Recently the Washington Boulevard Trail project has come under criticism from the Urban Forestry Commission and the Penrose Neighborhood Association due to the number of trees that would be impacted by it's construction. While the potential loss of trees is unfortunate, the myriad environmental, health and mobility benefits of the trail seem to have been lost in the shuffle.

Project Overview

The Washington Boulevard trail project would construct a new bike and pedestrian trail along the west side of Washington Boulevard between Route 50 and South Rolfe Street just shy of Columbia Pike by way of Towers Park. Phase I of the trail was completed in 2009 as part of a water main project and runs from Route 50 to the South Courthouse Rd exit of Washington Blvd. Phase II will complete the trail and is currently at 90% design completion (the approximate area is outlined in yellow on the map). The trail is identified as high-priority project in the Arlington Master Transportation Plan and would link the Arlington Boulevard Trail to planned bikeways coming to the east end of Columbia Pike and to a long-term project that would provide a new connection under I-395 via the Army Navy Country Club called the "Hoffman-Boston Connector".

Tree Removal

Because of the hilly nature of the land along Washington Blvd, approximately 2.7 acres of currently vegetated land would need to be disturbed during the construction process. This results in 297 trees that could potentially be impacted, of those 186 (of which 6 are dead) would have to be removed, while the project would try to preserve and protect the remaining 111. Of those that would need to be removed only 17 are "large" (20" diameter+) while over half (91) are "small" (under 10" in diameter).

Clearly, this is a LOT of trees and not an ideal situation, but what do we get in exchange?

New Trees

Any trees removed would be replaced under the County's Tree Removal formula - the current calculation would result in the planting of 250 new trees. If space allows, they would be planted within half a mile of the project site. While the trees planted would be small, they would all be native species (unlike many of those being removed) and would eventually, after decades of growth, result in a fuller tree canopy and improved air quality in the area. While the County's trail guidelines recommend not planting new trees within 10' of the trail (so as to avoid tree roots destroying the trail over time) much of the area being dug up is only being disturbed in order to regrade it - those areas are prime locations for replanting and will eventually help shade the trail. In addition, Towers Park which the trail runs through is fairly bare and would benefit from the planting of many new trees (at least in my opinion).

Increased Cycling

Building new bicycle infrastructure is vital to encouraging additional people to bike, especially off-street infrastructure like trails. There are many folks who are interested in biking but are intimated by the idea of sharing the road with cars. Trails and other off-street routes function like training wheels allowing new cyclists to come up to speed with urban cycling in a slow, controlled way. The Washington Boulevard trail would be the only off-street route linking the Columbia Pike corridor with points north other than the W&OD trail in the western portion of the County.

Public Health

With increased cycling comes public health benefits. Cycling, whether as recreation or as transportation is excellent exercise and helps combat the obesity epidemic sweeping our nation.

Decreased Carbon Footprint

With increased cycling comes environmental benefits. Some trips that would previously have been taken by car will instead be taken by bicycle resulting in decreased emissions. Recreational trips may displace other forms of recreation like watching TV or going to the movies which require electricity providing further emissions benefits.

Increased Park Safety

One request that frequently comes up in Neighborhood Conservation plans is for increased police presence in our parks. Many are concerned about vandalism and crime in these often out-of-the-way areas. Putting the Washington Boulevard trail through part of Towers Park would provide many additional "eyes on the park" throughout the day as cyclists and pedestrians pass through helping deter crime and vandalism in the park.

A New Generation of Environmentalist

Finally, the best way to ensure that our parks and natural areas are preserved in the future is by instilling a love and passion for nature in our children. By increasing access to our parks and natural areas, and by encouraging outdoor activities like cycling and jogging, trails help bring this love and passion to people, especially young people. Those spending all day inside staring at the TV are much less likely to care about trees and streams as they age.

The Washington Blvd trail would be especially useful in this regard as Towers Park is relatively cut-off from the rest of the neighborhood, surrounded on 3 sides by Washington Blvd and Department of Defense property. To access it from the majority of Penrose, one must walk down South Courthouse Road to Columbia Pike, walk East down the Pike and then double back up to the park on Rolfe or Scott Street. The trail would make for a much more direct and pleasant path for residents using the planned trail access at 6th Street.

Alternatives? Improvements?

The Penrose Association's letter is careful to oppose the trail project "as currently designed". The Urban Forestry Commission, however, go so far as to recommend that the trail be completely scrapped as their is a "safe alternative for bicycle and multiuse...available along South Courthouse Road" which is absurd to anyone who has attempted to bike in the area. South Courthouse is a relatively busy, extremely hilly street with significant speeding problems. Biking on it is fairly common, but only by cyclists who are already quite comfortable with on-street cycling. South Courthouse Road doesn't actually get you to Towers Park, however, to do that you have to traverse four blocks of Columbia Pike. Cycling on-street on Columbia Pike is something done only by the bravest and most confident cyclists, and the alternative is narrow sub-standard crumbling sidewalks. While improvements are coming to the portion of Columbia Pike, and some improvements are coming to South Courthouse Road, it will never be welcoming to beginning cyclists like an off-street trail would be.

Other suggestions I've heard include narrowing the trail, narrowing the buffer around the trail and making portions of the trail on a raised "boardwalk" to avoid damaging significant trees. We have some existing boardwalk section of trail in Northern Virginia. In my experience they are all dangerously slippery at least a portion of the time - many are dangerously slippery ALL the time. Narrower trails present obvious safety concerns. Narrowing the buffer on either side of the trail is something that seems like a reasonable place to further compromise as long as it doesn't adversely affect sight-lines on the trail.

Building a project like the Washington Boulevard trail is a balancing act. The route that is best from a transportation perspective is likely not the best from a tree-preservation perspective; neither is probably the most cost effective route. County Staff weigh these and many more factors when planning these projects. To not build the project at all or to make further compromises that impede the trail's effectiveness as a transportation corridor would lose us all of the benefits outlined above. If you feel as I do that those benefits outweigh the loss of trees, please join me in signing the online petition below:


Comment by jd

FYI, the picture is "upside down" with North at the bottom.

I'd prefer to see the trail bypass Towers Park and connect to Columbia Pike at the redesigned Columbia Pike - Washington Boulevard interchange. Riders heading east on Columbia Pike could skip the hill up to Rolfe. On the other hand, more people would probably use Towers Park, since a lot of people probably don't know about it. (Perhaps the "secret" of it is why some are opposed to it?)

How did the Urban Forestry Commission find out about this and decide to weigh in? Did I miss that? It seems they're going to be against any proposal that curs down a tree or two. (Are they decrying Mother Nature's decision to wipe out so many trees last Friday?)

While I ride on Columbia Pike, other than a couple of blocks, I rarely ride on S Courthouse Rd and I hate it. It's especially bad between 2nd and 6th, since cars are parked on both sides and too many drivers can't drive through it.

Regardless of the route, does it need to be so "wide"? I think a trail as wide the MVT or W&OD, with a couple of feet on either side as a narrow buffer, would result in losing less trees. That would still be "nicer" than some stretches of the Custis.

Comment by Chris

I BELIEVE the trail was brought to the Urban Forestry Commission's attention by a Penrose Green Committee Member who happens to know a UFC member personally; I'm not 100% certain on that though.

I'm with you on reducing buffer being a reasonable compromise, but I think narrowing the trail is a bridge too far. While it'll be wider than the Custis is in most places the Custis is also dangerously narrow given the traffic on it at this time. We should plan ahead with these new trails with the idea that they too will eventually become busy transportation corridors.

Comment by terri

this statement is 100% inaccurate:

"I BELIEVE the trail was brought to the Urban Forestry Commission's attention by a Penrose Green Committee Member who happens to know a UFC member personally;

the truth: we found out about it the meeting the day before. ritch viola was presenting to them. the UFC members spent a long time discussing the project amongst themselves before unanimously REJECTING IT. while some of your comments are valid about nature v tv. destroying trees for concrete, asphalt is not an environmentally good idea. the "secret" of towers park is silly. having been a cyclist for the last 20 years i am against the trail displacing trees.

Comment by Allen Muchnick

@ jd,

I agree that the planned trail should also connect to Columbia Pike at the rebuilt Washington Blvd interchange, and this connection could be added in the future.

More than a decade ago, VDOT ruled out this connection with its *previous* design for the interchange, but with the redesigned interchange now under construction, this connection will again become feasible.

Meanwhile, the County has designed the trail to connect to Towers Park, but once the interchange reconstruction is over, the County should explore extending the Washington Blvd trail directly to S Queen St at Columbia Pike.

Comment by Chris

Thanks for clearing that up Terri, I said "believe" because I was not certain.

Comment by JB

PLEASE correct that map position. It's really confusing.....

Comment by Chris

As requested - North is now at the top.

Comment by terri

allen says "
Meanwhile, the County has designed the trail to connect to Towers Park, but once the interchange reconstruction is over, the County should explore extending the Washington Blvd trail directly to S Queen St at Columbia Pike. "

i couldn't agree more...the trail should stay down on Wash. Blvd and NOT go into Towers Park.

Comment by kevin

i am completely fine with building the path into towers park. Currently there are Very few safe walk ways and bike paths in this area. We need projects just like this to make the pike a better place to live. The county will plan more trees, and maybe just maybe people wont always drive the mile or so up to clarendon. win win win.

Comment by Frank Roberts

I bike a lot from Arlington to the south and often cut through fort myer and Arlington cemetery. The trail location along wash blvd south to Columbia pike is a good location but the number of trees that must go seems way too high. There has to be a way to design this while keeping most of th5e trees. Split the north / south routes and narrow thr trail. Maybe bikers will have to slow down where the trees are. A cinder trail is also more environmentally friendly. Trees should be able to coexist with bikers.

Frank Roberts
Comment by Bernie Berne

The only reasonable solution to this problem is to construct the bike trail on the east side of Washington Boulevard, rather than the west side. Far fewer trees would be removed than would a trail on the west side. People concerned about tree loss will not object to a trail on the east side.

There is a feasible route available on the east side of Washington Boulevard. County planners are aware of this option, but have not yet evaluated it in depth. The March 2012 environmental assessment for the project did not mention the possibility of an east side route.

People who are signing the petition on this website are discouraging the County planners from exploring the east side trail option. Because of large amount of community opposition to the west side trail, people who sign the petition are actually helping to assure that there will be no trail at all.

Anyone who is thinking about signing this petition needs first visit the east side of Washington Boulevard and identify the route (which would require adding fill to widen the exit ramp at Second Street). They should learn the facts before signing their names.

Bernie Berne
Comment by Allen Muchnick

@ Bernie,

While I support building shared-use paths along BOTH sides of Washington Blvd and have pushed the County and VDOT to study and ensure its feasibility, a shared-use path along the east side is much less feasible and also less useful.

In short, there is *very* little space to fit a path near the Sheraton Hotel. and the current Interchange reconstruction project will result in even less space.

At least several people have explained this to you Bernie, yet you persist in spreading false information.

Comment by Tierney Farrell

It isn't that a "potential loss of trees is unfortunate" The original design required the destruction of 188 trees. Also it is not "a bit" of opposition. There is a petition circulating that has over 220 signatures opposing the bike trail if it means the cutting down of that many trees. The Urban Forestry Commission (UFC) has also stated that this "involves the greatest loss of trees of any project the UFC has reviewed, yet the trail is only one half mile long." What most people want is a bike trail that does not involve the loss of trees. These trees are a noise and pollution barrier for the Penrose neighborhood from the traffic on Washington Boulevard. It is home to wildlife. All we (those opposed) are saying is, please find another way to build the path without destroying the trees. Making one environmentally friendly thing but forsaking another doesn't make any sense.

Tierney Farrell
Comment by Bernie Berne

Reply to Alan Muchnik's comment:

The trail on the east side of Washington Blvd. is indeed feasible. There will be an eight foot clearance between the Sheraton and the ramp connecting the east side of Washington Blvd to the south side of Columbia Pike. This will leave about six feet for a trail. The six foot width would extend for only about 20 feet. The trail would be 10 feet wide everywhere else.

Cyclists and pedestrians frequently share paths that are about six feet wide on the sidewalk of the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge, the pathway between the Kennedy Center and I-66, and the Rock Creek Park trail. These routes are much longer than the 20 feet of six-foot wide trail needed near the Sheraton for a trail that would travel along the east side of Washington Blvd and destroy far fewer trees than would a trail on the west side of the Boulevard.

Bernie Berne
Comment by Dave Mitchell

The east side of Washington Blvd. is definitely better for commuters. Who wants to come down the Washinton Blvd trail to get to Towers Park? They want to get down to the Pentagon or Pentagon City. The east side route could pass by the Sheraton on either its south or north side to hook up to the South Gate road going behind the Navy Annex to the pentagon or pentagon city trails.

Dave Mitchell
Comment by Margaret Alvord

I am a resident of Penrose and am currently visiting CA north of San Diego. There are many, many cycle lanes next to the highways. On Hwy 101, the coastal route, the foot/cycle trail is barely separated from the hwy. The destination of getting to Columbia Pike and then heading east towards DC or west to Falls Church is more important than cutting through the woodland to go to a park for recreation. There are Penrose parks with better play structures for children than Towers Park. If the future sidewalks along Col. Pike will be 10 ft. wide (the size of a traffic lane) and the street scaping and trees will be changed to concrete, why disturb the woods along Wash. Blvd. to get to the Park? One will be able to go on the multi purpose sidewalks instead.

Margaret Alvord
Comment by biogetica

I don't any problem with the map or is it changed???