As this column has noted before, Arlington’s cycling and pedestrian infrastructure is lacking in good north-south connections. The completion of the Washington Boulevard Trail will provide an invaluable, mostly off-street connection between the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor and Columbia Pike. Misguided opposition should not derail forward movement on this project.
Right now, the Washington Boulevard Trail starts at Arlington Boulevard and ends at South Courthouse Road. At its northern terminus, it connects to the existing Arlington Boulevard Trail, as well as the smaller Fillmore Park Trail that offers a good connection to Clarendon and Ballston through the Lyon Park and Ashton Heights neighborhoods.
The Washington Boulevard Trail’s southern terminus, however, is a rather unceremonious end of pavement with a sign promising good things to come.
Cyclists who want to continue on to Columbia Pike at present need to head over to South Courthouse Road to complete the trip. While South Courthouse Road certainly isn’t the worst road in Arlington for cyclists, it does tend toward higher-speed vehicular traffic, and wouldn’t be a very good place for those uncomfortable in traffic to ride.
The completed Washington Boulevard Trail will connect to Towers Park and terminate at South Rolfe Street, a far more cycling-friendly connection to Columbia Pike.
Given the general lack of a good off-road north-south connection between the destination-dense Rosslyn-Ballston and Columbia Pike corridors, the completion of the Washington Boulevard Trail was highlighted as a priority in Arlington’s Master Transportation Plan, which was adopted in 2008. The idea of a trail on the west side of Washington Boulevard has been discussed since the 1990s, and the county even announced on its CapTrack that the west-side trail would be constructed in 2007.
Unfortunately, the project has recently encountered a bit of opposition from local civic association members and Arlington’s Urban Forestry Commission. Some of the civic association complaints are the same as those frequently heard about transportation projects in general – “Nobody told me!” And I’ve certainly got some sympathy, as someone who tries hard — yet frequently fails — to keep up with local transportation projects. But that’s simply not a valid complaint in this case. The project has been on the books for years and, heck, anyone who has driven down Washington Boulevard for the past few years has seen an actual sign announcing the project’s future.
The balance of the objections turn on the removal of trees. And, yes, construction of the trail will unfortunately require the removal of some trees. Some have suggested that the trail be built on the east side of Washington Boulevard, but that option has been examined and rejected in light of significant topography challenges, property-rights issues and the additional complications of having to cross Washington Boulevard itself.
As someone who cringes whenever a tree comes down, even necessarily, I urge the county to work very hard to minimize the number of trees cut. The cited figures have varied, but reports from Tuesday night’s meeting of the Penrose Civic Association on the matter have the latest figure at about 140 trees. While that’s an initially arresting figure, the same reports state that only 16 are large trees — that is, they are more than 20 inches in diameter — and the balance are invasive species or small/medium trees. Almost 200 trees will be planted as replacements adjacent to the finished trail or elsewhere in Penrose.
When it is finished, the Washington Boulevard Trail will convert the side of Washington Boulevard from its present neglected and inaccessible state into a landscaped and safe means for cyclists and pedestrians to move across the county. The county government should ensure that it minimizes tree removal and move forward with construction as soon as possible.
Mark Blacknell is chair of the Arlington Bicycle Advisory Committee, president of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, and a League Cycling Instructor.