking and cycling in the area will be eliminated.

However, as advocates have pointed out, the proposed facilities for biking and walking are not adequate. The proposed plan replaces Southgate Road, which is a safe and comfortable place to bike separated from where people walk, with only a 10-foot-wide side path. The Corps’ proposal states “The Preferred Alternative, including the realigned roadways, would expand or extend facilities for pedestrian and bicycle movements and would not sever any existing routes for these modes of transportation.”

To make this true, the plan must provide better space for walking and biking than what has been proposed. Instead of the proposed sidepath, there should be a trail for people walking and a segregated space for bicycling, either a wider trail or a protected bikeway.

A trail should be built along the north side of Columbia Pike and be designed to current National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) standards. This would accomodate not only the people currently traveling in this area on foot, but also the anticipated increase in foot traffic due to the new cemetery entrance, the 9/11 Pentagon Memorial Visitors’ Center, and growth on the Pike.

Image by the author.

Similarly, the trail along the new South Nash Street should be built on the east side of the street along the cemetery wall. Both trails should be part of the Cemetery Wall Trail, and should include features like water stations and bicycle parking at cemetery entrances.

The design should also include dedicated space for people biking. This space could be a two-way, physically protected bikeway on the north side of Columbia Pike that uses a curb, art, or planters for protection. Or it could be a mode-separated trail, similar to what Nova Parks is designing for the W&OD Trail.

The Corps should take advantage of this rare opportunity to ensure that the realigned Columbia Pike increases capacity for people walking and biking.