Dual-use trail could be coming to another W&OD segment

A concept design for the W&OD Trail that would separate pedestrians from bicyclists. (NOVA Parks)

Arlington County Board members on Nov. 19 voted unanimously to support a request from the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority (NOVA Parks) seeking $5.65 million in regional funding to improve and expand the Washington & Old Dominion Trail over a two-mile stretch in the western part of the county.

But the support was in general terms only; county leaders said that if the funds are approved by the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority (NVTA), the project will come back to the County Board for a thorough review of the ultimate design.

Despite criticism from some quarters that the proposal was not yet fully vetted, board members said the time was right to endorse the request for funding.

“It would be just extraordinarily irresponsible not to support this,” board member Erik Gutshall said, with the caveat that some of the objections raised in a public hearing were worth exploring later in the process.

Among those objecting was Arlington Forest resident Rick Epstein, who said endorsement of the funding request put the cart before the horse, since the public has not had a substantive opportunity to weigh in.

“Adoption will bias any public-engagement process,” said Epstein, who suggested other less environmentally invasive options should be explored.

NOVA Parks aims to replace the existing 12-foot-wide, shared-use trail with a 12-foot-wide bicycle trail and an 8-foot wide pedestrian trail – separated by a 2-foot buffer – from North Roosevelt Street near  the Falls Church border east to North Carlin Springs Road. The project also would include stormwater-management improvements and widening of several trail bridges.

Approval by the County Board is needed so the project can move onto the agenda of NVTA, which will score it based on the amount of congestion relief it could provide for the Interstate 66 corridor. NVTA already has funded expansion of the trail in the Falls Church area, but funding for the Arlington segment will depend on how the project’s congestion-mitigation effects are calculated.

County Board member Katie Cristol said the board’s action to seek the funding does not imply endorsement of any final design. But, she added, the goal of the project was the right one.

“Getting more cars off of I-66 is in all of our best interests,” Cristol said.

Among those supporting the proposal was Katie Harris, representing the Capital Trails Coalition.

“We should see this as a massive opportunity,” she told board members. “Trails enhance communities; the better the trails are, the healthier our community will be.”

If funding is procured, engineering for the Arlington stretch could begin in 2021 and construction would follow a year or two later.

The stretch of the trail proposed to be widened passes close by the East Falls Church Metro station and provides connections to the Custis Trail and Bluemont Junction Trail; the improvements would provide a better experience for pedestrians and bicyclists headed to and from Ballston, Clarendon, Courthouse and Rosslyn and a number of local parks.

Response to the proposal was “overwhelmingly positive” in an online survey conducted by NOVA Parks, said Paul Gilbert, the agency’s executive director. Nearly 80 percent of the 900-plus respondents said they found current conditions of the trail in Arlington to be congested, and more than 94 percent said separating bicyclists from pedestrians is a good idea.

But critics of the proposal also zeroed in on why the measure had been placed on the County Board’s Nov. 16 “consent agenda,” a place for items where no opposition is anticipated. The measure was pulled off for a full vetting at the Nov. 19 meeting.

In remarks at the meeting, Cristol intimated that putting items like this one on the consent agenda – a joint responsibility of staff and the County Board chairman – needed to be thought through carefully in the future. But that alone was not enough to cause a delay in approval, she suggested.

Gilbert said the Falls Church section of the project, which is expected to be built next year, provides a road map for how his agency is proceeding, particularly on the stormwater-management front.

“We are installing swales to capture and slow the water. We have meadow sections, and in places we are using modular wetlands, which is a cool new technology that filters the water with a largely underground system,” he said.

The W&OD Regional Trail runs for 45 miles from Shirlington west into Loudoun County, occupying the roadbed used from the 1850s to the mid-1960s by the Washington & Old Dominion Railroad and its predecessors.